Slipped Disc vs. Disc Herniation vs. Disc Bulge

We’ve all heard talk about the above terms but what is the difference and which one do you have?


First let’s talk about what a disc actually is.  Discs act as cushions that sit between the spinal vertebrae (bones of the spine) to help absorb shock.  They are made up of a tougher cartilaginous outer layer known as the annulus fibrosus and a softer cartilaginous inner layer known as the nucleus pulposus kind of like a jelly donut.

Like all other tissues in your body the spinal discs respond to the stresses placed upon them.  When the outer layer of the disc, the annulus, becomes weak due to stress it can cause a portion of the disc to bulge.  Think of this like placing a bit of pressure on the jelly donut and watching it slightly change shape.


A disc herniation occurs when the stresses placed upon the spinal discs are enough to cause the softer inner layer, the nucleus, to displace beyond the normal borders of the disc in a focalized fashion.  Think of this like placing a lot of pressure on the jelly donut and watching the jelly displace out of the hole in the donut.

Herniated and bulging discs can occur throughout the entirety of the spine, however, they are most common in the low back as this is where there is more pressure and therefore more stress.  Finally, it is best to remember that not all herniated or bulging discs cause painful symptoms but those that do can generally be managed through conservative treatment, including manual therapy, exercise, education, and pain or anti-inflammatory medication.

Dr. Livia Chiarelli