Disc Herniation Vs Bulging Disk – How To Tell The Difference

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A bulging disk refers to a condition where a spinal disk extends beyond its normal boundary without breaking its outer layer, often without symptoms unless it compresses nearby nerves. A herniated disk, on the other hand, involves a tear in the disk’s outer layer, allowing the inner material to escape, more likely causing pain and other symptoms due to nerve pressure. Herniated disks are generally considered more severe than bulging disks due to the potential for nerve damage and often require more aggressive treatment.

Keep reading to learn more about the difference between Herniated and Bulging Disks!

Definitions and Causes Of Bulging or Herniated Disks 

Bulging Disk

This condition occurs when a spinal disk deforms and protrudes outside its normal perimeter in the vertebral column. It’s often a result of aging or general wear and tear on the spine. The entire disk protrudes in a bulge, affecting a large part of its circumference without the annulus fibrosus (outer layer) breaking.

Herniated Disk

 A herniated disk happens when there is a tear or rupture in the annulus fibrosus, allowing the nucleus pulposus (inner gel-like material) to leak out. This condition can be caused by injury, strain, or an age-related decrease in the disk’s flexibility and resilience, leading to a focused protrusion that can press directly on nerve roots.


Bulging Disk

Many bulging disks present no symptoms and are often found incidentally during imaging tests for another condition. When symptoms do occur, they can include back pain, numbness, or a general discomfort, depending on the disk’s location and whether it’s pressing on nerves.

Herniated Disk

Symptoms are more common and can be more severe due to the disk’s material pressing against nerve roots. They include sharp, localized pain, sciatica (if the herniated disk is in the lumbar region), muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling sensations along the affected nerve.


Both conditions are diagnosed through clinical evaluation and imaging studies. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is particularly useful as it can clearly show the damaged disks and any impingement on spinal nerves. A physical examination will also help in assessing the range of motion, nerve function, and areas of discomfort.


Bulging Disk 

Treatment may not be necessary if there are no symptoms. For symptomatic cases, conservative treatments like physical therapy, exercise, pain relievers, and sometimes corticosteroid injections are recommended.

Herniated Disk

Treatment starts conservatively, similar to bulging disks, but may escalate to surgical options more quickly if nerve damage is suspected or symptoms do not improve with conservative measures. Surgery may involve removing the protruding portion of the disk or, in severe cases, the entire disk, possibly replacing it with an artificial one or fusing the adjacent vertebrae.

FAQs about Bulging Vs Herniated Disks 

How Do You Tell If A Disc Is Bulging Or Herniated?

Determining whether a disc is bulging or herniated usually requires imaging studies such as MRI or CT scans. A bulging disc extends outside the normal space of the vertebrae but remains intact, whereas a herniated disc involves a tear in the outer layer, allowing the inner material to escape.

What Is Worse, A Herniated Or Bulging Disc?

A herniated disc is generally considered worse than a bulging disc. This is because a herniated disc involves rupture and extrusion of disc material that can press on nerve roots, leading to more severe pain and neurological symptoms.

Does A Herniated Disc Turn Into A Bulging Disc?

A herniated disc does not turn into a bulging disc. They are distinct conditions; a bulging disc involves a generalized extension of the disc material, while a herniated disc involves a rupture and the escape of the disc’s nucleus.

How Do You Fix A Bulging Or Herniated Disc?

Treatment varies based on severity and symptoms:

  • For Bulging Discs: Conservative treatments like physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and lifestyle changes are often effective. Injections and, rarely, surgery may be considered if conservative measures fail.
  • For Herniated Discs: Treatment often starts conservatively but may progress to surgical options if there’s significant pain, nerve damage, or ineffective conservative treatment. Surgical procedures might involve microdiscectomy or laminectomy to remove the protruding disc material.

Does A Bulging Disc Ever Go Away?

A bulging disc can improve with time, especially with appropriate treatment and lifestyle adjustments. Complete resolution is possible but depends on various factors including the disc’s condition and overall spinal health.

Can You Massage A Bulging Disc Back Into Place?

Massage cannot “push” a bulging disc back into place, but it can help relieve muscle tension around the affected area, improve blood flow, and reduce pain. It’s a supportive treatment rather than a cure.

How Can I Shrink My Herniated Disc Naturally?

Natural methods to help manage and potentially reduce the size of a herniated disc include:

  • Regular exercise to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight to reduce pressure on the discs.
  • Practicing good posture to minimize stress on the spine.
  • Applying heat or cold therapy for pain relief.
  • Certain supplements, like omega-3 fatty acids, may help reduce inflammation, but consult a healthcare provider first.

How Long Does It Take For A Herniated Disc To Heal?

The healing time for a herniated disc varies; many individuals see improvement in symptoms within 6 weeks to 3 months with conservative treatment. Complete healing can take longer, and some may not fully “heal” but rather manage symptoms effectively.

Can You Reverse A Herniated Disc Without Surgery?

Yes, many herniated discs can be effectively managed and symptoms can be significantly reduced without surgery. Conservative treatments like physical therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes are successful for many people. In some cases, the herniated disc material may even be reabsorbed by the body over time, reducing symptoms.