What is surgical decompression?

In your spine, there are bones, ligaments and cushioning discs. Nerves pass through the middle of your spine. Narrowing in your spinal canal can press on those nerves. This causes irritation and discomfort. 

Your sciatic nerve is the biggest nerve in your body. It starts in your lower spine. If you have a compressed sciatic nerve, you might feel pain, numbness, tingling and weakness in your leg. Sciatica is not a specific condition. It describes nerve pain in your lower limbs. Nerve compression is often the cause of sciatica.

Decompression surgery is a common surgical treatment for sciatica. Doctors do this on the lumbar vertebrae — large bones in your lower back. The goal is to eliminate pain that comes from the nerves having too little space in your spinal column.

There are several types of surgical decompression. Microdiscectomy is the most common type that treats sciatica. This procedure removes a part of a spine disc to relieve pressure on your nerves.

What to expect from surgical decompression

Before the surgery, you lie on your back on a table. A doctor gives you anesthesia to put you to sleep. Once you're asleep, doctors roll you onto your stomach to expose your back. They cleanse and disinfect your back in the area where they plan to perform the surgery.

Doctors cut into your skin to see your spine and find the right bones. They remove the painful disc. They also take out any other fragments that might cause irritation, including bone spurs.

Following the surgery, you stay in the hospital for several days. The doctors need to observe you. You need to limit your activities as you heal. Doctors will give you pain medication to make sure you're comfortable after the surgery. Studies have estimated that surgical decompression is effective in relieving pain in almost 90% of patients.

Common conditions requiring surgical decompression

Doctors only choose surgical decompression when non-surgical treatments don't work.

Common conditions — besides sciatica — that may need surgical decompression include:

  • Spinal tumors
  • Spinal surgery
  • Spinal arthritis
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Facet syndrome
  • Spinal subluxation
  • Bulging or slipped discs
  • Metastatic spinal cord compression

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