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Back Pain

Surgery For Back Pain

Last modified: 
20/03/2012 - 09:58

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Surgery is an absolute last resort for the treatment of back pain (unless it is required for a surgical emergency).

Your physician may suggest that you consider surgery if you continue to experience considerable pain despite nonsurgical treatment and if the cause of your back pain is due to something that can be surgically corrected.

  • Surgery is an option in the case of a proven herniated disc that is causing the pain. Treating a herniated disc involves decompressing the nerve in the back that is causing the pain.
  • Traumatic conditions such as fractures of the spine and dislocations may require surgery.
  • Painful spondylolisthesis where one vertebra slips forward on the one beneath it, may also be a reason for surgery.
  • Neurologic deficits caused by nerve compression or instability may require surgery.

Nice To Know:

Fewer than 1 in 100 people ever require surgery for back pain. The determining factor should be whether the pain is significantly affecting a person's day-to-day living and enjoyment of life, and whether if left alone, the condition can deteriorate to become more serious.

Most experts agree that in the past, too much surgery was done for back problems, and many people were not helped by it. Some were made worse. The key, physicians now realize, is the proper selection of the individuals who would benefit most from surgery.

Types of back surgery include:

Surgery For Disc Problems

To determine who would benefit from back surgery to decompress a nerve due to pressure from a herniated disc, the following criteria are usually accepted by most physicians. The individual must:

  • Have a disc pressing on a nerve root, as shown by an MRI or CT scan
  • Have consistent pain despite conservative treatments, including a prescribed exercise program
  • Have severe pain radiating into the buttock or leg, (sciatica ) that does not decrease with conservative treatment such as physical therapy and medication, after 4 to 6 weeks of conservative treatment
  • Have neurological warning signs, like loss of an ankle reflex or the loss of urinary control (which is a surgical emergency)

There are several options for relieving pressure on a compressed nerve root:

  • Discectomy. Discectomy is one of the most common back operations. It involves removing the protruding disc, either a portion of it or all of it, that is placing pressure on the nerve root. This operation has a very high rate of success. In the classic discectomy, the surgeon makes a small incision over the disc to be operated upon, and removes only the disc material that is pressing on a nerve.
  • Microdiscectomy. Microdiscectomy is similar to discectomy except that it is done with the use of magnification such as an operating microscope and requires a smaller incision. The surgeon removes the disc, freeing the compressed nerve. Microdiscectomy often requires shorter hospital stays.
  • Percutaneous disc removal. This procedure involves removing the problem disc fragment through an endoscope - a small tube inserted through a tiny opening in the skin of the back. A miniature video camera is attached to the tube. Using specially designed surgical instruments on the end of the tube, a surgeon can cut away parts of the disc and remove them by suction through the tube. This leaves structures important to stability practically unaffected.

    This procedure is performed on an outpatient basis (without an overnight hospital stay), and recovery is generally faster and less painful. It is less expensive and does not require general anesthesia.

    However, the procedure does have drawbacks. Because the nerve root and the area outside the disc space cannot be fully visualized by the surgeon, loose disc fragments may be missed. The surgeon cannot be certain that the fragments that are removed were actually what was causing the problem.

  • Laser disc decompression. Laser disc decompression involves an approach similar to percutaneous disc removal. However, laser energy is used to remove the disc tissue. The laser energy is introduced through a needle to destroy a small amount of nucleus pulpous, thereby reducing the pressure on the nerve.

    Laser disc decompression is a relatively noninvasive procedure that takes place in an outpatient setting, and it is performed under local anesthesia with a short treatment time of approximately 30 minutes. However, results using this technique at this stage have not been impressive.

  • ChemonucleolysisChemonucleolysis is an alternative to surgical removal of the disc. Chymopapain, which is prepared from the papaya plant, is injected into the disc space to reduce the size of herniated discs. The resulting decrease in the size of the disc releases pressure on the nerve root. The injected disc tends to redevelop itself with normal tissue. Because of serious side effects, this procedure is not as common as it was once was in the U.S., but some physicians still do perform it.

Surgery To Stabilize The Spine

Spinal fusion is a process in which two vertebrae are goined together. Bone grafts are placed between or alongside the vertebrae, to join the bones together. Metal plates and screws are often used to attach the bones to be joined as an internal brace.

Fusion occurs when the adjacent bones growing together to form a single bone. A single level may be fused, (for example, the vertebrae across one disc space) or multiple levels, depending on the condition.

This approach can return normal alignment and strength between the vertebrae in individuals whose intervertebral structures are unstable because of a fracture or other condition such as spondylolisthesis.

A new fusion technique employs a small hollow metal cage that is packed with bone graft and placed in the disc space.

Surgery To Create More Space In The Spine

Laminectomy is a surgical procedure that involves removing the laminae parts of the vertebrae. These are the areas of bone in the back of the vertebrae.

When the lamina is removed, more space is created in the spinal canal. This decompresses (that is, takes the pressure off) the nerves or spinal cord. This procedure is especially helpful for people with spinal stenosis, in which the narrowed spinal canal lacks adequate space for the spinal cord or nerves, causing pain in the back and buttocks and weakness in the legs.

Laminotomy refers simply to the creation of a small window in the lamina, rather than removing the lamina, in order for the surgeon to reach the disc or spinal canal. This is commonly done when performing a discectomy (removing a disc).

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.