Almost all surgeries require some downtime during which the patient must rest, and cannot return to work. This varies, depending on the procedure and the patient, from days to months. Traditionally, spine surgery has required several weeks away from work for even the most resilient patients. With modern techniques, however, patients can return to work in as little as a week.
Procedures for Treating Herniated Discs
If you have a herniated disc that does not respond to conservative treatment, you may need surgery. If this is the case, there are two possible routes: traditional open back surgery, and laser surgery. Since herniated discs tend to cause compression by pressing on the nearby spinal cord and nerves, surgery is aimed at relieving that pressure by removing a small part of the disc.
Open back surgery is quite invasive, which accounts for the long recovery time. The procedure entails:
- Using a scalpel to cut skin, muscle, and other tissue away from the affected vertebrae
- Performing a laminectomy to gain access to the disc and spinal cord – in this procedure, a small part of the vertebral bone is cut away
- Performing a discectomy, in which the herniation is manually removed from the area
While effective, traditional herniated disc surgery results in a large scar and a long, slow recovery. The patient must be put under general anesthesia.
In contrast, laser back surgery can now treat herniated discs by:
- Inserting a small needle into the center of the disc
- Using special tools and an endoscopic camera to perform the procedure
- Using a radiofrequency probe and/or laser to dissolve a small portion of the disc’s center, causing it to reabsorb the herniation
Minimally invasive herniated disc surgery can be performed under local anesthesia, in an outpatient setting. Since only one or two small incisions are made, scarring is minimal.
Returning to Work
After open back surgery, patients first stay in the hospital for 4-5 days. This stay is necessary because the patient is often on a high dose of painkillers, and the wound needs to be redressed carefully to prevent infection. After returning home, patients cannot return to work for 4-6 weeks, or longer if the job is physically strenuous. It may take months to as long as a year to return to full mobility. This is because the large wound and damage to the muscle and bone must heal fully to prevent further injury, and because extended time on painkillers is often necessary.
The recovery time after laser herniated disc surgery is much shorter. Patients generally return home the day of the surgery. The next day, physical therapy starts. In about a week, most patients are able to return to work; those with very physical jobs will need to wait until they have fully recovered, however. Full recovery usually occurs in about 6 weeks, and at that time patients can go about all their normal physical activities with no restrictions.
As with any surgery, recovery time depends partially on the individual patient. Patients who have other health problems may take a longer time to recover. On the other hand, being proactive about your doctor’s instructions regarding physical therapy and self-care can help keep your downtime to a minimum. In addition, it is important to take good care of your body before and after your surgery: when you eat well and move as much as your body allows, you are giving your body the tools it needs to heal.
While no surgery without downtime, laser herniated disc surgery allows you to return to work in as little as a week. Since the loss of productivity is minimized, the procedure is an option for many patients who could not otherwise afford to get the treatment they need.
To talk to an expert about whether surgery is right for you, please call the Laser Spine & Pain Institute at 212-420-0312.