The spine has a series of stacked vertebrae that run from the base of the skull to the tailbone. Between each of these vertebrae is a thin cartilage disc that has a tough outer ring (the annulus) and a jelly-like center (the nucleus). These intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers, cushioning and supporting the bones.
If a disc’s annulus weakens or cracks, the disc can become dislodged. This is known as a herniated disc – and while it often can be treated without surgery, some patients can benefit from a procedure called a discectomy. Learn more about the reasons an orthopedic spine surgeon or neurosurgeon might recommend a discectomy.
What Is A Discectomy?
A discectomy is a common surgical procedure for reducing pressure on spinal nerves caused by a slipped or herniated disc. In this procedure, a spine surgeon will remove the herniated portion of the disc that is irritating and inflaming a nerve. While a discectomy can be performed on any intervertebral disc, they are most common in the lumbar spine (lower back) and cervical spine (neck).
Understanding Disc Herniation
Aging or injury can cause an intervertebral disc to crack, tear, or slip out of place. When a disc presses against the spinal nerves, a patient might experience:
- Back or neck pain
- Numbness, tingling, or pins-and-needles sensations
- Pain that radiates into the arms or legs
- Muscle weakness in the hands or feet
Sometimes a disc herniates from an acute injury or event, such as lifting a very heavy box. Other times, it simply occurs because of degenerative disc disease, a condition caused by normal wear and tear on the spine due to aging.
When Is Surgery Recommended?
Often, slipped discs do not require surgical intervention. Rest, pain medication, and physical therapy can treat the symptoms of a slipped disc. An epidural steroid injection also can be an effective treatment for relieving inflammation around the compressed nerve.
However, sometimes non-invasive treatments do not provide symptom relief. A neurosurgeon or orthopedic spine surgeon might recommend discectomy if a patient experiences:
- Severe pain or radiculopathy that interferes with daily activities
- Significant muscle weakness
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Pain that does not respond to non-surgical therapies
- Cauda equina syndrome (CES), a serious condition caused by the compression of multiple lumbar and sacral nerve roots
The goal of discectomy surgery is to relieve pain, eliminate pressure on the nerve, and avoid long-term nerve damage.
What to Expect During a Discectomy
There are two surgical approaches to discectomy:
- Open surgery: This is the traditional approach that requires a larger incision in the back or neck.
- Microdiscectomy: This is a minimally invasive procedure that uses a smaller incision and radiographic real-time imaging to visualize the spine.
In both procedures, the neurosurgeon will make an incision, surgically remove the diseased portion of the disc, and then close up the incision with stitches or surgical staples.
Discectomy is performed under anesthesia and may take place in a hospital or outpatient surgical center. Many patients can go home the same day as the procedure but will need to take some time off from work to recover. If the patient requires another form of spinal decompression surgery at the same time, such as a laminectomy, the procedure will take longer and may require a short hospital stay.
Recovering From Discectomy Surgery
Typically, patients can go back to work in two to six weeks or earlier if they have a desk job. However, they will need to limit bending, twisting, and lifting until the spine has healed. While minimally invasive surgery results in less post-operative pain and swelling than open surgery, all patients should expect some discomfort at the incision site. Oral pain medications can help with this.
To reduce pain and help with recovery, many patients will have a series of physical therapy appointments as part of their rehabilitation plan. Working with a physical therapist, the patient will learn exercises and stretches to improve their flexibility and range of motion, as well as help prevent back pain in the future.
Find Comprehensive Spine Care in New Jersey
Patients in northern NJ and the surrounding area can find state-of-the-art surgical and non-surgical care at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO). The medical team at CNSO takes a conservative approach to care, relieving herniated disc pain with non-invasive treatment options before recommending surgery. With onsite orthopedic spine surgeons, neurosurgeons, physiatrists, pain management specialists, rehabilitation specialists, and certified physical therapists, patients at CNSO benefit from coordinated and personalized care. Serving northern NJ, CNSO has multiple convenient locations across the area, including in Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Morris, and Hudson counties. For more information about discectomy surgery or to request a consultation with a spine specialist, contact CNSO today.