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Lumbar decompression surgery

Lumbar decompression surgery is a type of spinal surgery used to treat some conditions affecting the lower back (lumbar spine) that haven't responded to other treatments.

The main aim of this type of surgery is to improve problems affecting the legs, such as persistent pain and numbness, caused by pressure on the nerves in the spine. It is not a treatment specifically for back pain, although some people do have reduced pain in their lower back after surgery.

Lumbar decompression surgery is often used to treat:

  • spinal stenosis – where a section of the spinal column becomes narrowed and places pressure on the nerves inside
  • a slipped disc and sciatica – where one of the spinal discs becomes damaged and presses down on an underlying nerve
  • spinal injuries – such as a fracture or the swelling of tissue
  • metastatic spinal cord compression – where cancer in one part of the body, such as the lungs, spreads into the spine and presses on the spinal cord or nerves

Read more about when lumbar spinal surgery is used.

What happens during lumbar decompression surgery

You will usually have at least one of the following procedures:

  • laminectomy – where a section of vertebrae (the lamina) is removed to relieve pressure on the affected nerve
  • discectomy – where a section of a damaged disc is removed to relieve pressure on a nerve
  • spinal fusion – where two or more vertebrae are joined together with a section of bone to stabilise and strengthen the spine

In many cases, a combination of these techniques may be used.

Lumbar decompression is normally carried out under general anaesthetic, which means you will be asleep during the procedure and won't feel any pain as it's carried out. The whole operation usually takes at least an hour, but may take much longer, depending on the complexity of the procedure.

Read more about how lumbar decompression surgery is performed.

Recovering from lumbar decompression surgery

You will usually be well enough to leave hospital about one to four days after surgery, depending on the complexity of the surgery and your level of mobility before the operation.

Most people are able to walk unassisted within a day of having the operation, although more strenuous activities will need to be avoided for around six weeks.

You may be able to return to work after about four to six weeks, although you may need more time off if your job involves driving for long periods or lifting heavy objects.
Read more about recovering from lumbar decompression surgery.

How effective is lumbar decompression surgery?

There is good evidence that decompression surgery can be an effective treatment for people with severe pain caused by compressed nerves. 

Up to three in every four people who have the operation experience a significant improvement in pain. Also, people who found walking difficult before surgery because of leg pain or weakness are often able to walk further and more easily after the operation.

What are the risks?

Although lumbar decompression is often successful, like all types of surgery it carries a risk of complications.

Complications associated with lumbar decompression surgery include:

  • infection at the site of the operation and, in rare cases, infection elsewhere (such as a chest infection)
  • a blood clot developing in one of your leg veins – deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which in rare cases can dislodge and travel to the lungs, causing a serious problem called a pulmonary embolism
  • damage to the spinal nerves or cord – resulting in continuing symptoms, numbness or weakness in a part of one or both legs or, in rare cases, some degree of paralysis (inability to move one or more parts of the body, or control your bowel or bladder) 

Read more about the complications of lumbar decompression surgery.

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