Spinal Disc Decompression
Back pain affects an estimated 80% of people in their lifetime. For some, this pain might be a minor inconvenience, easily resolved. For others, an acute cause can become chronic. In these cases, chronic back pain affects both your physical quality of life and your mental health. Although back pain is usually initially treated with conservative measures like medications, physical therapy, and steroid injections, some people find little relief. When this happens, spinal disc decompression may help. Here’s what you should know.
What is spinal disc decompression?
Spinal disc decompression is a type of surgery for back pain from nerve impingement.
Your spinal column consists of 33 vertebrae stacked on top of each other. These vertebra are stabilized by connecting ligaments and tendons and cushioned against each other by intervertebral discs. Running through and around each vertebrae are nerves that send signals for motion and sensory input.
When a condition causes any part of this spinal structure to fail, the nerves twining through the vertebrae may become impinged. It’s as if it’s pinching the nerve. This can cause radiating pain, numbness, tingling, and other symptoms.
Nerve root or spinal cord compression can be caused by an injury, a herniated intervertebral disc, spinal stenosis, or tumors pressing on the nerves of the spine.
Spinal disc decompression creates space between the vertebrae to relieve severe symptoms when other approaches have not helped.
Types of disc decompression
There are two common types of spinal disc decompression:
- Laminectomy: A laminectomy involves removing part or all of the vertebral bone (called the lamina) to relieve compression of the spinal nerve roots or spinal cord. This provides more room for the nerve root and can reduce pain, numbness, and tingling.
- Discectomy: A discectomy commonly treats ruptured or herniated intervertebral discs. It involves removing damaged disc material that may be causing nerve impingement. This relieves pressure on the spinal nerves and alleviates pain and related symptoms.
Both of these procedures are generally only offered after more conservative treatment options have failed. They can provide profound relief for those who have experienced debilitating chronic back pain.
How can spinal disc decompression help me?
The type of spinal disc decompression you receive depends largely on your underlying condition.
A laminectomy focuses on removing bone that is pressing on the nerves. A discectomy removes damaged disc material to provide more space between the vertebrae.
For conditions that involve bone (e.g., spinal stenosis and fractures), a laminectomy might be the best choice. Discectomy is most common for people with herniated or bulging discs. They may also be used for spinal tumors.
Some patients may undergo both procedures at the same time. For example, both procedures help relieve the pain of sciatica and other underlying weakness or difficulty functioning.
Spinal disc decompression is considered an invasive procedure, but for many people it can be the answer to the challenging question of severe chronic pain. When combined with physical therapy and other treatments, this procedure can help restore fuller function and reduce pain.
How does the spinal disc decompression procedure work?
Both spinal decompression procedures are completed under IV sedation. Your doctor’s goal is to help you feel as comfortable as possible during the procedure. They will explain it ahead of time and answer all of your questions before beginning.
For a laminectomy procedure, you will be positioned on your side or stomach on the operating table. They’ll clean the skin over the area with an antiseptic solution. Your doctor makes an incision over the affected vertebrae, spreading the muscles apart to visualize the bony structures. This verifies what X-rays have shown and offers a guide for your doctor to complete the procedure. The laminae of the affected vertebrae are removed, and the incision is closed.
Discectomy procedures are very similar. Instead of removing bone, your doctor removes damaged disc material that may be causing pain and other symptoms. Once your doctor locates and accesses the affected disc, the damaged disc material and any other disc fragments that have separated from the disc are removed. In some cases, they’ll remove bone and ligaments, too. This allows for access to the intervertebral disc without damaging the surrounding nerve tissue.
Some patients may require both procedures, in which case they may also receive a spinal fusion. A spinal fusion connects two or more segments of the spine to help stabilize it after removing bone and disc material.
After your procedure, they’ll monitor you in a recovery area. In some cases, this procedure can take place on an outpatient basis. If you have more than one procedure or underlying conditions, you may have a short hospital stay.
Risks associated with spinal disc decompression procedures include the following:
- Blood clots
- Spinal cord injury
- Standard risks associated with the use of general anesthesia
Furthermore, injury to the surrounding nerves and blood vessels may occur. This can result in weakness or numbness. In rare cases, the pain may not be relieved by surgery or may actually become worse.
Talk to your doctor about all of the risks associated with this procedure and your unique risk profile.
All recovery times vary. In general, you can expect to be returning to better mobility in approximately four to six weeks, post-surgery.
In the days following your surgery, follow all of your doctor’s orders with regards to pain medications and activity levels. You may have some pain and soreness. This should be manageable with both prescription medications and comfort measures (e.g., ice).
Take it easy as you begin to add more activity to your day. Short walks, physical therapy, and low-impact exercise are great ways to help your body heal.
If you experience fever, redness or swelling at the incision site, or increasing pain, talk to your doctor, as these can all be a sign of infection.