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Discectomy for a Lumbar Herniated Disc

Surgery Overview

Discectomy is surgery to remove lumbar (low back) herniated disc material that is pressing on a nerve root.

It's often done as microdiscectomy, which uses a special microscope to view the disc and nerves. This larger view allows the surgeon to use a smaller cut (incision). And this causes less damage to surrounding tissue.

Before the disc material is removed, a small piece of bone (the lamina) from the affected vertebra may be removed. This is called a laminotomy or laminectomy. It allows the surgeon to better see the herniated disc.

You are asleep or numb during the surgery. You might go home the same day you have surgery. Or you might need to stay in the hospital or surgery centre overnight.

What To Expect

After surgery, you will be encouraged to get out of bed and walk as soon as the numbness wears off. You can use prescription medicines to control pain while you recover. You can slowly resume exercise and other activities.

Here are some other things to think about:

  • You may not be comfortable sitting at first. Most people avoid having to sit for longer than 15 or 20 minutes. But sitting will feel more comfortable over time.
  • Walk as often as you can for the first several weeks. Getting up often to walk around will help lower the risk that too much scar tissue will form.
  • Many people can go back to work and their daily routine soon after surgery. In some cases, your doctor may suggest a rehabilitation program. This may include physiotherapy and home exercises.
  • If you work in an office, you may go back to work in 2 to 4 weeks. If your job requires physical labour (such as lifting or operating machinery that vibrates) you may be able to go back to work 4 to 8 weeks after surgery.

Why It Is Done

Surgery is done to decrease pain and allow you to regain normal movement and function.

You and your doctor may consider surgery if:

  • You have very bad leg pain, numbness, or weakness that keeps you from being able to do your daily activities.
  • Your leg symptoms do not get better after at least 6 weeks of non-surgical treatment.
  • Results of a physical examination show that you have weakness, loss of motion, or abnormal feeling that is likely to get better after surgery.

Surgery is an emergency if you have cauda equina syndrome. Signs include:

  • New loss of bowel or bladder control.
  • New weakness in the legs (usually both legs).
  • New numbness or tingling in the buttocks, genital area, or legs (usually both legs).

Learn more

How Well It Works

Surgery for a lumbar (low back) herniated disc works well for many people, but not for everyone. For some people, it can get rid of all or most of their symptoms.

In a study of people who had sciatica caused by a herniated disc, the chances of having no symptoms or almost no symptoms 3 months to 2 years later was a little higher with surgery than with non-surgical treatment. But, overall, most people felt better with or without surgery.footnote 1

In a study of people who had 6 to 12 weeks of severe sciatica related to a herniated disc, one group was assigned to have surgery soon (the surgery group). The other group (the non-surgical group) was assigned to try non-surgical treatments for 6 months, followed by surgery if their symptoms didn't improve. Both groups were asked about their recovery 2 months after surgery or the start of non-surgical treatment. People in the surgery group felt better (closer to complete recovery) than people in the non-surgical group. But after 1 year, both treatment groups rated their recovery about the same.footnote 2

If you don't choose surgery now, you can change your mind later if your symptoms haven't gotten better or have gotten worse even with other treatments. Surgery seems to work just as well if it's done within 6 months after symptoms start.

Risks

As with any surgery, there are some risks.

  • Surgery doesn't always work. Or it may not work any better than other treatment.
  • There is a slight risk of damaging the spine or nerves.
  • There is some risk of infection.
  • There are risks with anesthesia.

References

Citations

  1. Weinstein JN, et al. (2006). Surgical vs nonoperative treatment for lumbar disk herniation: The spine patient outcomes research trial (SPORT): A randomized trial. JAMA, 296(20): 2441–2450.
  2. Peul WC, et al. (2007). Surgical versus prolonged conservative treatment for sciatica. New England Journal of Medicine, 356(22): 2245–2256.

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