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What is Lumbar Decompression?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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There are two main types of lumbar decompression: surgical lumbar decompression, and non-surgical lumbar decompression. The surgical variety involves removing discs, ligament, or bones to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord or the spinal nerves in the lumbar region of the spine. Non-surgical treatments also exist, however, which seek to alleviate the pressure through machine use, or the use of drugs, rather than through invasive surgeries.

Surgical lumbar decompression remains the most common treatment for severe back problems, although its success rate does vary. Spinal stenosis is one condition which lumbar decompression is often used for, and occurs when the spinal canal itself actually narrows and so the spinal nerves and spinal cord are pressed on. Most often spinal stenosis occurs as a natural part of the aging process, but it may be brought about by trauma such as a disc herniation, or by chronic issues like a tumor or osteoporosis.

Spinal stenosis causes severe lower-back pain, and can affect the functioning of the body, as well. Many people experiencing spinal stenosis in the lumbar find their legs and feet going numb randomly, sometimes for extended periods of time or permanently. Others find a loss of control of both the bowels and the bladder, generally starting out gradually and increasing over time as the situation degenerates.

In some cases, spinal stenosis can be adequately treated by anti-inflammatory drugs. Although this will not reverse the condition itself, especially if it is a result of aging and a naturally narrowing spinal canal, it can lessen the effects of the condition. In some cases anti-inflammatory drugs may be sufficient to completely alleviate symptoms for the duration of a patient’s life, in which case no further treatment may be needed. In other cases, however, surgical lumbar decompression may be needed to give the spinal canal some more room to fix the condition entirely.

There are two main types of surgical lumbar decompression undertaken in the modern age: microdisectomy and laminectomy. Both methods involve sophisticated surgical procedures, and can generally be done with a minimum of post-operative discomfort, and with a relatively-high success rate. If a nerve root does not appear to be entirely decompressed, minor spinal fusion may also be indicated to alleviate the condition.

After undertaking lumber decompression surgery, soreness and pain will normally last for a fair amount of time. Usually oral pain medication is prescribed to help manage this pain, as it is to be expected. Activity needs to be fairly limited for some time after surgery, and certain movements, such as twisting the spine or lifting excessive weight, should be avoided for a long time after surgery. In most cases things like driving and walking regularly can be undertaken within a few weeks of surgery, after visiting a doctor for a check-up.

There also exist a number of non-surgical lumbar decompression systems, which may help some people with back problems. These systems are generally cost-prohibitive for personal use, but many physical therapists specialize in back care and have systems on hand for regular use. Although non-surgical lumbar decompression does not work in all cases, for those it does work for it is a much less invasive, potentially longer-lasting cure.

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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