When lumbar surgery may be recommended 

Lumbar decompression surgery is usually only considered if non-surgical treatments for your lower spine haven't worked and symptoms are affecting your quality of life.

Non-surgical treatments include painkillers, physiotherapy and spinal injection therapy. Spinal injection therapy is a course of spinal injections that can be used in combination with other therapies, such as physiotherapy. Local anaesthetic and steroids are injected to help reduce swelling and inflammation.

Lumbar decompression surgery may also be considered if you experience serious side effects when taking medications that affect your ability to work.

Surgery will only be recommended if you're healthy enough to withstand the effects of the anaesthetic and the surgery.

Some of the conditions that may be helped by lumbar surgery are described below.

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a condition where the space around the spinal cord (the spinal column) narrows, compressing a section of nerve tissue.

The main symptoms of spinal stenosis are pain, numbness, weakness and a tingling sensation in one or both legs. This can make walking difficult and painful.

Most cases of spinal stenosis occur in people aged over 60. As you get older, the bones and tissues that make up the spine can become worn down, which can lead to a narrowing of the spinal column.

Cauda equina syndrome

Cauda equina syndrome is a rare and severe type of spinal stenosis where all of the nerves in the lower back suddenly become severely compressed.

This causes a range of problems, including numbness in the skin around the anus (back passage), not being able to pee or control your bladder (urinary incontinence), and a loss of bowel control (bowel incontinence).

Cauda equina syndrome requires emergency hospital admission and emergency surgery, because the longer it goes untreated, the greater the chance it will lead to permanent paralysis and incontinence.

Slipped disc and sciatica

slipped or herniated disc is where the tough coating of a disc in your spine tears, causing the jelly-like filling in the centre to spill out. The torn disc can press on a surrounding nerve or nerves, causing pain in parts of your legs.

This pain may be accompanied by tingling, pins and needles, numbness or weakness in certain areas of your legs. The pain is often referred to as sciatica and is sometimes worse when straining, coughing or sneezing. 

The most common characteristic of sciatica is pain that radiates out from the lower back, down the buttocks and into one or both legs, right down to the calf. The pain can range from mild to severe.

A slipped disc can occur at any age, but is more common in people from the ages of 20 to 40. If a disc becomes damaged, it sometimes only takes an awkward twist or turn, a minor injury or even a sneeze to cause the filling in the centre of the disc to spill out.

However, the exact cause of a slipped disc is often unknown.

Metastatic spinal cord compression

Cancer in one part of the body, such as the lungs, sometimes spreads into the spine and presses on the spinal cord. This is known as metastatic spinal cord compression.

Initial symptoms can include:

  • back pain, which may be mild at first, but usually gets worse over time; the pain is constant and often worse at night
  • numbness in your fingers and toes
  • problems urinating

Without treatment, metastatic spinal cord compression is potentially very serious and can result in permanent paralysis in the legs.

For people in good enough health to withstand surgery, metastatic spinal cord compression is best treated with surgery. However, if the problems only become apparent late on, many people are too ill to withstand or benefit from surgery.

Spinal injury

Injury to your spine (such as dislocation or fracture) or the swelling of tissue can put pressure on your spinal cord or nerves.

Spinal tumours

Abnormal growths and tumours can form along the spine. They're usually benign (not cancerous), but growing tumours may compress your spinal cord and nerve roots, causing pain.


Page last reviewed: 11/08/2015

Next review due: 11/08/2017