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Learning About Microdiscectomy in the Low Back

A healthy disc and a herniated disc

What is a microdiscectomy?

Microdiscectomy is surgery to remove part or all of a bulging or damaged (herniated) disc in the spine. A herniated disc in the low back (from the first lumbar vertebra to the sacrum) is called a lumbar herniated disc. It if irritates or presses on the spinal nerves, it can cause pain and numbness in the buttock and leg.

Most people can get better on their own. But for some people, surgery may help the pain and numbness. It may also improve movement.

How is a microdiscectomy done?

You may be asleep or have medicine to relax you. And the area will be numbed if you're awake. It's often numbed even if you are asleep. You will not feel pain during the surgery.

The doctor will make a 2.5- to 5-centimetre (1- to 2-inch) cut (incision) in the skin over the spine. The doctor will put surgical tools through the incision and will use a special microscope (scope) to view the area.

The doctor may first remove a small amount of bone and other tissue from the spine. This helps the doctor see the area around the disc. Then the doctor removes the bulging disc material. Next, the doctor closes the incision with stitches.

What can you expect after surgery?

You will probably be able to go home the same day as your surgery, or the next day.

After surgery, you may have less leg pain and numbness. And you may be able to move your leg better. Some people feel better very soon after surgery. But if you had leg pain or numbness for a long time before surgery, it may take longer to feel better.

Your back will probably feel stiff and sore. You may find it uncomfortable to sit or stand in one position for very long. This usually gets better after several weeks. But your back could be a little stiff for up to 6 months. You will have a small scar on your back, but it may fade with time.

Many people are able to go back to work and their daily routine as soon as the pain improves. If you work in an office, you may go back to work in a week or two. If your job requires physical labour (such as lifting or twisting), you may be able to go back to work in 4 to 8 weeks.

Walking and doing back exercises can help you get better faster. Your doctor may recommend that you work with a physiotherapist to make the muscles around your spine stronger and more flexible. You will need to learn how to lift, twist, and bend in ways that keep your back safe.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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