Understanding spinal decompression
What is it?
Lumbar decompression is a surgical treatment that aims to relieve pressure on compressed nerves in the lumbar spine.
It's only recommended when non-surgical treatments haven't helped.
The surgery aims to improve symptoms such as persistent pain and numbness in the legs caused by pressure on the nerves in the spine.
Lumbar decompression surgery is used to treat:
1. Spinal stenosis – narrowing of a section of the spinal column, which puts pressure on the nerves.
2. Slipped disc and sciatica – where a damaged spinal disc presses down on an underlying nerve.
3. Spinal injuries – such as a fracture or the swelling of tissue
4. Metastatic spinal cord compression – where cancer in one part of the body, such as the lungs, spreads into the spine and presses on the spinal cord or nerves
The anatomy of the spine
Before delving deeper into spinal decompression, it is important to understand the structure of the spine. The spine is composed of vertebrae, which are separated by intervertebral discs. These discs act as shock absorbers, providing cushioning and flexibility for the spine. When these discs become compressed or damaged, it can lead to pain and limited mobility.
Let's take a closer look at the vertebrae that make up the spine. There are 33 vertebrae in total, divided into five regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal. Each region has a specific number of vertebrae, with the cervical region having 7, thoracic 12, lumbar 5, sacral 5 (fused into one bone called the sacrum), and coccygeal 4 (fused into one bone called the coccyx).
Between each pair of vertebrae, you'll find the intervertebral discs. These discs are made up of a tough outer layer called the annulus fibrosus and a gel-like centre called the nucleus pulposus. The annulus fibrosus provides strength and stability to the disc, while the nucleus pulposus acts as a shock absorber, allowing the spine to withstand the pressures of daily activities.
When the intervertebral discs become compressed or damaged, it can lead to a condition known as disc herniation. This occurs when the gel-like centre of the disc protrudes through a tear in the outer layer, putting pressure on nearby nerves and causing pain, numbness, and weakness.
Benefits of this treatment
One of the primary benefits of spinal decompression is its ability to provide pain relief. By reducing pressure on the spinal discs and nerves, decompression therapy can alleviate symptoms associated with conditions such as herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, and spinal stenosis. Many patients report a significant reduction in pain and improved quality of life after undergoing spinal decompression.
Imagine waking up every morning with excruciating back pain, making it difficult to perform even the simplest of tasks. Tasks like getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, or even tying your shoelaces become daunting challenges. This is the reality for many individuals suffering from spinal conditions. However, with the advent of spinal decompression therapy, there is hope for a pain-free life.
In addition to pain relief, spinal decompression can also improve mobility and flexibility. By increasing the space between the vertebrae and reducing inflammation, decompression therapy can restore proper spinal alignment and enhance range of motion. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals suffering from conditions that limit movement, allowing them to regain their independence and engage in activities they once enjoyed.
What happens during lumbar decompression surgery
If lumbar decompression surgery is recommended, you'll usually have at least 1 of the following procedures:
1. Laminectomy – where a section of bone is removed from 1 of your vertebrae (spinal bones) to relieve pressure on the affected nerve
2. Discectomy – where a section of a damaged disc is removed to relieve pressure on a nerve.
3. Spinal fusion – where 2 or more vertebrae are joined together with a section of bone to stabilise and strengthen the spine.
In many cases, a combination of these techniques may be used.
Lumbar decompression is usually carried out under general anaesthetic, which means you'll be unconscious during the procedure and won't feel any pain as it's carried out. The whole operation usually takes at least an hour but may take much longer, depending on the complexity of the procedure.
Recovering from lumbar decompression surgery
You'll usually be well enough to leave the hospital about 1 to 4 days after having surgery, depending on the complexity of the surgery and your level of mobility before the operation.
Most people can walk unassisted within a day of having the operation, although more strenuous activities will need to be avoided for about 6 weeks.
You may be able to return to work after about 4 to 6 weeks, although you may need more time off if your job involves driving for long periods or lifting heavy objects.
Effectiveness of lumbar decompression surgery
There's good evidence that decompression surgery can be an effective treatment for people with severe pain caused by compressed nerves.
Many people who have the operation experience a significant improvement in pain. People who found walking difficult before surgery because of leg pain or weakness are often able to walk further and more easily after the operation.