What Is A Discectomy?

  • Chandana Raccha MSc Pharmacology and Drug Discovery (2024)
  • Regina LopesSenior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

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Overview

Back problems are very painful, your inability to move and go about your daily routine becomes difficult. This can have a serious effect on your mental and emotional well-being.

A common cause of back pain is an injury such as a pulled muscle However, some medical conditions such as a slipped disc can cause excruciating pain and will need to be treated. If you have a slipped disc (also known as a herniated disc) that is causing symptoms such as weakness, pain, or tingling in your lower back, legs and arm, discectomy surgery may help. This article will explain about discectomy surgery and how to prepare for it. 

What is a discectomy?

Discectomy is a surgical procedure designed to alleviate symptoms caused by a herniated disc in your lower back or neck. The procedure involves removing a section of the damaged disc that is pressing on your nerves. Depending on your condition a section or all of the disc may be surgically removed.2

Understanding your spine

Your spine is made up of bones which are stacked up on top of one another, this is called the vertebrae. These bones form the spinal column. The spinal discs are soft, gel-like cushions found between the vertebrae. The spinal discs help the spine move, bend, and absorb shocks whilst you are walking, running, or jumping. They allow your spine to be flexible.

Image of the spinal column. Image created by Samrah Ahmed in Biorender

The spine is sectioned into 5 different regions, these are:

  • Cervical: The 7 vertebrae in the neck that support the head
  • Thoracic: The 12 vertebrae in the chest that support the ribs
  • Lumbar: The 5 vertebrae in the lower back that hold most of the body weight
  • Sacrum: The 5 fused vertebrae that are found behind your pelvis
  • Coccyx: The 4 fused vertebrae which form the tailbone of your spine

Types of discectomies

There are different types of discectomy procedures, each varies according to the location within the spine. These include:

  • Open/Standard discectomy (SD): This is where the surgeon makes a large incision (cut) on your back, moving your back muscles to one side to gain a better view of the area, allowing them to operate on the herniated disc. This type of surgery does not involve any instruments such as a microscope or an endoscope4
  • Minimal-invasive surgery (MIS) discectomy: This is where the surgeon will make a small incision on your back, using larger tubes called dilators. These will tunnel through your muscles rather than moving them to one side. The surgeon will use a special instrument such as an endoscope, which will allow them to see and operate in a smaller space
  • Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF): This surgery involves your neck (cervical spine). The surgeon will make an incision at the front of your neck, removing the damaged disc, and will then perform a spinal fusion. This is where the surgeon replaces the removed disc by placing bone grafts and/ or implants to provide stability and strength to your neck

Depending on your condition, your surgeon will perform the necessary procedure, which may involve removing one or more discs.

Who could benefit from a discectomy?

Discectomy is typically recommended for individuals who have a herniated disc and are experiencing persistent pain and other symptoms that are not improving. Some of the common symptoms that may indicate discectomy surgery are as follows:4

  • Radiating pain in the lower back to the legs
  • Numbness or tingling in the leg or arm that isn’t getting better, making it difficult for you to do everyday tasks
  • Muscle weakness and pain that spreads to the back, buttocks, legs, or feet

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be worth speaking to your doctor to determine if discectomy is the right option for you.

Preparing for discectomy

Before your surgery, it is important to have a detailed discussion with your doctor or surgeon about what to expect. Your doctor will discuss the potential risks and benefits as well as answer any questions you may have. 

Prior to surgery, you will undergo preoperative tests such as imaging scans (like MRI or CT scans), physical examinations, and blood tests.4 These tests will allow your doctor to assess your physical health and plan your surgery effectively.4

Discectomy surgery: what to expect

The choice of surgery and procedure will depend on your condition and your surgeon's recommendation. A basic overview of what the surgery involves includes:4

  • Anaesthesia administration - this will provide you with pain relief during surgery
  • Creating an incision - your surgeon will make a cut to access the affected disc in your spine. The location and size of the incision will depend on your condition
  • Disc treatment - your surgeon will remove or repair the damaged part of the disc that is causing nerve pressure or pain
  • Stitching - your surgeon will close the incision they have made with stitches or staples and will clean the area

Post-operative recovery

Once you have had your surgery, it is important to follow the guidelines given by your doctor. These guidelines may include your limitations on movement, advice on physical therapy to aid with recovery, and how to take your prescribed medication.5

Your recovery time will vary depending on the type of surgery you have had and your physical health prior to your procedure. It can take up to several weeks to a few months for you to fully recover and resume your normal activities.5

Risks and complications

As with any surgery, there are potential risks you should be aware of. It is important to know that your doctor has assessed the benefits and risks associated with the operation you are about to undergo.

Risks associated with discectomy include infection, bleeding, nerve damage, spinal fluid leaks and rare cases of recurrent disc herniation.5 To minimise these risks, it is crucial to follow post-operative instructions provided by your doctor, avoid strenuous activities until advised, and by keeping the surgical site dry and clean.

For more information about the risks please speak to your doctor if you have any questions.

FAQs

Is discectomy a major surgery?

Spine-related procedures often involve minimally invasive techniques. This is one of the reasons discectomy is not considered a “major” surgery. However, any spine-related procedure should be taken seriously, especially when it comes to recovery.3

Can I have a normal life after a discectomy?

Discectomy surgery recovery is relatively quick, with a high success rate. Usually, the first signs of healing appear within the first 2-4 weeks after the procedure, and after 12 weeks, you should be able to return to everyday life.1,2

How long is the recovery after a discectomy?

Driving and light activities can be resumed after about 2 weeks. Routine activities, such as work, school, and/or hobbies may be resumed within 6 weeks. Strenuous labour or contact sports may be recommenced after 12 weeks or longer.4 This all depends on the rate of your recovery and your doctor’s guidance.

How long is the procedure and how soon will I recover?

The operation usually takes between 1 and 2 hours.5 Whether you can go home on the same day depends on your doctor's recommendation and your physical strength prior to your operation.5 For a successful recovery, it is important to follow the post-operative guidelines provided by your doctor. 

Summary

Discectomy is a surgical solution that is designed to help alleviate your pain and restore your movement, especially for those who have herniated or damaged discs in their spine. This procedure can dramatically improve your quality of life allowing you to enjoy your daily activities again. Always consult with a doctor to explore whether discectomy is the right option for your specific condition and to address any concerns or questions before proceeding with the surgery.

References

  1. Discectomy - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/discectomy. 
  2. Sørlie, Andreas, et al. ‘Open Discectomy vs Microdiscectomy for Lumbar Disc Herniation - a Protocol for a Pragmatic Comparative Effectiveness Study’. F1000Research, vol. 5, 2016, p. 2170. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5089132/
  3. Lau, Darryl, et al. ‘Minimally Invasive Compared to Open Microdiscectomy for Lumbar Disc Herniation’. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, vol. 18,(1), 2011, pp. 81–84. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0967586810004297
  4. Schmid, Annina B., et al. ‘Early Surgery for Sciatica’. BMJ, Apr. 2023, p. P791. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10113959/
  5. Bono, Christopher M., et al. ‘The Effect of Short (2-Weeks) versus Long (6-Weeks) Post-Operative Restrictions Following Lumbar Discectomy: A Prospective Randomized Control Trial’. European Spine Journal, vol. 26,(3) 2017, pp. 905–912. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27807771/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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