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What is Spinal Decompression?

By: Jo Johnson - Updated: 13 Oct 2013 | comments*Discuss
Spinal Decompression Surgery Nerve

The spine is a complicated part of the anatomy and is made up of the vertebrae, discs, muscles, tendons, ligaments and of course the spinal cord. From the spinal cord stem many different nerves and nerve roots which are susceptible to damage and becoming compressed by the anatomy that surrounds them.

Certain conditions and spinal stenosis can cause the nerves to be compressed (or ‘squashed’) which causes a lot of pain for the person along with numbness and tingling of the extremities. When this occurs, pain relief may not be sufficient to relieve the discomfort and other forms of treatment may be needed including the possibility of an operation to find out what is pressing on the nerve and try and remove the substance or alleviate the pressure.

What is Spinal Decompression?

Spinal decompression is a form of surgery used to offer relief of back pain. The procedure involves the surgeon exposing the spinal column and determining where the pressure on the nerve stems from (this process is assisted by the use of x-rays and scans). When the area has been located, the pressure on the nerve is alleviated by relieving or removing whatever is pressing on the nerve.

The surgery itself is often very successful and alleviates almost all patients of some if not all of their discomfort and it is now a fairly commonly used form of treatment for this problem.

The operation involves the use of a general anaesthetic and positioning the patient on their front in such as position that allows for easy access to the particular area of spine that is affected. If bone is found to be the cause of the nerve compression (which it almost always is) the surgeon will try and remove a suitable amount of the bone that relieves the pressure on the nerve. In some instances this may mean that the spine temporarily loses some of its mass and therefore strength and stability which is treated by using either a bone graft or the use of metal rods and screws that serve to re-stabilise the spine.

Is there any Alternative?

It is likely that most patients will be offered either physiotherapy, osteopathy or both before surgery is considered as these treatments are a lot less traumatic and invasive fore the patient as well as being a lot cheaper to offer than surgery itself.

What is the Recovery Period Like?

Many patients are surprised to learn that they will be encouraged to mobilise fairly soon after surgery (providing there are no surgical or post-operative complications) and some patients are on their feet in just 24 hours. You will be visited by a physiotherapist in the days following your operation who will determine how quickly you should mobilise. You will be given advice and instructions on the best ways to slowly start walking again and these should be followed properly to avoid any unnecessary complications.

It is unlikely that you will be permitted to drive or return to work until 3 to 6 weeks have passed and you have been seen by your doctor who will have liaised with the physiotherapists regarding your recovery.

Spinal decompression surgery is a fairly common way of treating back pain caused by nerve compression when other forms of treatment have failed. In most cases it is successful with most patients being relieved of most if not all of their pain and discomfort prior to the surgery.

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I am a 61 year old man, I had a spinal fusion of the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebra in 1981 and then a decompression and fat graft to the sciatic nerve 1984. since then I have also had numerous herniated disc episodes that have had me laid up for 4 to 6 weeks at a time now at age 61 I am in constant lower back pain daily and have recently only been offered Cortisone injections for this condition, having had cortisone injections before my first surgery which only had very short time effect I am not too happy about this course of treatment, yet after the spinal decompression in 1984 I felt like a new man which lasted for many many years. Is private treatment my only option or can the NHS do this for me?
piggot - 13-Oct-13 @ 8:11 AM
Hello, i was involved in a RTA in 2004 and have sufferred back pain ever since. The back pain usually lasts fro two months; however the current back pain has been there for around six months without showing signs of easing. The doctors have diagnosed Sciatica due to the symptons. Exercise usually makes the pain worse. Does this mean that surgery is required? I have recently had an MRI scan which revealed a decompression of the spine down the lower right hand side. Thanks Paul G.
Warrior - 3-Jul-12 @ 7:23 PM
Hi, i had a spinal Decompression 2 years ago which i have had to have metals in my back, i am still in a lot of pain and discomfort, and have a burning feeling constantly in my back,A scan i had recently has shown that there is a nerve still trapped and i will need to be opperated on again, i am having another CT scan in a couple of days to see the extent of the damage, is this quite common? I am 50 years old.
Hells - 15-Jun-12 @ 4:22 PM
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