Surgery may be necessary for persistent back pain that involves an anatomical problem such as a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, or spondylolisthesis. Rarely, surgery may be performed on an emergency basis if there are severe symptoms, such as loss of bowel or bladder control, or if a tumor is present.
The 2 main surgical options to treat a herniated disc are laminectomy (with or without spinal fusion) and discectomy. Spinal decompression may be done to treat spinal stenosis. Spondylolisthesis is treated either with a fusion or with a fusion and a decompression.
A laminectomy, also called spinal decompression, is an open surgical procedure. It involves removing a small portion of the lamina. The lamina is the small part of the vertebral bone over the area where the nerve is being pinched. It is removed to relieve pressure on spinal nerves. Along with bone, fragments of a ruptured disc also may be removed.
The surgeon makes an incision in the back, spreads the overlying muscles, and removes the lamina. After the bone is removed, the surgeon can see what is compressing the nerve and may remove the offending disc. The incision is closed with stitches or staples.
Spinal fusion is a procedure that joins 2 bones (vertebrae) in the spinal column together to eliminate pain caused by movement.
Most of the time when a patient has a laminectomy and disc removal, a spinal fusion is not done. If a spinal fusion is to be performed, the adjacent vertebral bones are joined together with bone collected from the patient or a bone donor bank. Additional internal devices, such as metal rods and pins, may be used to provide added stability. The actual fusing of the vertebral segments occurs as the body stimulates new bone growth between the vertebrae over the course of the healing period. This process may take 3 to 6 months or longer.
Discectomy is the removal of the protruding disc and part of the backbone. The doctor makes an incision in the back. A small part of the bone is removed to obtain access to the disc. The disc is then removed to take pressure off the nerve.
In certain cases, the doctor can perform a microdiscectomy to remove a herniated disc. A microdiscectomy is a less invasive procedure. The doctor makes a smaller incision and uses a magnifying instrument to see the disc and nerves. It is not always possible to do a microdiscectomy.
Surgery is not always the better choice. People have been able to improve with nonoperative treatment options. Talk to your doctor about risks and benefits of surgery and other treatment options.
A relatively new procedure, total disc replacement, is now available as an alternative to fusion. It is chosen when the cause of the injury is a degenerated disc.
In the procedure, an artificial disc is used to replace the damaged disc. In theory, it offers the ability to repair the damaged portion of the spine while still maintaining the mobility of the spine. However, this new procedure remains controversial. It may be appropriate for only a limited group of patients.
Patients with multiple degenerating discs or those who have had multiple failed back surgeries may not be candidates for artificial disc replacement. There is also a device to replace only the nucleus pulposus. This is the soft inner part of the disc. The role of these new technologies is not yet established and long-term outcome data are lacking.
Radiofrequency denervation treats the nerves to stop them from sending pain messages to the body. During the procedure, a needle is placed in the nerve that is connected to the damaged joint. An anesthetic is injected. Then, the needle is heated to damage the nerve so it stops sending pain signals. The procedure is done on an outpatient basis.
An intra-articular steroid injection is a steroid medication that is injected into the joint space of a vertebrae to reduce pain.
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Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 12/27/2017