When pressure is placed on nerve roots around the backbone, some form of spinal decompression may be recommended. This is especially true if non-surgical attempts at relief, such as the use of anti-inflammatory medications and various forms of physical therapy, aren’t effective. Decompression can be in the form of surgery or a therapeutic form of decompression that involves the use of a traction table. Regardless of how it’s performed, the goal with any of form of spinal decompression is to ease nerve irritation or spinal cord pressure.
Spinal Decompression Therapy
Involving a gentle stretching of the spine, the therapeutic form of spinal decompression requires patients to lay on a specially designed traction table; it moves on the bottom and the top part remains steady. The patient is firmly secured to the table as manipulations are performed to relieve nerve compression.
This non-surgical approach to decompression is often used to ease nerve-related lower back or neck pain. It uses a similar approach to spinal manipulation used by chiropractors to perform adjustments. Non-surgical spinal decompression may ease discomfort related to:
- Bulging or herniated discs
- Age-related wear affecting joints or discs
- Pain from a slipped disc (spondylolisthesis)
Surgical Spinal Decompression
Laminectomies and microdiscectomies are among the most common surgical versions of spinal decompression performed. The purpose of such procedures is to relieve pressure that’s either directly on nerve roots or on the spinal cord itself. It may be performed when back, neck, or radiating nerve pain is related to:
- Bulging or collapsed discs
- Bony growths within the spinal canal
- Irritation from nerve openings
- Thickened joints
- Fragments of bone or loosened ligaments
With a discectomy, a portion of the damaged disc is removed to relieve nerve root pressure. In some cases, the entire disc may be removed. Fusion surgery may be performed at the same time if the spine becomes unstable after disc material is removed.
The bony covering or arch (lamina) within the spinal canal may need to be removed to allow more space for nerve roots. The specific procedure performed will depend on whether or not the entire lamina needs to removed (laminectomy) to relieve pressure or only a portion of the lamina (laminotomy) needs to be removed.
Both variations of this procedure will relieve spinal pressure related to decompressed spinal nerves. The nerve irritation is usually due to disc material, bone fragments or growths, or abnormal spinal development. With a foraminectomy, a larger amount of tissue and/or bone is often removed.
Bony growths (osteophytes) sometimes develop on vertebra or other parts of the spine. If these bone spurs are compressing nerves, they will need to be removed.
If the vertebral body itself is placing pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots, this procedure may be recommended. It may be done when a discectomy is performed to remove part of a damaged disc.
Minimally Invasive Spinal Decompression
Many forms of surgical spinal decompression can be performed with minimally invasive methods and techniques. Such methods involve less trauma to nearby muscles and reduce risks normally associated with any type of spine surgery.
Spinal Decompression Recovery
The length of the stay in the hospital after spinal decompression surgery will depend on the specific type of decompression surgery that’s performed. Medication will be prescribed to manage post-surgery pain. As healing continues, patients are often encouraged to actively participate in physical therapy.
When to Consider Spinal Decompression Surgery
Surgical decompression may be recommended when other treatments aren’t effective or when symptoms are persistent, severe, and becoming progressively worse. Compression on nerves and/or the spinal cord may result in local or radiating pain, numbness and tingling, or general muscle weakness. Decompression surgery will not prevent new pain from developing later as age-related degeneration continues. Success rates for spinal decompression are as high as 90 percent, according to some estimates.
If it comes down to a choice between the two forms of spinal decompression, the therapeutic version is likely to be recommended before surgery is suggested. But if the non-surgical approach to decompression isn’t providing lasting relief, surgical decompression can be an effective way to achieve the same goal. Since many of the techniques involved are minimally invasive, recovery is often faster than what’s experienced with traditional decompression. It may take a few months for some nerve roots to fully heal after pressure is relieved.