What is cervical discectomy?

Cervical Discectomy
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Cervical discectomy: Overview

A cervical discectomy is surgery to take out damaged tissue from the discs in the neck area of the spine. You might also have bone growths (spurs) pressing on the nerves. The surgery takes pressure off the nerves.

The doctor will take out tissue through a small cut in your neck. This cut is called an incision. It may be on the front of your neck, or it may be along your spine on the back of your neck. If the incision is at the front of your neck, your doctor will put in a small piece of bone between the vertebrae. Small plates and screws may be used to keep the bones in place. This is called fusion. If the incision is at the back of your neck, the extra piece of bone often isn't needed.

You might go home the same day you have surgery. Or you might have a short hospital stay. It usually takes a couple of weeks before you can get back to doing simple activities like light housework, office work, or longer walks. It may take a few months or longer before you can go back to a job that requires heavy labor or back to contact sports or activities where you could fall.

How can you care for yourself after a cervical discectomy?


  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover.
  • Try to walk each day. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation. Walking may also decrease your muscle soreness after surgery.
  • Avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, a vacuum cleaner, or a child.
  • Avoid strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding, jogging, weightlifting, or aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it is okay.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again.
  • Avoid taking long car trips for 2 to 4 weeks after surgery. Your neck may become tired and painful from sitting too long in one position.
  • Your time off from work depends on how quickly you feel better and on the type of work you do. If you work in an office, you likely can go back to work sooner than if you have a job where you are very active. Talk with your doctor about your work needs.
  • You may have sex as soon as you feel able, but avoid positions that put stress on your neck or cause pain.


  • You can eat your normal diet. If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (unless your doctor tells you not to).
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fiber supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.


  • Be safe with medicines. Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.

Incision care

  • If you have strips of tape on the cut (incision) the doctor made, leave the tape on for a week or until it falls off.
  • Wash the area daily with warm, soapy water, and pat it dry. Don't use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, which can slow healing. You may cover the area with a gauze bandage if it weeps or rubs against clothing. Change the dressing every day.
  • Keep the area clean and dry.


  • Do exercises as instructed by your doctor or physical therapist to improve your strength and flexibility.

Other instructions

  • Follow your doctor's instructions if you are told to wear a brace or collar to support your neck.
  • To reduce stiffness and help sore muscles, use a warm water bottle, a heating pad set on low, or a warm cloth on your neck. Do not put heat right over the incision. Do not go to sleep with a heating pad on your skin.

How do you prepare for a cervical discectomy?

Surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for surgery.

Preparing for surgery

  • You may need to shower or bathe with a special soap the night before and the morning of your surgery. The soap contains chlorhexidine. It reduces the amount of bacteria on your skin that could cause an infection after surgery.
  • Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.
  • Understand exactly what surgery is planned, along with the risks, benefits, and other options.
  • If you take a medicine that prevents blood clots, your doctor may tell you to stop taking it before your surgery. Or your doctor may tell you to keep taking it. (These medicines include aspirin and other blood thinners.) Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Tell your doctor ALL the medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies you take. Some may increase the risk of problems during your surgery. Your doctor will tell you if you should stop taking any of them before the surgery and how soon to do it.
  • Make sure your doctor and the hospital have a copy of your advance directive. If you don’t have one, you may want to prepare one. It lets others know your health care wishes. It’s a good thing to have before any type of surgery or procedure.

After cervical discectomy: Overview

The cervical discectomy took out damaged tissue from the discs in the neck area of your spine. The surgery took pressure off your nerves.

You can expect your neck to feel stiff or sore. This should improve in the weeks after surgery. You may have trouble sitting or standing in one position for very long. It usually takes a couple of weeks before you can get back to doing simple activities like light housework, office work, or longer walks. It may take a few months or longer before you can go back to a job that requires heavy labor or back to contact sports or activities where you could fall. How long it takes may depend on what kind of surgery you had and the type of work you do.

Your doctor may advise you to work with a physical therapist to strengthen the muscles around your neck and back.

What happens on the day of your cervical discectomy?

  • Follow the instructions exactly about when to stop eating and drinking. If you don't, your surgery may be canceled. If your doctor has told you to take your medicines on the day of surgery, take them with only a sip of water.
  • Take a bath or shower before you come in for your surgery. Do not apply lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or nail polish.
  • Do not shave the surgical site yourself.
  • Take off all jewelry and piercings. And take out contact lenses, if you wear them.

At the hospital or surgery center

  • Bring a picture ID.
  • The area for surgery is often marked to make sure there are no errors.
  • You will be kept comfortable and safe by your anesthesia provider. You will be asleep during the surgery.
  • The surgery usually takes about 1 to 1½ hours. If you have a spinal fusion at the same time, the surgery will take a little longer.

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