Aligning the Facts of a Diskectomy

Written by Rachel Nall | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is a Diskectomy?

Your spinal column is an intricate series of bones connected by ligaments. They are cushioned with gel-like disks between each vertebra. These disks begin to wear down, move out of place, and press on your spinal nerves over time, causing pain. This is known as disk herniation.

A diskectomy is a surgical procedure that removes the damaged portion of one or more of these disks to relieve back pain.

Who Is a Candidate for the Procedure?

A herniated disk does not always have to be corrected with surgery. Your physician may initially suggest physical therapy, weight loss, exercises to reduce pain, and anti-inflammatory medications.

However, if your back becomes increasingly painful, a diskectomy procedure may be recommended. Examples of severe symptoms include:

  • leg pain or numbness that interferes with everyday tasks
  • muscle weakness, especially in the lower leg or buttocks
  • pain that begins in your back and radiates down to your buttocks and/or legs
  • loss of bladder and/or bowel function

Your physician can perform different approaches to remove the disk, depending on how severe your condition is.

Types of Surgical Approaches

Diskectomy is the general term that refers to the removal of damaged spinal disk material. Your surgeon may recommend additional corrective procedures depending on where the disk herniation is.

Microdiskectomy is a minimally invasive procedure. It involves the removal of disk material and requires just a small incision. Diskectomy is more invasive and involves a larger incision.

During microdiskectomy, your surgeon will make a small incision and insert a special camera that allows him or her to view your spine. Your surgeon will remove the diseased disk portion and put the muscles around the spine in place. Then, he or she will close the incision. This procedure type takes roughly one to two hours, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

For disk herniation that involves damage to your spinal bones, diskectomy may be combined with other approaches, such as laminectomy. This involves removing a portion of the lamina, which is a posterior arch of the vertebra. Your surgeon may recommend this approach if your vertebra is pressing on your spinal nerves or has fractured.

What Results Can I Expect?

You will typically go home the day of your diskectomy surgery. Always have someone with you to drive you home or arrange for a cab service to pick you up. Your doctor will prescribe pain-relieving medications and give instructions for any movement restrictions.

Some patients experience immediate relief from painful symptoms. However, it may take time for pain, tingling, and numbness symptoms to subside. You may not feel better immediately if your nerves were damaged prior to surgery. Despite the diskectomy, your nerves may never fully heal.

A key to recovery is to carefully follow your physician’s recommendations for avoiding reinjury. You could potentially herniate another disk if you continue to engage in activities that involve repeatedly bending or twisting the spine or extensive lifting. Diskectomy can ease your disk pain. However, it doesn’t always cure it.

Risks and Side Effects of a Diskectomy

During a diskectomy, you are placed under general anesthesia. Anesthesia renders you unconscious and keeps you free from pain during surgery. Anesthesia can sometimes cause breathing issues or reactions to the medications being used.

Other risks associated with the surgery include:

  • bleeding
  • infection
  • nerve damage
  • spinal fluid leakage
  • loss of bladder or bowel control

Thoroughly discuss these side effects and any concerns you may have with your physician. Older age, diabetes, and previous spine surgeries may put you at increased risk for side effects.

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