Discectomy is surgery to remove all or part of a cushion that helps protects the spine. These cushions, called discs, separate the bones in the spine (vertebrae). When one of these discs moves out of place (herniates, bulges, or slips), it may place pressure on the spinal cord and nerves that are coming out of spine, causing pain, numbness, and weakness.

A discectomy is most often performed on the lower back (lumbar), however, it may also be done on the upper back (thoracic) and neck (cervical).

Understanding the procedure

There are two methods for this surgery an “open” approach and microdiscectomy. It may be done in the hospital, requiring an overnight stay, or on an outpatient basis without a hospital stay.

In the open method, an incision over the herniated disc and the back muscles are carefully moved away from the spine as much as possible. Small amounts of bone and ligaments may be removed (laminectomy) to gain access to the affected area. Then the herniated portion of the disc and any pieces that have broken loose are removed. Ideally, just the part of the disc that is causing the problem is taken out, thus relieving the pressure but leaving most of the cushion intact.

Microdiscectomy is similar to an open discectomy, except the surgeon makes a smaller incision over the herniated disc and uses a surgical microscope or magnifying lens to move the back muscles away from the spine, see the affected area, and remove the injured disk. This procedure typically involves a shorter hospital stay, less pain, and a smaller scar when compared to the open method.

Indications for the procedure

Discectomy is not necessary for everyone who has a bulging or herniated disc. It is usually recommended when more conservative treatment, such as medication or physical therapy, has failed to relieve the symptoms, such pain, weakness, and numbness in the legs or buttocks that limit activities.