Have you ever woken with purpose, completed that divine morning stretch, and thought to yourself – “I feel tall today”? As it turns out, your spine actually is elongated in those waking hours as opposed to the evening. That’s because, during a typical day, our spine feels the constant impact we put on our bodies coupled with the forces of gravity. In fact, by bedtime, we can measure up to two centimeters shorter than we were when we took that initial morning stretch.
But it’s not just about height; the pressure we put on our spines can take its toll. The result may be a herniated or a bulging disc. Are the same? Not quite. So what’s the difference between a bulging disc and a herniated disc?
An Air Bag for Your Back
Each of our spine’s 33 vertebrae is cushioned by soft discs composed of an outer layer of tough cartilage that surrounds softer, jelly-like cartilage (known as mucoprotein gel) in the center.
A good analogy for spinal discs is the airbag in your car; just as they are released and dispersed when impact occurs, the jelly-like substance in spinal discs expands and redistributes itself to protect us from the impact of everyday activities. And while these discs do a pretty good job of safeguarding us from wear and tear, nobody is impervious to injury, especially back pain. If you’re feeling a sharp pain in the spine that radiates in your lower back, you may be suffering from either a herniated disc or a bulging disc.
Like any high-performance machine, your body over time will start to feel wear and tear. Your discs are no difference, especially if they start to dry out and stiffen, leaving them susceptible to injury. Herniated discs – also called ruptured disks or slipped disks even though the disc neither slips nor ruptures – occur when the tough outer layer of cartilage starts to develop tiny cracks, through which some of the softer inner cartilage may protrude. Should the herniated disc irritate the nerves that surround it; expect severe back pain.
If you are experiencing pain, numbness, or weakness, your doctor may recommend diagnostics such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging. These imaging tests are also especially effective at revealing the location of herniated discs, even when they may not present any outward symptoms.
When pressure from the spine causes the disc to bulge outward, you have a bulging disc. Sometimes they cause little to no pain; other times, if the disc protrudes and hits a nerve, you will feel pain.
Since they most often are caused by natural deterioration of the spine that comes with age, both a herniated disc and a bulging disc are considered degenerative spine conditions. Typically, the damage starts slowly with the development of a bulging disc but, left untreated, a herniated disc may occur.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Damaged discs are often treated with conservative methods, such as pain medication and physical therapy. But if these measures fail to improve symptoms, spinal surgery may be required.
As with any medical condition, early diagnosis and treatment is key for a speedy recovery. Disc disorders are no exception. Taking a comprehensive approach to treating your injury early is the best way to ensure a speedy recovery. Medications – such as cortisone injections, muscle relaxers, or OTC pain relievers – as well as a strategic exercise plan guided by a physical therapist, will be beneficial. Your physician may also recommend non-surgical remedies such as a switch to an anti-inflammatory diet, heat therapy, ice, and some rest.
As we age, there are many preventive methods of warding off disc degeneration; particularly exercising, maintaining a healthy body weight, building core strength and keeping good posture are all important.
If back pain is keeping you from excelling at work or enjoying play, the seasoned physicians at Orthopedic Associates of West Jersey can help. Their board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeons strive to deliver quick and comprehensive treatment for musculoskeletal conditions, and always look to utilize conservative methods first. For more information about their services, or to schedule a consultation, call 973-989-0888.