At Clark and Steinhorn, LLC we have literally handled thousands of personal injury cases involving back and neck injuries. Frequently, such cases result in sophisticated diagnostic testing which reveals the status of vertebral disks. The disks, composed of cartilage, serve as a sort of shock absorber between the bony verterbrae.
This system works well for younger people but with age the disks can lose their structural integrity, dry out and protrude, sometimes into the nerve roots abutting the disk location, which can cause pain and reduced function.
Physicians make a distinction between so-called bulging disks and herniated or ruptured disks. Conceptually, the distinction is a function of the composition of the disks themselves. Disks are composed of cartilage with a tougher outer layer and a softer inner layer a little like a jelly-filled donut.
When the tougher outer layer deteriorates due to age and use it can "bulge" out and cause symptoms. This is a bulging disk. When the outer layer cracks and allows the inner cartilage to protrude out this is more apt to contact adjacent nerves and cause pain, radiation and significant neurological symptoms. This is a herniated or ruptured disk.
While these seems like highly similar conditions and can produce similar symptoms disk herniation is far more likely to result in surgical intervention. The difference is really a matter of degree.
In the context of a car or truck accident case, the distinction can have a fairly dramatic impact of how judge, juries and insurance companies look at a case. Bulging disks are routinely attributed to "degenerative changes" ie, aging and wear and tear and are ascribed lesser value. Herniated disks are taken more seriously and the settlement amounts offered are almost invariably greater.
This is kind of understandable as a complete rotator cuff tear is worth more than a partial tear, again similar injuries but different by a matter of extent or degree. Herniation is another level of disk injury beyond bulging. Sometimes, the diagnostic tests and their interpretations by radiologists are areas for medical disagreement but disk herniation is a more serious development.
Ironically, many people have disk herniations and are asymptomatic. Which is to say, that neither a bulging disk nor a herniated disk guarantees significant pain or problems. Sometimes these conditions only become problematic after a trauma such as a car accident is visited upon them.
Whatever condition, bulging and herniated disks can cause serious problems and result in the need for extensive medical intervention. One should however be aware of how insurance companies attempt to view them differently.