A herniated disc in the spine occurs when the gel-like fluid between vertebrae — known as a spinal disc — ruptures, and that fluid begins to press against the nerves that run through the spine. The fluid can also press against the spinal cord itself, leading pain as well as neurological problems. Back surgery for a herniated disc is a last resort and is usually only attempted if the nerves in the spine are so compressed that regular motor functions are affected severely. A back surgery for a herniated disc is known as a discectomy, and the process involves removing all or part of the spinal disc to relieve pressure on the nerves and spinal cord.
Back surgery for a herniated disc is an open surgery — that is, a large incision must be cut into the skin so the surgeon can access the spine. This is done after the patient has been placed under general anesthesia. The incision allows the surgeon to look at the spine itself after carefully cutting away muscle and ligaments. The parts of the spinal disc that are herniated are then removed, and if any other parts of the herniated disc look like they might rupture at some point in the future, the surgeon may choose to remove those fragments as well. The incision is then sealed and properly bandaged. The surgery generally takes one to two hours depending on the severity of the herniation.
Another type of back surgery for a herniated disc avoids cutting an incision and instead uses a smaller hole through which a camera is inserted. The surgeon can see the spine on a monitor connected to the camera, and through another small incision, the instruments used to pull out the fragments are inserted. This is a far less invasive surgery, and the recovery time is much shorter than an open surgery, but an open surgery is often the better option because the surgeon has more access to the spine and is less likely to miss any possible herniated fragments.
Recovery time after back surgery for a herniated disc can take several weeks to months as the muscles and ligaments in the back heal. Most people who undergo such a surgery will find relief from their previous symptoms, but a smaller number may not. A subsequent herniated disc is also possible. During recovery, the patient should avoid as much movement as possible for several days to weeks, and a back brace may help the patient function more painlessly.