“Ow, my back!” Chances are you’ve said that at least once in your life—and probably more than once. Low back pain alone affects approximately 80 percent of adults at some point, and, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), is “the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed workdays.” Sometimes, that low back pain requires surgery for a herniated disc.
If it turns out you need to go under the knife to fix a herniated disc, you might be worried about the procedure and/or the recovery. But, as the saying goes, knowledge is power. Knowing what to expect with surgery for a herniated disc can set your mind at ease and help you to be as prepared as possible.
You probably started Googling your symptoms as soon as the pain hit, but the only way to truly know if you have a herniated disc is to see a doctor. At your visit, you can expect to have a physical exam that will likely include X-rays and maybe a CT scan and/or MRI and to provide your health history. Once you have a diagnosis, you can move forward with the appropriate treatment.
More conservative treatments like rest, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy are usually used first and have proven successful in alleviating the pain of herniated disc for most patients. For the smaller percentage of people who do not achieve relief with these conservative treatments, it’s probably time for surgery for a herniated disc.
Discectomy—During this surgery for a herniated disc, a portion of the problem disc is removed. Microdiscectomy is an outpatient, minimally invasive procedure done through a small incision. Patients generally walk out within an hour after the short procedure. This can also be done as an open procedure for those who are not candidates for microdiscectomy.
“This procedure leaves 90% of the disc intact,” said DISC Spine Institute, a leader in minimally invasive surgical procedures. “It only removes the piece of the disc that is applying pressure to the nerve and which is causing the symptoms. The procedure has minimal blood loss, is outpatient, and has a suture-less tiny incision.”
Laminectomy—This surgery for a herniated disc involves the removal of some of the lamina, which is the part of the vertebrae that covers the spinal canal. This is one of the “most common back surgeries,” according to WebMD, and can often be done by a minimally invasive laminectomy with a shorter procedure time and recovery than traditional open surgery.
Knowing What to expect with surgery also means knowing what to expect from recovery. Recovery from surgery for a herniated disc varies depending on which procedure you had and your individual circumstances, however, you can expect a faster, easier recovery with fewer potential complications with a minimally invasive procedure.
While a traditional open procedure to correct a herniated disc may sometimes be necessary and is considered relatively easy to tolerate, “There is greater potential for muscle injury, and patients may have pain after surgery that is different from the back pain felt before surgery,” said the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). “This can lead to a lengthier recovery period. The larger incision and damage to soft tissues may also increase both blood loss and the risk for infection.”
This is because, during open surgery, muscles have to be retracted, which can cause damage. Minimally invasive surgery is designed to preserve the muscles and surroundings. “As opposed to open spine surgery, minimally invasive surgical approaches can be faster, safer, and require less recovery time,” said the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS). “Because of the reduced trauma to the muscles and soft tissues (compared to open procedures),” there are several potential benefits, including:
- Better cosmetic results from smaller skin incisions (sometimes as small as several millimeters)
- Less blood loss from surgery
- Reduced risk of muscle damage, since less or no cutting of the muscle, is required
- Reduced risk of infection and postoperative pain
- Faster recovery from surgery and less rehabilitation required
- Diminished reliance on pain medications after surgery
- Less risk for an adverse reaction to general anesthesia.
What Can I Expect During Recovery?
Recovery from herniated disk surgery typically results in a vast improvement “in symptoms like pain, weakness, and numbness within a few weeks after surgery,” said WebMD. Physical therapy often aids in recovery, but patients are cautioned to take it slow when it comes to bending and stretching, heavy lifting, and prolonged sitting.
“After a minor (decompressive) laminectomy, you are usually able to return to light activity (desk work and light housekeeping) within a few days to a few weeks. Your doctor may not advise a return to full activities involving lifting and bending for two to three months. You should start light walking for exercise and physical therapy exercises as soon as your doctor says you’re ready. This will help speed your recovery.”
The recovery time for Microdiscectomy “is shorter than other, more invasive procedures,” said Healthline. “Most people can expect to leave the hospital that same day, or within 24 hours.”
During the recovery period from surgery for a herniated disc, you’ll likely be getting physical therapy, where specific exercises will help you to build strength and improve your flexibility. Bending, lifting, and twisting will be limited while you improve.
“You should avoid driving, sitting for a prolonged period, lifting anything heavy, and bending over immediately after the surgery,” they said. “Although you won’t be able to resume normal activities immediately, your lifestyle shouldn’t be greatly impacted. For the first week or two, you may need to reduce your workload or be absent from work while you recover. You’ll also need to avoid lifting heavy objects for two to four weeks after the surgery. You may also need to slowly progress your way back to normal physical activity. For example, you may not be able to resume exercise or physical hobbies for two to four weeks after the procedure. The typical time to a full recovery is about six weeks.”
When it’s time to put an end to your pain and explore surgery for a herniated disc, visit DISC Spine Institute, experts in minimally invasive treatments, the most effective medical procedures to treat and eliminate chronic back pain today. Minimally invasive surgical techniques mean treating chronic back pain is easier than ever, with outpatient treatments, small incisions, and a quicker recovery time instead of a long hospital stay.