A diskectomy (discectomy) is a surgery to remove part or all of a disk in your spine. It’s for herniated disks that don’t respond to nonsurgical treatment. There are a few types of diskectomies, including open surgery and minimally invasive surgeries.
A diskectomy (sometimes spelled “discectomy”) is a surgery to remove part or all of an intervertebral disk in your spine. Intervertebral disks are the flat, round cushions that sit between the vertebrae (bones) in your spine and act as your spine’s shock absorbers.
Each disk has a soft, gel-like center (the nucleus pulposus) surrounded by a flexible outer ring (the annulus). Intervertebral disks are under constant pressure. A disk can tear, allowing some of the nucleus’ gel substance to leak out. This is a herniated disk (also called bulging, slipped or ruptured disk), and it’s the main reason people get a diskectomy.
Herniated disks most commonly affect your lower back (lumbar spine), but they can affect your neck (cervical spine) as well. It’s rare to have a herniated disk in your middle back (thoracic spine). Lumbar diskectomies are more common than cervical diskectomies.
There are different types of diskectomies depending on the surgical approach and location:
Depending on your situation, your surgeon may remove part or all of the damaged disk. In addition, they may remove one disk (single-level) or more (multi-level).
A herniated disk is the main reason people get a diskectomy. But not everyone with a herniated disk needs the surgery. Most people with this condition — about 60% to 90% — recover well from nonsurgical treatment, like NSAIDs, epidural steroid injections and physical therapy.
But for some people, the pain and other symptoms of a herniated disk don’t get better. Your healthcare provider may recommend a diskectomy if you have a herniated disk and:
If you have cauda equina syndrome (sudden weakness or numbness and bladder and bowel control issues), you’ll need surgery right away.
Yes, a diskectomy can be a major surgery. But there are a few minimally invasive surgical approaches that are less major than an open diskectomy in terms of the days you spend in a hospital recovering. However, due to the delicate nature of your spine and spinal cord, you have to strictly follow your recovery instructions with any type of diskectomy to make sure your spine heals well.
You'll meet with your surgeon before your diskectomy. You can expect your surgeon to:
Let your healthcare provider know if you use tobacco products. Nicotine within tobacco products can interfere with your healing. Your provider may ask that you quit using these products at least four weeks before your surgery.
Your surgeon will also explain any risks or side effects and give you information about how you can prepare. If you have any questions or concerns, make sure you ask your surgeon before the date of your surgery.
The steps of a diskectomy vary depending on the type of surgical approach. Your surgeon will go over the steps of the process in detail before the surgery. In general, you can expect:
An anesthesiologist will give you anesthesia. Depending on what your surgeon decides is best for your situation, you may get general anesthesia where you’ll be asleep for the entire procedure or a local anesthetic where you’re awake but won’t feel any pain.
For an open diskectomy, your surgeon will make a 1- to 2-inch skin incision in the middle of your back over the affected disk. They’ll move your overlying muscles to one side to directly access your spine.
For a minimally invasive lumbar diskectomy, your surgeon will use a fluoroscopy (a special X-ray) to pass a thin needle through your skin to locate the affected vertebra and disk. They’ll then make a small incision (less than 1 inch) near the midline of your back.
Your surgeon will use special tools to remove all or part of the herniated disk. If you’re getting an anterior cervical diskectomy and fusion, they’ll also do the spinal fusion.
After your surgeon removes the disk, they’ll attach the muscle and skin back together with stitches, staples or medical skin glue.
A diskectomy typically takes one to two hours. The length of time may vary depending on the type of surgery. Your surgeon will let you know what to expect.
After a diskectomy, your care team will carefully monitor your vital signs until your anesthetic wears off. You’ll likely receive medications to manage pain or discomfort.
A minimally invasive (endoscopic) diskectomy is typically an outpatient procedure. This means you’ll be able to go home on the same day as your surgery. You’ll need to ask someone to drive you home from the hospital. You may need to stay in the hospital for a day or two if you have an open surgery.
You’ll also get instructions from your surgeon on how to take care of yourself. These will explain:
You may find it uncomfortable to stay in one position for a long time, especially sitting or standing. Your surgeon might recommend physical therapy to improve and strengthen your muscles and range of motion.
Lumbar discectomies have a success rate between 60% and 90%. Several factors contribute to the likelihood that your surgery will be successful. Your surgeon will be able to give you insight into what to expect.
Risks or complications are rare for a diskectomy but may include:
Other issues include:
The recovery time for a diskectomy varies from one to four weeks depending on:
You may feel pain at the incision site for a few days. And it can take time for the pain you felt before surgery to improve.
Most surgeons advise limiting significant bending, lifting and twisting motions for three to six weeks after surgery. Doing these motions too soon could increase your risk of experiencing another disk herniation.
In general, surgeons recommend that you can:
Your specific care instructions may be different. Be sure to follow your surgeon’s guidelines.
Back pain and other symptoms due to a herniated disk can affect your quality of life. When other therapies don’t help, a diskectomy may be an option. Undergoing a surgery like a diskectomy can be scary. But know that your surgeon and care team are available to answer any questions you might have to make you feel more comfortable.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/30/2023.
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