Lumbar decompression surgery is a type of surgery used to treat compressed nerves in the lower (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 often used to treat:

  • spinal stenosis – narrowing of a section of the spinal column, which puts pressure on the nerves inside
  • a slipped disc and sciatica – where a damaged spinal disc presses down on an underlying nerve
  • spinal injuries – such as a fracture or the swelling of tissue
  • 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

Read more about when lumbar spinal surgery is used.

What happens during lumbar decompression surgery

If lumbar decompression surgery is recommended, you'll usually have at least one of the following procedures:

  • laminectomy – where a section of bone is removed from one of your vertebrae (spinal bones) to relieve pressure on the affected nerve
  • discectomy – where a section of a damaged disc is removed to relieve pressure on a nerve
  • spinal fusion – where two 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.

Read more about how lumbar decompression surgery is performed.

Recovering from lumbar decompression surgery

You'll usually be well enough to leave hospital about one to four days after having surgery, depending on the complexity of the surgery and your level of mobility before the operation.

Most people are able to walk unassisted within a day of having the operation, although more strenuous activities will need to be avoided for about six weeks.

You may be able to return to work after about four to six weeks, although you may need more time off if your job involves driving for long periods or lifting heavy objects.

Read more about recovering from lumbar decompression surgery.

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. 

Up to three in every four 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.

Risks of lumbar decompression surgery

Although lumbar decompression is often successful, like all types of surgery it carries a risk of complications.

Complications associated with lumbar decompression surgery include:

  • infection at the site of the operation, or in rare cases an infection elsewhere
  • a blood clot developing in one of your leg veins, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT); in rare cases, the clot can dislodge and travel to the lungs, causing a serious problem called a pulmonary embolism
  • damage to the spinal nerves or cord – resulting in continuing symptoms, numbness or weakness in one or both legs, or in rare cases some degree of paralysis 

Read more about the complications of lumbar decompression surgery.

The spine and spinal cord

The spine is made up of 24 individual bones, called vertebrae, which are stacked on top of each other to form the spinal column. In between each vertebra are protective, circular pads of tissue called discs, which cushion the vertebrae during activities such as walking and running.

The spinal canal runs through the centre of the spinal column. It contains and protects the spinal cord and nerves.

Page last reviewed: 11/08/2015

Next review due: 11/08/2017