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What Is The Difference Between A Bulging, Herniated, Ruptured, and Degenerated Disc?

Dr. Ron Daulton, Jr.

When discussing spinal disc conditions, there are essentially two types of problems that can occur. The first is when an injury occurs to the wall of the disc and it begins to bulge. The second is when the disc begins to dehydrate (lose water content), and starts to flatten and deteriorate.

Doctors will use different terms to describe essentially the same condition, and it can become very confusing. So, in this article, I will clarify what the different diagnostic terms mean, and what is actually happening with each of these conditions.

In order to understand these terms, though, we first need to have a basic understanding of what a healthy disc looks like.

The Anatomy Of A Healthy Spinal Disc

Your spine is made up of 24 bones (called vertebrae) that are stacked on top of each other. Between each set of bones is a disc.

The discs of your spine are very important because they essentially act as shock absorbers in order to protect the bones. If you look closely at them, you will see that they look like a cushion.

Normal, Healthy Spinal Disc

Photo Courtesy of 3D Virtual Consultation For Doctors

In the image above, you can see what the disc looks like from the side, as well as looking at it from above.

You will notice that the disc is made up of a strong outer covering called the Annulus Fibrosus and a softer, jelly–like center called the Nucleus Pulposus. The outer covering gives the disc strength, while the softer center is what allows it to act as a cushion, absorbing shock whenever forces are applied to your spine.

The Significance Of The Nucleus Pulposus

This part is really important because the most frustrating thing about dealing with a spinal disc condition is that they tend to be really difficult to heal. In fact, many doctors will tell you that it is impossible for a disc to heal once it has been injured (which isn’t true, by the way – we’ll talk about that more when I cover some of the current research on this topic later in this article).

The reason it is very difficult to heal is because the discs do not receive a very good blood supply, and your body generally depends on good blood flow to transport nutrients and oxygen to damaged areas for faster healing.

So what actually happens is, the nucleus of each disc will store oxygen and nutrients for healing. However, that is very limiting and later in this article, I’ll be discussing some home care instructions and this fact will become very significant, so keep it in the back of your mind for now.

What Problems Can Develop?

The conditions that we will discuss in this article are a Bulging Disc (which is also known as a Protruding Disc or a Slipped Disc), a Herniated Disc (which is also known as a Disc Prolapse), a Ruptured Disc and Degenerative Disc Disease.

You can click here or click the Next button below to learn about each of these conditions and their differences in the order I stated above, or if you are looking for information about a specific diagnosis, you can click one of the links below:

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