Discs are the cushions that lie between the vertebrae in your back. They are made of soft cartilage in the center surrounded by a tougher, outer layer of cartilage, somewhat like a miniature jelly donut. When a disc expands outside its given space, it’s said to be bulging, much like a hamburger that’s too big for the bun.

Bulging discs are a common part of the aging process. They also can result from repetitive motion jobs that require lifting, driving, standing or bending. A sports injury or other traumatic accident can lead to a bulging disc, as can improper lifting techniques. Bulging discs may run in your family. They can result, surprisingly enough, from excessive alcohol or tobacco consumption.

When Pain Occurs

Bulging discs don’t always cause problems. Many people have them and don’t even realize it. A bulging disc causes pain, however, when it presses against an adjacent nerve. If the bulge occurs in your lower back, you may feel pain in your legs or buttocks. An upper back bulging disc may cause radiating pain in your neck, down your arms and to your fingers.

When your pain gets bad enough to see a medical doctor, such as the spine physicians at the Southeastern Spine Institute, surgery is rarely the first option. The spinal physicians at SSI almost always prefer to treat the pain associated with a bulging disc with conservative non-surgical methods first. Such treatments might include:

  • Exercises
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen
  • Steroid injections
  • Lumbar sympathetic block
  • Heat
  • Massage
  • Physical therapy

When Treatment Fails

If conservative treatment doesn’t alleviate your pain within a few months, surgery may be an option. Back surgery may be the best option, in fact, when you have that radiating pain down your legs or arms as a result of a compressed disc. When bulging discs are compressed so tightly that your normal functions are affected, then surgery may be your best bet for relieving the pain and removing its source.

Ideally, you’ll see a number of spine specialists on campus at the Southeastern Spine Institute before resorting to surgery. Back pain is a complex issue, which is why it’s important to be seen by a range of back specialists. When surgery is required, you might undergo one of a number of different procedures, depending on your general health, your age and the level of disc damage.

State-of-the-art polyethylene or metal implants are used to replace the damaged disc. Total disc replacement relieves the pain and allows you to return to all your normal functioning after your recuperation.

A discectomy is a minimally invasive procedure that allows the surgeon to remove only that part of the disc that’s causing the pressure on your nerves. The back surgery does not require an incision. Instead, your spinal doctor inserts a small probe in your back to scrape away the excess cartilage that’s bulging.

This is another minimally invasive back surgery that’s especially effective when your condition is the result of degenerative disc disease that occurs with aging. The damaged disc is replaced with bone grafts and metal that is then fused above and below to the attached vertebrae.

Avoid general anesthesia with this procedure too. With a small tube attached to a light and camera, your spinal physician views the damage, removes the bulging cartilage, and then cauterizes the area with a laser.

It’s normal to experience some pain as you recover from your back surgery, but in many cases when you haven’t undergone total anesthesia, as in the case of minimally invasive procedures, you can go home the day of the surgery.

You’ll leave with complete recovery instructions that include diet, exercise and pain management. The goal of the Charleston spinal surgeons at SSI is to get you back to full functions as quickly as possible.