What is the Difference between Disc Protrusion and a Bulging Disc

The discs of the spine are designed to take a pounding. Positioned between the vertebrae, they cushion the bones from impact while providing the flexibility needed to allow the neck and back to bend and twist. Shaped like a kidney bean, each disc has an inner, gel-like core encased in a tough outer wall called the annulus fibrosis. A healthy disc is tall enough to provide ample room for nerves exiting the spinal cord to thread outward without being constricted. Because spinal discs are constantly absorbing shocks, they tend to lose their resiliency over time. This can cause conditions such as disc protrusion or bulging disc. While this process can be accelerated by working in occupations that require a lot of heavy lifting, participating in contact sports, and smoking, it is primarily the result of the natural aging process. 

Disc Protrusion or Bulging Disc?

Discs deteriorate slowly and in stages. What can be confusing for patients is that healthcare professionals often use different terms to describe the same stage. For example, a herniated disc can also be called a ruptured disc, a prolapsed disc, or a slipped disc. Further clouding the issue that some doctors may use similar words to describe different conditions. This is often the case with the terms disc protrusion and bulging disc.

While the two are related, they describe different degrees of disc deterioration. A bulging disc is one in which compression has forced the outer wall beyond its normal confines. With a disc protrusion, not only has the outer wall bulged outward, but the inner gel has migrated to the very edge of the annulus fibrosis. This can be thought of as a middle stage between a bulging disc and a herniated disc. A herniated disc occurs when the wall has developed a tear, allowing the inner material to escape. 

Common Symptoms

A disc protrusion doe not trigger symptoms until the outer wall comes in contact with a nearby nerve root. When this happens it can cause sharp pain at the site of the injury as well as additional symptoms along the path of the affected nerve, including:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • A burning sensation
  • A loss of fine motor skills in the fingers if the compressed nerve is in the upper spine

What BEST Can Do

Treatments for a bulging or protruding disc usually begin with conservative options such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy. If these strategies do not provide adequate pain relief after several months, more advanced treatments may be required. 

At BEST Health System, we are a leader in minimally invasive surgeries. We take pride in helping patients find long-term relief from chronic pain caused by a number of spine conditions, including bulging or protruding discs. The first step in learning if you might be a candidate for our procedures is to perform an MRI, which BEST offers on-site. Feel free to contact a member of our dedicated team to learn more.