Believe it or not, if you were diagnosed with sciatic nerve pain, you might have a herniated disc, bulging disc and ruptured disc! The good news, and yes….this can be ‘good’ news…is that they might all be the same one condition. With disc injuries, the name can be more confusing sometimes than the actual condition. It helps to understand a bit about how those discs work in that spine of yours.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons describes spinal discs as soft and rubbery pads that sit between the bony vertebrae, which make up the spinal column. The spinal cord, with its protruding nerve roots, runs down the hollow middle of the spinal canal. The discs, which function as shock absorbers allowing the spine to flex and bend, are encased in the protective cartilage annulus. When a disc herniates or ruptures, the inner substance is pushed outward toward the spinal canal and nerve roots. If a lumbar disc is herniated and pressing on your sciatic nerve, for example, sciatic nerve pain can radiate all the way down your leg.
So what are the differences between the terminologies?
- Herniated disc – when a tear in the outer annulus results in the soft disc center to protrude out beyond the disc wall. Often also referred to as ruptured, prolapsed or slipped disc (although a disc cannot actually ‘slip’ as it is attached).
- Bulging disc — commonly refers to the condition where the soft center presses outward, causing the disc to ‘bulge’ outward beyond the area it normally occupies. This condition is a normal part of aging and often seen on MRI’s of many people, and doesn’t usually result in painful symptoms.
- Pinched Nerve – this commonly refers to the pain (radicular pain) resulting from disc material pressing on nerve roots. If the herniated disc is located in the cervical region, pain may radiate down an arm. If the injury disc leaking material onto nerve roots is located in the lumbar area, pain might radiate into the legs (sciatic nerve pain).
The Mayo Clinic website explains disc pathology in terms of food, which always makes everything easier to digest. It describes a disc to resemble a donut with a jelly filled interior. It also describes a bulging disc to look like a hamburger that is too big for the bun. Medical professionals and regular folks commonly interchange this terminology. What is most important though, is making the correct diagnosis for your pain, and choosing the most effective treatment plan that helps you regain your mobility and active lifestyle.
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