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What is a Discectomy?

By J. Beam
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A discectomy is the surgical removal of an injured or herniated disc from the spine. A herniated disc is a disc that has ruptured and is consequently pushed out of its normal place. The procedure is generally performed by an orthopedic surgeon in a hospital setting with the patient under general anesthesia. The purpose of a discectomy is usually to relieve pain and weakness and to help regain mobility that may have been lost as a result of the herniated disc.

Before a doctor performs a discectomy, he or she will diagnose a herniated disc through imaging tests such as medical resonance imaging (MRI). There are non-surgical treatments for a herniated disc that may be attempted before surgery, but if no improvement is noticed within four to six weeks, or if pain, weakness, or immobility is severe, the surgery is performed. Herniated discs can be caused by injury or trauma to the spine and can cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the lower back and legs. When a disc ruptures and is pushed out of place, it can become lodged against one of the many spinal nerves. The compression of these nerves subsequently causes pain, numbness, and sometimes immobility of the legs.

When imaging tests reveal that a herniated or ruptured disc can be surgically treated, the doctor schedules a discectomy. The surgery itself requires an incision through the back where the surgeon will enter. If there are any bone fragments from the vertebrae, the surgeon removes them before removing the disc. Typically, when a patient wakes from anesthesia following the procedure, he or she notices immediate relief from prior pain or numbness.

Recovery from a discectomy is fairly quick in most patients, and walking is usually resumed the same day. Within two weeks, moderate physical activity such as swimming can be resumed, but heavy lifting and rigorous physical activity is generally postponed for up to three months. Pain following surgery is usually well controlled with oral pain medication. If loss of mobility prior to surgery was severe, physical therapy may be necessary. Full recovery after a discectomy can be expected within eight to twelve weeks in most cases.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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