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You may think a bulging disc is the same as a herniated disc, but there is a difference. With a herniated disc, a crack occurs in the outer layer of the disc, called the annulus. The crack usually affects a small part of the disc, and it allows the soft inner material of the nucleus pulposus to rupture out of the disc. A bulging disc is different because the disc simply bulges outside the space it normally occupies between your vertebrae, but it doesn’t rupture. A bulging disc affects a much larger part of the disc than a herniated disc. While it is more common to have a bulging disc than a herniated disc, a herniated disc is more likely to be painful. It’s possible for you to have a bulging disc without feeling any pain at all.
A bulging disc is usually considered a normal part of aging. Some discs most likely begin to bulge as a part of both the aging process and the degeneration process of the intervertebral disc. A bulging disc is not necessarily a sign that anything serious is happening to your spine.
A bulging disc only becomes serious when it bulges enough to cause narrowing of your spinal canal. If there are bone spurs present on the facet joints behind the bulging disc, the combination may cause narrowing of your spinal canal in that area. This is sometimes referred to as segmental spinal stenosis. View animation of bulging disc.
Injury to your intervertebral disc, and overuse or misuse of the disc such as might be experienced by an athlete or a person with a very physical job, can weaken the disc and make it more prone to problems. Smoking tobacco can also cause your disc to weaken and deteriorate.
Bulging discs are fairly common in both young adults and older people. They are not cause for panic. As the disc bulges out between the vertebrae and presses on a nerve, you will experience symptoms in whatever part of your body the affected nerve serves. The symptoms of a bulging disc include pain, numbness, and muscle weakness. Depending on which nerves are affected, a herniated disc can include pain that feels like it is coming from another part of your body, such as your heart, abdomen, or kidneys.
Bulging discs sometimes press against your spinal cord. When this happens, symptoms may include: