Unless you have experienced the debilitating pain of a chronically pinched nerve, it may be hard to understand exactly how disruptive this condition can be to your life. It can make you feel like you’ve been put on the sidelines, unable to play with your children or grandchildren, or even do simple tasks or hobbies. Your ability to properly do your job can even be effected. Relationships and finances can become strained; meanwhile, you’re still dealing with pain and limited mobility.
If you have been diagnosed with a pinched nerve in the spine and have exhausted all doctor-recommended conservative treatments, you may find yourself considering open back surgery to correct the nerve compression at the source.
While surgery can be effective in providing lasting relief, it is usually considered a last resort treatment because of the risks and possible negative consequences involved. Many patients are concerned about a long and painful pinched nerve surgery recovery, or in the worst case, a procedure that will leave them worse off than they were before they elected it.
While these concerns are valid, the truth is that most back surgery does offer a positive outcome for patients. Furthermore, there are surgical options that have become available designed specifically to reduce the risks and difficulties associated with traditional open back surgery. Knowing as much as possible about back surgery is important for anyone looking for the best chance at finding meaningful relief from their pinched nerve pain.
When to consider surgery
Most patients are diagnosed with a pinched nerve in the spine after seeing their primary care physician about persistent symptoms of pain, tingling and numbness in their neck, lower back or even in their arms or legs. This type of pain is very difficult to diagnose because the location of symptoms and the location of the pinched nerve are not always in the same place.
After a review of medical history and a physical examination, diagnostic imagery like an x-ray can reveal causes like bone spurs or bulging spinal discs as the source of nerve compression. The first phase of treatment usually consists of conservative methods like over-the-counter medication, physical therapy and rest.
In a large number of pinched nerve cases, this kind of symptom management is all that is required for a return to normal activity. A pinched nerve can subside on its own as swelling goes down and takes pressure off the nerve. For some patients though, weeks can turn into months without these lighter therapies bringing relief.
Then, even stronger options like steroid injections and prescription pain medication may not bring effective pain relief. This is the point where many physicians will begin to consider the possibility of spine surgery.
Surgical options for a pinched nerve
The goal of pinched nerve surgery in the spine is decompression, with stabilization sometimes being a secondary goal. This has usually been accomplished by making a fairly large incision down the neck or back that requires the severing of muscles in order to access the spine. Once there, the surgeon can then remove the tissue that is pinching the nerve, such as the bulging part of a spinal disc or an arthritic bone spur.
In some situations, a disc is damaged enough to require full removal, which can severely destabilize the spine. Stabilization is accomplished by the insertion of bone graft material and hardware that fuses the adjoining vertebrae together. While outcomes for either decompression or fusion surgery are positive for most patients, there are several drawbacks:
- The muscle disruption increases postoperative pain and limits mobility
- Overnight hospitalization, which can be expensive and increase your risk of an infection
- Unsightly scarring and excessive scar tissue buildup, which can increase your risk of failed back surgery syndrome
- Risk of failed back surgery syndrome if the condition isn’t properly treated
These downsides can make pinched nerve surgery recovery a long and difficult prospect and can turn the decision to undergo surgery into a scary one. This is why many spine surgeons and physicians are starting to recommend the more minimally invasive surgical techniques that have become more practical over the last decade. These procedures use advances in medical technology that enable surgeons to access the pinched nerve with much smaller, muscle-sparing incisions.
Pinched nerve surgery recovery
For traditional procedures, the recovery process can be long; sometimes periods of eight months or longer are required before normal activities are fully resumed, depending on the circumstances.
Patients will be given detailed pinched nerve surgery recovery instructions that includes some of the following important information:
- Timeline for resumption of activities
- Instructions for rehabilitation exercises
- Proper dosages for pain medication
- Wound care and warning signs of infection
Minimally invasive techniques can reduce your pinched nerve surgery recovery period dramatically. While every situation is different, some patients can be up and walking within hours after a procedure. Resumption of normal activities, like returning to work, can happen as quickly as 6 weeks and within three months for the majority of patients. It is possible to perform minimally invasive spine surgery on an outpatient basis as well, which reduces the risk of infection compared to procedures performed within a hospital. If a smooth pinched nerve surgery recovery is important to you, ask your doctor about a referral to a spine specialist who performs minimally invasive procedures.