Lumbar decompression surgery

Lumbar decompression surgery


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.

When lumbar surgery may be recommended

What happens during lumbar decompression surgery

Recovering from lumbar decompression surgery

Recovery after lumbar decompression surgery will depend on your fitness and level of activity prior to surgery. This is why a course of physiotherapy before the operation may be recommended.

You’ll be encouraged to walk and move around the day after surgery and it’s likely you’ll be discharged one to three days afterwards.

It will take about four to six weeks for you to reach your expected level of mobility and function (this will depend on the severity of your condition and symptoms before the operation).

When you wake up after lumbar decompression surgery, your back may feel sore and you’ll probably be attached to one or more tubes.

These may include:

  • a drip supplying fluids into a vein (intravenous drip), to make sure you don’t get dehydrated
  • a drain to take away any fluid from your wound
  • a thin, flexible tube inserted into your bladder (urinary catheter), in case you have difficulty urinating
  • a pump to deliver painkillers directly into your veins every few hours

The tubes are usually only attached for a short time after your operation.


Immediately after surgery, you’ll have some pain in and around the area where the operation was carried out. You’ll be given pain relief to ensure you’re comfortable and to help you move. The original leg pain you had before surgery usually improves immediately, but you should tell the nurses and your doctor if it doesn’t.

A very small number of people have difficulty urinating after the operation. This is usually temporary, but in rare cases complications, such as nerve damage, may cause the legs or bladder to stop working properly. It’s important to tell your doctor and nurses immediately if you have problems.

It can take up to six weeks for the general pain and tiredness after your operation to disappear completely.


You’ll have stitches or staples to close any cuts or incisions made during your operation. Deep stitches beneath the skin will dissolve and don’t need to be removed. If dissolvable stiches are used, they don’t need to be removed.

Non-dissolvable stitches or staples will be removed 5 to 10 days after your operation. Before you leave hospital, you’ll be given an appointment to have them removed.

Your stitches may be covered by a simple adhesive dressing, like a large plaster. Be careful not to get your dressing wet when you wash. After having your stitches removed, you won’t need a dressing and will be able to bath and shower as normal.


Your medical team will want you to get up and moving about as soon as possible, usually from the day after the operation. This is because inactivity can increase your risk of developing a blood clot in the leg (DVT), and movement can speed up the recovery process.

After your operation, a physiotherapist will help you safely regain strength and movement. They’ll teach you some simple exercises you can do at home to help your recovery.

Read more about physiotherapy.

Getting home

You’ll usually be able to go home about one to four days after your operation. How long you need to stay in hospital will depend on the specific type of surgery you had and your general health.

When you get home, it’s important to take things easy at first, gradually increasing your level of activity every day. Some help at home is usually needed for at least the first week after surgery.

Being active will speed up your recovery. Make sure you do the exercises recommended by your physiotherapist, and try not to sit or stand in the same position for more than 15-20 minutes at a time, because this can make you feel stiff and sore.

Walking is a good way to keep active, but you should avoid heavy lifting, awkward twisting and leaning when you do everyday tasks until you’re feeling better.

You may be asked to return to hospital for one or more follow-up appointments in the weeks after your operation to check how you’re doing.


When you can go back to work will depend on how quickly you heal after surgery and the type of job you do.

Most people return to work after four to six weeks, if their job isn’t too strenuous. If your job involves a lot of driving, lifting heavy items or other strenuous activities, you may need to be off work for up to 12 weeks.


Before starting to drive again, you should be free from the effects of any painkillers that may make you drowsy.

You should be comfortable in the driving position and be able to do an emergency stop without experiencing any pain (you can practise this without starting your car).

Most people feel ready to drive after two to six weeks, depending on the size of the operation.

Some insurance companies don’t insure drivers for a number of weeks after surgery, so check what your policy says before you start to drive.

Risks of lumbar decompression surgery

‘Now my range of movement is as good as it ever was’