By Marty Polovich

(Lumbar Laminectomy, Cervical Laminectomy, Decompressive Laminectomy, Back Surgery, Disk Surgery)

Procedure Overview

What is a laminectomy?

Back pain that interferes with normal daily activities may require surgery for treatment. Laminectomy is a type of surgery in which a physician removes part or all of the vertebral bone (lamina) to relieve compression of the spinal cord or the nerve roots that may be caused by injury, herniated disk, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the canal), or tumors. A laminectomy is considered only after medical treatments have proven to be ineffective.

Other related procedures that may be used to help diagnose back problems include computed tomography (CT scan), x-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electromyogram (EMG), and myelogram. Please see these procedures for additional information

Anatomy of the spinal column:

The spinal column, also called the vertebral column or backbone, is made up of 33 vertebrae that are separated by spongy disks and classified into four distinct areas. The cervical area consists of seven vertebrae in the neck; the thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae in the back area; the lumbar spine consists of five vertebrae in the lower back area; five sacral bones (fused into one bone, the sacrum); and four coccygeal bones (fused into one bone, the coccyx).

  • lamina - the bony arch on the posterior part of the vertebrae that is over the spinal column. (This is the part of the spine that is removed during a laminectomy.)

  • disks - soft pads between the bones of the vertebrae that allow the back to bend and act as shock absorbers.

  • spinal cord - the bundle of nerves that connects the brain to the rest of the body. The spinal cord passes through the center of the vertebrae.

  • spinal nerves - nerves that connect the spinal cord to the rest of the body. These nerves may become compressed or “pinched” by a vertebra or disk.

  • muscles and ligaments - support the spinal column, providing both strength and movement.

Reasons for the Procedure

Low back pain can range from mild, dull, annoying pain, to persistent, severe, and disabling pain. Pain in the lower back can restrict mobility and interfere with normal functioning. Laminectomy may be performed to relieve pressure on the spinal nerves, treat a disk problem, or remove a tumor from the spine.

One common reason for undergoing a laminectomy is a herniated disk in the spine. A disk may be displaced or damaged because of injury or wear and tear. When the disk presses on the spinal nerves, this causes pain, and sometimes numbness or weakness. The numbness or weakness will be felt in the body part where the nerve is involved, often the arms or legs. The most common symptom of a herniated disk is sciatica (generally, a sharp, shooting pain along the sciatic nerve, extending from the buttocks to the thigh and down the back of the leg).

If medical treatments are not satisfactory, back surgery may be an effective treatment. Some medical treatments for back pain may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • activity modification

  • medication (e.g., muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory, and analgesics)

  • spinal injections

  • physical rehabilitation and/or therapy

  • occupational therapy

  • weight loss (if overweight)

  • smoking cessation

  • assistive devices (e.g., mechanical back supports)

Laminectomy is usually performed for back pain that continues after medical treatment, or when the back pain is accompanied by symptoms of nerve damage, such as numbness or weakness in the legs.

There may be other reasons for your physician to recommend a laminectomy.

Risks of the Procedure

As with any surgical procedure, complications can occur. Some possible complications may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • bleeding

  • infection

  • blood clots in the legs or lungs

Nerve or blood vessels in the area of surgery may be injured, resulting in weakness or numbness. The pain may not be relieved by the surgery or may become worse, although this is rare.

There may be other risks depending upon your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your physician prior to the surgery.

What's Causing Your Symptoms?