What’s The Difference Between a Disc Bulge & Herniation?

Often times these two terms are used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same problem. Vertebral discs are securely attached between two vertebrae (no, you can’t have a “slipped disc”) and they are made up of 2 parts: tough annular fibres that surround an inner nucleus (semi fluid gel). For simplicity with people in my practice I often use the metaphor of a jelly donut: think of the inner nucleus as the jelly, and the ‘dough’ as the outer annular fibres.

Disc bulges: This is when some disc material moves because of faulty joint mechanics and subsequent degeneration. Think of a jelly donut, that has slight pressure put upon it so that the dough bulges out the sides slightly, but not enough pressure that some of the jelly comes out. Disc bulges can happen with absolutely no symptoms, but if the spinal joints are not encouraged to heal, further problems will develop.

Disc herniation:  This is what happens next, following excessive tension on the disc fibres, often over years, a bigger problem develops. Remember the jelly donut?  Now it’s been under enough to pressure, for long enough, that some of the jelly inside starts to squeeze out. Disc herniation’s can cause sciatic type pain because of how they will bulge out and put pressure on the nerve going down the back of the leg. The nerves coming off the spinal cord in the lumbar spine are highly complex, and depending on which area of the disc is herniating, the pain pattern can also affect the side or front of the leg, and travel all the way right down into the feet.


The good news is that Chiropractors can provide great care and great results! In my 16 years in practice I’ve seen many people find complete recovery and enjoy an incredible quality of life without any pain or discomfort. If you’re suffering with back pain, it could be attributed to problems within the discs, and treatment will depend on your goals and the approach you take to your health.  Do you react, prevent or pursue wellness?

You can prevent both disc bulges and disc herniating from happening with spinal care, core strengthening, proper lifting techniques, watching your stress level and choosing a high quality diet.

If your approach to caring for your body is more “I’ll fix it when it’s broken” and you seek to support your health only when there are problems then certainly consider radiating pain down your legs, any loss of mobility, as signs there is a problem. If you’re also having changes in bowel or bladder function, consider that a next level warning sign.

Questions? Reach out. You can be feeling and functioning better! Often times the hardest part is taking that first step.

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