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What is a laminectomy?

A laminectomy is an operation on the back or neck. It is designed to stop pressure on the spinal cord or on the nerves in the neck or back. The pressure might cause numbness, tingling or pain in the arms or legs.

Why is laminectomy performed?

A laminectomy is done if the spinal cord or the nerves of the spine are compressed. This might be due to problems with the bones, joints or the discs in the spine. The pressure may also be due to other problems such as an injury, infection or tumour.

A doctor will first look into the reason for the pressure and will carry out a scan, such as an MRI or CT scan. The doctor will also examine the spine, muscle strength, reflexes and sense of feeling.

Pressure on the spinal cord or nerves can cause problems such as:

  • numbness, cramping or pain in the back, neck, arms,legs or groin
  • weakness in the arm or leg
  • difficulty or poor balance when walking
  • problems with bowel movement or urinating

If you have these problems there may be other treatments, such as physiotherapy and medication, that might be tried before the surgeon considers that a laminectomy would be suitable for you.

How to prepare for the procedure

It is a good idea to ask your doctors questions. You can ask your doctors:

  • Is this surgery the best option?
  • What are the risks?
  • Are there other treatments?
  • What if I do nothing?
  • What will it cost?

Learn more about preparing for surgery.

What happens during the procedure?

If you are having a laminectomy, you will have a general anaesthetic, which means you will be unconscious and won’t feel any pain. The surgeon will make a cut over the back of the neck or the back near the problem spot. A small amount of bone around the spinal cord might be removed to take the pressure off the nerves.

Your doctor might also need to remove a disc if it is damaged. They might join two or more vertebrae together to strengthen the spine after a laminectomy. Sometimes a small plastic tube will be put in to drain excess fluid. The tube will be removed a few days after surgery.

You should discuss all these possibilities beforehand.

What to expect after the procedure

After the operation your doctor might suggest exercises or rehabilitation. They might also suggest that you protect your back from further stress by limiting lifting or heavy work.

You may be able to go home a few days after surgery. It can take several months to fully recover from the surgery.

What can go wrong?

The greatest risk of the surgery is that it might not work. People who have surgery for back pain don’t always feel better afterwards. Otherwise, the risk of any surgery includes infection, bleeding or blood clots. The risks of surgery to your spine include:

  • damage to a spinal nerve, causing pain, weakness or loss of feeling
  • spinal fluid leak, which can be repaired
  • paralysis, which is very uncommon

More information

About laminectomy

The Neurosurgical Society of Australasia has more information about laminectomy in the back and in the neck.

About surgery

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Last reviewed: April 2021

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