Find out from a doctor if a low back herniated (bulging) disc can be untreatable.

A bulging disc puts pressure on nerves that come out of the spinal cord.

The resulting pain can radiate to the leg as well as cause numbness, tingling or weakness in the leg or even the foot.

Typically, conservative (nonsurgical) treatments are tried first. These include physical therapy, hot packs, ice packs, massage and painkilling drugs.

But some people also undergo surgery when all else has failed for their bulging disc.

For this article I consulted with Dr. P. Justin Tortolani, from MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. Dr. Tortolani is an orthopedic surgeon and spine specialist. The very vast majority of herniated disc cases are treatable.

Treatments for a Bulging Disc

This is a condition in which the conservative approach (e.g., physical therapy, back supports for chairs, NSAIDs) wins hands-down over surgery.

Just because you have an issue with your spine, doesn’t mean you automatically need surgery.

Surgery in the case of a bulging disc should always be a last resort, when all else has failed.

When is a herniated disc untreatable?

“Very rarely would it be untreatable unless the patient had some medical factors in which surgery couldn’t be performed like severe heart disease,” says Dr. Tortolani.

“I’ve never had a patient come in with a herniated disc that couldn’t be treated, but I had one with nerve compression in the lower back, where their heart was so sick their doctors wouldn’t let them go through general anesthesia.”

When a patient feels that they have tried every conservative option yet the pain is still disruptive to their life, they have to ask themselves if they truly, faithfully have given physical therapy a fair chance.

It’s not unheard of for patients to prematurely give up on physical therapy due to either some degree of pain during the movements or assuming ahead of time that PT just won’t work — and hence, not trying it or skipping sessions. They then create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The person with a herniated or bulging disc needs to give all nonsurgical treatments a fair shake before deciding that the case is hopeless without surgery.

Dr. Tortolani is currently the director of the MedStar Union Memorial Spine Program. His vast experience includes treating all disorders of the spine including herniated discs, spinal stenosis, and adult and adolescent scoliosis.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.