After a car crash, you may experience symptoms such as radiating back pain, loss of sensation or weakness in the lower extremities. These symptoms may show up days, weeks or months after your accident, and an injury to one or more vertebral discs may be to blame. 

Vertebral discs exist between the bones of your spine, also known as vertebrae. Each comprises two different types of cartilage: a soft inner layer surrounded by a harder protective layer on the outside. The discs work to cushion the vertebrae, allowing your spine to move while providing protection. 

The force of impact from a car accident may cause injuries to one or more vertebral discs through either herniation or bulging. Though the effects can be similar, they are not the same thing. 

Herniated disc 

Herniated discs sometimes go by the names “slipped discs” or “ruptured discs.” They occur when part of the soft inner cartilage layer in the disc leaks out through a crack in the hard outer layer. The crack may occur as a result of trauma to the disc during a car accident. 

The herniated portion of the disc can protrude far enough to reach nerve roots, possibly causing irritation and pain. The pain can sometimes radiate down the back and into the legs. 

Bulging disc 

The main difference between a bulging disc and a herniated disc is that there is no cracking of the tough outer layer of cartilage and therefore no leaking of the inner layer. Instead, the outer layer can extend outward beyond the perimeter of the vertebrae. This can happen in a fairly even configuration, or it can affect only a portion of the outer cartilage layer, perhaps one-fourth to one-half. 

A bulging disc may be less painful than a herniated disc. However, it can put pressure on the spinal cord or the nerve roots, which can result in weakness or numbness.