The disc is the shock absorber in between the individual vertebrae (spinal bones). It is 90% water and has a rubbery consistency. With time, age and wear and tear the discs can begin to collapse and bulge out from between the two vertebrae. The disc itself is innervated and therefore can cause pain. Often this is from a tear in the disc called an annular tear. The disc can also bulge back into the spinal canal or into the open for the spinal nerves. This results in a pinched spinal cord or pinched nerves. Bulging discs can take up space in the spinal canal. A narrowed space in the spinal canal is referred to as spinal stenosis.
Bulging discs are often seen in normal, asymptomatic people, so just because you have a bulging disc doesn’t mean that you need any sort of surgery. Many people who have pain from a bulging disc will get pain relief with a few days of rest and some anti-inflammatories. Traction, physical therapy and epidural steroid injections can be beneficial as well. Refractory cases may require small 3 to 15 mm incisions with sutureless outpatient surgery to shave the bulging disc and create more room for the spinal nerves.
These two terms are often used interchangeably. However, the term herniated disc is typically used when there is a more focal localized piece of disc material that moves back into the spinal canal or into a nerve root. Typically the term herniated disc is used when this occurs in a moments notice. It can happen with a sudden twist, bend, sneeze, or you could simply just wake up with the pain one day. In this case patients will often feel a sudden onset of acute, sharp, shooting pain that can be extremely debilitating. Bulging discs often refer to discs that have more generalized protrusions that typically occur slowly over time. In this case, patients usually do not report a sudden onset of pain, rather the onset of symptoms is much more gradual. Bulging or incompetent discs often lead to more back pain as opposed to leg symptoms, or you could experience both. If the bulging disc is in your neck you may experience no symptoms at all, or you may have neck or arm pain.