Lumbar decompression surgery is a surgical procedure used to treat compressed nerves in the lower (lumbar) spine.
It's only suggested when non-surgical treatments haven't helped.
The surgery targets to improve symptoms such as chronic pain and numbness in the legs caused by pressure on the nerves in the spine.
Lumbar decompression surgery is normally used to treat:
- spinal stenosis – narrowing of an area of the spinal column, that puts pressure on the nerves inside
- a slipped disc and sciatica – where a broken spinal disc presses down on an underlying nerve
- spinal injuries – such as a fracture or the enlargement of tissue
- metastatic spinal cord compression – where cancer in one section of the body, such as the lungs, spreads into the backbone and presses on the spinal cord or nerves
What occurs during lumbar decompression surgery?
If lumbar decompression surgical operation is recommended, you'll commonly have at least 1 of the following procedures:
- laminectomy – where a section of bone is detached from one of your vertebrae (spinal bones) to relieve pressure on the affected nerve
- discectomy – where a section of a broken disc is removed to relieve pressure on a nerve
- spinal fusion – where two or more vertebrae are joined together with a section of bone to soothe and strengthen the spine
In many cases, a combination of these procedures may be used.
Lumbar decompression is normally carried out under general anaesthetic, which means you'll be unconscious during the process and won't feel any pain as it's done. The entire operation normally takes at least an hour, but may take much longer, depending on the complexity of the process.
Recuperating from lumbar decompression surgery
You'll normally be well enough to leave hospital about 1 to 4 days after the surgery, depending on the complexity of the surgery and your level of mobility prior to the operation.
Most people are able to walk unaided within a day of having the operation, although more difficult activities will need to be avoided for about 6 weeks.
You may be able to return to work after about 4 to 6 weeks, though you may need more time off if your job entails driving for long periods or lifting heavy objects.
Effectiveness of lumbar decompression surgery
There's good proof that decompression surgical operation can be an effective treatment for people with severe pain caused by compressed nerves.
Many people who have the operation go through a significant progress in pain. People who found walking difficult prior to the surgery because of leg pain or weakness are often able to walk further and more easily after the process.
Dangers of lumbar decompression surgery
Although lumbar decompression is often effective, like all types of surgical operation it brings a risk of complications.
Complications related with lumbar decompression surgery include:
- contamination at the site of the operation, or in uncommon cases an infection elsewhere
- a blood clot developing in 1 of your leg veins, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT); in uncommon cases, the clot can dislocate and travel to the lungs, causing a severe problem called a pulmonary embolism
- damage to the spinal nerves or cord – ensuing in continuing signs, numbness or weakness in 1 or both legs, or in uncommon cases some degree of paralysis
The spine and spinal cord
The spine is made up of 24 individual bones, known as vertebrae, which are arranged on top of each other to form the spinal column. In between every vertebra are protective, round pads of tissue called discs, which pillow the vertebrae during actions such as walking and running.
The spinal canal runs through the middle of the spinal column. It carries and protects the spinal cord and nerves.
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