You may have heard someone complain about neck or back pain from a slipped disc, herniated disc, or bulging disc; you may suffer from such pain yourself. Although the terms “herniated disc” and “bulging disc” are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between these two painful spinal conditions.
Definition of a Bulging Disc
The human backbone is comprised of multiple vertebrae, most of which can move. Movement and flexibility of the spine is accomplished through jelly-filled discs between each vertebra.
Often, these discs may become damaged through degenerative disease, or typical wear-and-tear that comes along with aging. Sometimes, discs are damaged through injury.
A slipped disc takes two main forms:
- Prolapse, or a bulging disc, in which the jelly-like interior of the disc protrudes against the tough outer layer of the disc
- Extrusion, or a herniated or ruptured disc, in which the interior of the disc breaches the tough outer layer of the disc, breaking through and often placing pressure on spinal nerves
Although some consider a bulging disc and herniated disc to be synonymous, a bulging disc is often the predecessor of a herniated disc.
When a person consults a doctor about neck or back pain, the first step is typically conservative, non-surgical treatment. The physician may order rest, physical therapy, and anti-inflammatory treatment to heal the injury.
Often, these non-invasive techniques are sufficient, but sometimes, pain is not improved by rest and anti-inflammatory medications. In these cases, physicians will typically order diagnostic tests, such as a CT scan or MRI, to find the source and nature of the injury and develop an appropriate treatment plan.
How Do I Know If I Should Seek Medical Attention?
If your condition in is not improved with rest and anti-inflammatory medications, you should likely return to your physician for further evaluation. Other symptoms which may necessitate medical care include the following:
- Numbness, weakness, or paralysis of the legs
- Loss of bladder or bowel control or function
- Chronic pain which is not improved by treatment
- Severe pain which is not improved by treatment
If diagnostic testing shows that you have a bulging or herniated disc, and non-surgical methods have not improved the condition, back surgery may be necessary to repair the disc injury and restore spine health.
Back pain is one of the most common injury complaints, and it is a significant source of lost labor. Fortunately, there are both non-surgical and surgical methods to alleviate back pain and restore function.
Not every case will require surgery, but if surgery is necessary to treat your back pain, your surgeon should discuss your options with you and develop the appropriate surgical treatment plan for your circumstances.
Often, herniated discs are surgically repaired through discectomy, which may be performed as open surgery (microscopic discectomy) or through a less invasive surgery known as endoscopic discectomy.
Endoscopic discectomy is often preferable, as it is less invasive, allows less blood loss, and is associated with faster recovery; however, sometimes microscopic discectomy is necessitated by the nature of the patient’s condition and medical history.