Several types of back surgery can help reduce back pain. Common procedures include spinal fusion, discectomy, and disk replacement. Recovery times may depend on the extent of the procedure.

Surgical nurse talking to a patient.Share on Pinterest
Getty Images/FG Trade

You may benefit from one of several types of back surgery commonly performed on people with hard-to-treat back pain. When back pain doesn’t respond to conservative treatment the next step is usually something minimally invasive, like back injections. But if nothing is helping, surgery may be the best option.

A doctor may recommend surgery if your pain is severe, makes it hard to get around, or accompanies other symptoms, like weakness in the leg.

Back surgeries can help treat conditions like:

Keep reading to learn more about the types of back surgeries, their risks, and typical recovery times.

Surgeons perform a discectomy to remove all or part of a herniated spinal disk. A herniated disk, also known as a slipped or ruptured disk, occurs when the soft center of a spinal disk leaks out of its casing or moves out of place. It can be extremely painful when this tissue presses against a nerve root.

During a discectomy, doctors may:

  • sedate you or put you under general anesthesia
  • make small openings in your back or chest to access the herniated disk
  • insert an endoscope to get a live video feed of the area
  • remove part of the herniated disk or the entire disk

A small 2019 study of discectomy outcomes in people under 45 years old with disk herniations in the lower back found that 93.4% had satisfactory outcomes.


Risks of discectomy include:

  • dural tear
  • infection
  • blood vessel and nerve injury around the spine
  • bleeding
  • spinal fluid leakage


With many surgeries that result in good outcomes, doctors discharge people the day after surgery. But some people may need to stay longer for pain management and physical rehabilitation.

Your doctor may advise you to rest and avoid activity for the first 2 weeks. You should be able to carry out light activities after 2 weeks, routine activities after 6 weeks, and strenuous activities, including contact sports, after 12 weeks.

Laminectomy involves removing a piece of your vertebrae called the lamina. This helps make more space for your spinal cord and reduces pressure on nerve roots. Your surgeon will also remove bone spurs or other disk material pressing against the nerve root.

This is the most commonly performed back surgery for people with spinal stenosis, which is when your spinal canal narrows.

During a laminectomy, doctors:

  • lay you face down on a table designed to keep pressure off your abdomen
  • sedate you or put you under general anesthesia
  • make one or more small openings in your back (the openings’ sizes will depend on whether you get an open or a minimally invasive procedure)
  • use tools designed to help remove the lamina and other affected areas

The success rate of laminectomy is about 90%, with a more than 75% satisfaction rate.


Possible risks of laminectomy include:

  • spine instability
  • dural tear
  • bleeding
  • bony regrowth


People can often resume light work and driving 2 weeks after the surgery, low impact exercise after about 4 weeks, and strenuous activity after 8–12 weeks. Talk with your surgeon about when it’s OK for you to resume activities.

Spinal fusion is a procedure in which surgeons connect two vertebrae. They use a bone graft or a metal device to fuse the bones, which allows them to remove the disk between them that’s experienced damage.

Surgeons generally use this back surgery to treat degenerative disk disorders and other spinal health concerns that make movement painful.

The rates of successful spinal fusion can vary from 65–100%, depending on factors like other existing medical conditions, the bone graft material of choice, and adequate surgical site preparation.


Spinal fusion may result in:

  • some spine flexibility loss
  • infection
  • slow or inadequate wound healing
  • bleeding
  • reactions to anesthesia


Spinal fusion surgery may take longer to heal than some other spinal surgeries. This is because it can take your body some time to adjust to the bone grafts. But your symptoms and comfort level can gradually improve over time.

This is an alternative to spinal fusion for treating disks that experience severe damage. During the procedure, your surgeon will remove the affected spinal disk and replace it with an artificial one.

The benefit of choosing disk replacement is that, unlike spinal fusion, it can help you maintain the full range of motion in your spine. It also usually has a much shorter recovery timeline.

A small 2018 research review with six studies reported a success rate that ranged from 53–87%.


The risks of disk replacement surgery include:

  • nerve or blood vessel injury
  • bleeding
  • spine stiffness or rigidity
  • artificial disk infection
  • the artificial disk dislodging
  • the disk becoming ineffective over time


Recovery from disk replacement usually doesn’t take long because bones don’t have to heal like they do during a spinal fusion. But you may need to stay in the hospital for a few days for postsurgical care. Your healthcare team may encourage you to stand and walk within the first few days and slowly begin carrying out your usual activities.

Surgeons often use a foraminotomy to relieve pain caused by a compressed nerve. This surgery involves enlarging the opening in your vertebra that your nerve root passes through. Surgeons remove bony overgrowth and other materials pressing up against a nerve root.


The risks of foraminotomy include:

  • infection
  • spinal nerve injury
  • bleeding
  • blood clots
  • reactions to medications


Recovery time for foraminotomy will vary from person to person. But you can resume light activity after about 4 weeks, moderate activity after 6 weeks, and strenuous activity after about 8 weeks.

Several factors will determine which surgery is best for you, including your:

  • age
  • symptoms
  • symptom severities
  • diagnosis
  • pain’s location
  • other underlying medical conditions
  • overall health
  • experience with the effectiveness of past treatments

Your doctor may suggest back surgery if you have health concerns involving your intervertebral disks or nerve pain. Several types of back surgery can help. Recovery times vary, depending on the extent of the procedure and whether your bones need to heal after surgery.

While generally considered low risk procedures, surgeons usually perform back surgery for people who haven’t found more conservative treatments effective for them.