What is lumbar laminectomy?

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Lumbar laminectomy: Overview

A lumbar laminectomy is surgery to ease pressure on the spinal cord and/or nerves of the lower spine. This is also called decompression surgery. The doctor makes a cut in the lower back. This cut is called an incision. Then the doctor takes out pieces of bone that are squeezing the spinal cord and nerves. The doctor may also take out other tissues.

Many people have less pain soon after surgery. But your back may feel stiff and sore for a few months.

Depending on the type of surgery you have, and your health, you may go home the same day. Or you may stay in the hospital for 1 or 2 days. You will likely return to work in 2 to 4 weeks. But if your job requires physical labor, it may take 4 to 8 weeks.

How can you care for yourself after lumbar laminectomy?

Activity

  • 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.
  • If advised by your doctor, you may need to avoid lifting anything that would cause excessive strain on your back. This may include a child, heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, or a vacuum cleaner.
  • Avoid strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding, jogging, weight lifting, or aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it is okay.
  • Do not drive for 2 to 4 weeks after your surgery or until your doctor says it is okay.
  • Avoid riding in a car for more than 30 minutes at a time for 2 to 4 weeks after surgery. If you must ride in a car for a longer distance, stop often to walk and stretch your legs.
  • Try to change your position about every 30 minutes while sitting or standing. This will help decrease your back pain while you are healing.
  • You will probably need to take 2 to 4 weeks off from work. But if your job requires physical labor, it may take 4 to 8 weeks. It depends on the type of work you do and how you feel.
  • You may have sex as soon as you feel able, but avoid positions that put stress on your back or cause pain.

Diet

  • 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.

Medicines

  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. You will also get instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you stopped taking aspirin or some other blood thinner, your doctor will tell you when to start taking it again.
  • 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.
  • Keep the area clean and dry. You may cover it with a gauze bandage if it weeps or rubs against clothing. Change the bandage every day.

Exercise

  • Do back exercises as instructed by your doctor.
  • Your doctor may advise you to work with a physical therapist to improve the strength and flexibility of your back.

Other instructions

  • To reduce stiffness and help sore muscles, use a warm water bottle, a heating pad set on low, or a warm cloth on your back. Do not put heat right over the incision. Do not go to sleep with a heating pad on your skin.

How well does laminectomy for lumbar spinal stenosis work?

Surgery for spinal stenosis usually is elective. But the doctor might recommend it if symptoms can't be relieved with nonsurgical treatment.

Research shows that:

  • If nonsurgical treatments don't work well enough, surgery might help to relieve pain and improve movement.
  • People who had surgery notice more improvement in their symptoms and can be more active than people who did not have surgery. This difference continues for at least 4 years after surgery.
  • After 10 years:
    • People treated with surgery were as satisfied as those treated without surgery.
    • People who had surgery were generally able to be more active and had less leg pain than those who had nonsurgical treatment.
  • Surgery appears to be more effective for leg pain than for back pain, but it may help both.

But symptoms may return after several years. Some people may need a second surgery if:

  • Spinal stenosis develops in another area of the spine.
  • The earlier surgery hasn't controlled symptoms.
  • The spine becomes unstable, or fusion does not occur.
  • Regrowth of tissue (lamina) presses on the spinal cord or spinal nerve roots.

Spinal fusion may be done at the same time as laminectomy. Spinal fusion may help to stabilize sections of the spine that have been treated with laminectomy. In general, fusion is only done if an area of the spine is unstable. This means that the bones of the spine (vertebrae) move too much or don't move in a normal way. This extra movement causes wear and tear on the nerves or other soft tissues, leading to irritation and pain. The goal of fusion is to keep the damaged bones in the spine from moving so that the soft tissues are protected.

How do you prepare for a lumbar laminectomy?

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.

What are the risks of laminectomy for lumbar spinal stenosis?

Complications from spinal stenosis surgery may depend on what other medical problems you have and how severe your spinal problem is. Also, all surgery poses risks of complications. These complications may be more serious in an older adult.

Possible complications include:

  • Problems from anesthesia.
  • A deep infection in the surgical wound.
  • A skin infection.
  • Blood clots.
  • An unstable spine.
  • Nerve injury, including weakness, numbness, or paralysis.
  • Tears in the fibrous tissue that covers the spinal cord and the nerve near the spinal cord. This sometimes requires a second surgery.
  • Trouble passing urine, or loss of bladder or bowel control.
  • Long-term (chronic) pain, which develops after surgery in some cases.
  • Death from problems caused by surgery. But this is rare.

If you have diabetes or circulation problems or if you smoke, you may be at greater risk for complications.

What can you expect as you recover from laminectomy for lumbar spinal stenosis?

Depending on your health and the extent of the surgery, it may take 2 to 4 weeks to return to work. But if your job requires physical labor, it may take 4 to 8 weeks.

After lumbar laminectomy: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or you cough up blood.
  • You are unable to move a leg at all.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms in your legs or buttocks. Symptoms may include:
    • Numbness or tingling.
    • Weakness.
    • Pain.
  • You lose bladder or bowel control.
  • You have loose stitches, or your incision comes open.
  • You have blood or fluid draining from the incision.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • A fever.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not have a bowel movement after taking a laxative.
  • You are not getting better as expected.

After lumbar laminectomy: Overview

A lumbar laminectomy is surgery to ease pressure on the spinal cord and nerves of the lower spine. The doctor took out pieces of bone that were squeezing the spinal cord and nerves.

You can expect your back to feel stiff or sore after surgery. This should improve in the weeks after surgery. You may have trouble sitting or standing in one position for very long.

Your doctor may advise you to work with a physical therapist to strengthen the muscles around your spine and trunk. You will need to learn how to lift, twist, and bend so that you don't put too much strain on your back.

Why is laminectomy for lumbar spinal stenosis done?

Surgery for spinal stenosis is considered when:

  • Severe symptoms restrict normal daily activities and become more severe than you can manage.
  • Nonsurgical treatment does not relieve pain, and severe nerve compression symptoms of spinal stenosis (such as numbness or weakness) are getting worse.
  • You are less able to control your bladder or bowels than usual.
  • You notice sudden changes in your ability to walk in a steady way, or your movement becomes clumsy.

The decision to have surgery is not based on imaging test results alone. Even if the results of imaging tests show increased pressure on the spinal cord and spinal nerve roots, the decision to have surgery also depends on how severe your symptoms are and whether you're able to do normal daily activities.

In some cases, spinal fusion will be done at the same time to stabilize the spine. Spinal fusion might make it easier for you to move around (improve function) and relieve your pain. It can also help keep the bones from moving into positions that squeeze the spinal canal and put pressure on the spinal nerve roots.

What happens on the day of your lumbar laminectomy?

  • 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 will take about 1 to 1½ hours. If a spinal fusion is done at the same time, surgery will last 2 to 4 hours.

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