Intervertebral discs are located between each vertebra in the spinal column. When damaged, these discs can put pressure on nerves as they leave the spinal cord. An intervertebral discectomy is a back surgery that removes all or part of these discs. The procedure is most often done on lumbar discs (located in the lower back). It may also be done on cervical discs in the neck. There are 2 methods for this surgery:
- Open—A large incision is made.
- Microdiscectomy—Small incisions are made, and the doctor inserts tiny instruments through these incisions.
Reasons for Procedure
These discs normally serve as cushions between the bones. The discs can become damaged or dry with age. Injury can also cause a disc to bulge (or herniate). These changes can create pressure on nerves leaving the spine. This can cause pain, numbness, and weakness.
The best time to have this surgery is debatable. For some, having early surgery may not result in less pain or disability. In most cases, surgery is only done after other treatments have failed. Other treatments typically include:
- Physical therapy
The goal of surgery is to eliminate pain, weakness, and numbness caused by the disc pressing on a nerve. You may feel relief right away, or it may take months for the nerve root to heal. In some cases, your symptoms may not improve. Your doctor will carefully evaluate you before surgery to determine what the best option is.
Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:
- Nerve damage
- Bladder or bowel incontinence
- Leakage of spinal fluid
- Another herniated disc (may happen within the first 3 months after surgery)
Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors that may increase your risk of complications such as:
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
Your doctor will likely do the following:
- Physical exam
- Ask about the pain and when it started
- Use imaging studies to look at the disc and structures in the area, including:
Leading up to your procedure:
- You may be asked to stop taking some medications up to 1 week before the procedure.
- Arrange to have someone drive you home. Also, arrange for someone to help you at home.
- Eat a light meal the night before the surgery. Do not eat or drink anything after midnight.
- Wear comfortable clothing to the hospital.
General anesthesia—you will be asleep during the procedure
Description of the Procedure
There are different types of surgical procedures, including:
A cut will be made in the skin on the left or right side of the neck. The doctor will go through a muscle to reach the spine. The disc material will be removed after the doctor uses an x-ray to confirm that it is the correct disc. A portion of the bone may be removed to give the nerve more space. A bone graft may be placed to fuse the vertebrae.
A cut will be made in the skin at the back of the neck. The muscles will be pushed aside. A small piece of bone will be removed to get to the disc space (laminectomy). Next, the doctor will gently push the nerve aside and remove the disc material.
The doctor will make a 1-1½ inch cut in the skin on the lower back. The muscles will be moved out of the way. A small part of the bone may need to be removed to gain access to the nerve and disc. The disc or disc fragments will then be removed.
How Long Will It Take?
It depends on the type of surgery you had or needed.
How Much Will It Hurt?
Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. Pain and discomfort after the procedure can be managed with medications.
Average Hospital Stay
This surgery is most commonly done in a hospital setting. It may be possible to go home on the same day of the surgery. If you have a cervical discectomy, you may have to stay in the hospital for a few days.
During your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection such as:
- Washing their hands
- Wearing gloves or masks
- Keeping your incisions covered
There are also steps you can take to reduce your chances of infection such as:
- Washing your hands often and reminding visitors and healthcare providers to do the same
- Reminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masks
- Not allowing others to touch your incisions
Bending, lifting, or twisting may be limited for 6 weeks.
You will work with a physical therapist to stretch and strengthen your muscles. This will help to decrease the risk of future back problems.
Call Your Doctor
It is important for you to monitor your recovery after you leave the hospital. Alert your doctor to any problems right away. If any of the following occurs, call your doctor:
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills
- Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or any discharge from the incision site
- Numbness or tingling
- Pain that you cannot control with the medication you have been given
- Pain, burning, urgency or frequency of urination, or bleeding in the urine
- Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM
- Review Date: 11/2017 -
- Update Date: 12/20/2014 -