Back pain can go from a minor annoyance to a major life disruptor. If you suspect you have a herniated or bulging disc, especially after an accident, understanding the symptoms and receiving proper medical care is essential to alleviating your pain. So what is the difference between Herniated Disc vs. Bulging Disc? Learn about the small differentiation between the two conditions, what symptoms disc issues cause, and what treatment options exist.
Herniated Disc Causes
Problems with spinal discs become more common as you age because the tissue making up your discs becomes dehydrated and less supple. Disk issues are also more common in the lower spine, though they can occur between any two vertebrae, and you can suffer from more than one injured disc. Some people are more prone to disc problems, so if you’ve struggled with one herniated disc you should be cautious with your movements and activities.
Other causes of herniated discs include minor strain, twisting motions, sitting or standing for long periods of time, being overweight, and long-term repetitive motion. Some people suffer from herniated discs after a sudden injury or stressor, like a car accident.
Bulging vs. Herniated Disc
The terms bulging and herniated disc are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the same medical issue. However, a small distinction exists between them. The vertebrae that make up your spine aren’t stacked right on top of each other. Instead, discs of cushioning tissue sit between each bone to prevent them from rubbing against each other. The discs are shaped like donuts and have two parts: the outer part (annulus) and the inner part (nucleus). The annulus is strong and rubbery, while the nucleus is more like jelly.
Disc herniation happens when a small tear occurs in the annulus and a portion of the nucleus pushes through. You may also see this phenomenon called a slipped disc or a ruptured disc. Typically, a herniated disc is more painful than a bulging disc.
A bulging disc, which is often a precursor for a herniated disc, occurs when the outer layer of the disc extends outside its usual spot. A doctor writing for Mayo Clinic likened it to a hamburger patty that’s larger than the bun it sits on. Bulging discs don’t always bulge around the disc’s entire circumference, but the issue typically affects at least a quarter of the disc. Bulging discs can turn into herniated discs if they’re left untreated.
Herniated Disc Symptoms
If you’re experiencing back pain, you may be wondering: “What does a herniated disc feel like?” Disc herniation symptoms vary based on the severity and location of the injury. Some patients with minor disc herniation report only a mild backache or no pain at all.
Lower Back Symptoms
A herniated disc in the lower back frequently causes pain in the sciatic nerve, which feels like a sharp pain that shoots through one buttock and down one leg. The pain may be mild, or it can be severe enough to feel like an electric shock. Sometimes it can reach the foot. You may also experience tingling, burning, or numbness in that same leg.
Patients with lower back symptoms may experience that the pain is worse in certain positions or that it gets worse when you’re moving. You might also experience weakness in the affected side. Often, the sharp sciatic nerve pain comes after a long stretch of lower back pain.
Upper Back and Neck Symptoms
If the herniation occurs in the cervical vertebrae, which are the vertebrae of your neck, you might experience neck or upper back pain. Neck pain can occur on the back or the sides of your neck and may hurt worse when you turn your head.
You may also experience pain around your shoulder blades or between them. The pain may travel to your shoulder, arm, and even fingers, and some people experience tingling or numbness. This can change depending on your position, and, like with the lower back symptoms, you may find that one position or movement makes the pain worse.
Herniated Disc Treatment
Most herniated discs don’t need surgery and symptoms will improve with time and care. The first step in treatment is to get a diagnosis, which will require an MRI, CT, or X-ray. After consulting with your doctor, you can manage the problem with at-home treatment, anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxing medications, and physical therapy.
Start by resting your back. You can take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and try icing or heating the affected area. Make sure not to engage in strenuous movement, but also don’t sit or stand in one position for too long. Paying attention to your posture, especially when sitting at a desk, will also help alleviate symptoms.
When at-home treatment isn’t enough or your initial injury calls for extra intervention, physical therapy is the next step. Chiropractic adjustment can help realign your body after an injury, removing stress from the affected parts of the spine. Physical therapy may also include exercises to help strengthen the muscles of your back and posture alignment to prevent further injury. A chiropractor or physical therapist can give you a targeted treatment regimen to continue at home.
Injections and Surgery
If at-home care and physical therapy aren’t sufficient, your next step is to receive spinal injections from a qualified doctor. Spinal injections help reduce inflammation and improve movement and are what doctors recommend before turning to surgery. For those who need surgery, the disc can be removed, after which your doctor may fuse your vertebrae together for stability or insert an artificial disc.
If you’ve recently been injured in an auto accident and are experiencing back pain due to a herniated disc, we’re here to help. At City Wide Injury and Accident, we specialize in treating injuries that have resulted from auto accidents, including disc herniation. We serve patients in the Houston area and are ready to consult on your case and get you feeling better. Contact us today.