After a car accident you may be diagnosed with a bulging disc or a herniated disc. To make things even more complicated, your medical provider might even tell you that you are suffering from degenerative disc disease. What is the difference and what does all of this mean?
The Annular Tear
Before we make some differentiations, it is important to understand the definition of the annular tear.
An annular tear refers to a tear or damage to the outer layer of a spinal disc (known as the Annulus Fibrosis). As I explained in a previous post, you can think of the disc as a jelly donut. The fibrous outer portion of the disc protects the inside which is jelly-like.
Bulging discs can be traumatically related injuries, where the discs are usually still contained with the annulus fibrosis. Bulging discs can still be very painful because the bulging portion of the disc can push against your spinal cord.
A herniated disc often tends to be considered more serious by the medical community because a portion of the nucleus, or inside material pushes out into the nerve.
Degenerated Disc Disease
Degeneration of discs is usually observed as the gradual thinning of the disc due to loss of fluid in the disc. This reduces the ability of the disc to act as shock absorbers and makes it less flexible. The loss of fluid makes the disc thinner and narrows the distance between the vertebrae. The body reacts to this thinning by creating bone spurs (osteophytes). Bone spurs can put pressure on the spinal cord resulting in pain and affective nerve function. Degenerative disc disease can occur and be accelerated by a traumatically related herniation or bulge.
Understanding The Difference Between A Herniated vs. Bulging Disc
The real difference is the degree of the protrusion. A bulging disc is a smaller protrusion of the central nuclear material still contained by some of the outer annular fibers. A herniated disc is one that has ruptured through the annulus.
The best way to understand disc injuries it to go back to the jelly donut analogy. A bulging disc would be when you squash down on a jelly donut and the jelly never comes out, that is a bulging disc.
A herniated disc is when the jelly actually comes out.