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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago

Lumbar Decompression

Decompression is a surgical procedure intended to relieve pain caused by pinched nerves. Lumbar decompression involves the removal of a small portion of bone intended to give the nerve root in the back more space for healing. The two most common forms of decompression surgery are:

  • Microdiscectomy (microdecompression)
  • Lumbar laminectomy (open decompression)

Even the open decompression surgery of a lumbar laminectomy may be performed using minimally invasive surgical techniques, including pushing aside muscle tissue, instead of cutting them.

The Procedure

The lamina of the spine is a posterior (rear) arch of the spinal bone (vertebra) that lies between the spinous process (the bones that jut out and can be felt as you run your hand down your back). Two laminae and spinous processes make up the posterior wall of the spinal canal.

The traditional laminectomy typically removes the:

  • Lamina
  • Spinous process
  • Connective tissues and ligaments

Minimally invasive surgical approaches seek to preserve as much of the tissue as possible, as well as sparing the spinous process and taking only one or both of the laminae.

What Conditions are Treated by this Procedure?

Spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spinal canal, is one of the most common conditions to be treated by decompression surgery, as it widens the spinal canal and provides more space for the compressed or impacted nerves. Note that surgery does not affect the degenerative spine disease, itself, but treats the effects of the compression of the spine.

Decompression may relieve pressure on the spine, but all of the effects of spinal stenosis are not eliminated by this surgery. For example, patients may continue to feel great pain for a time after this surgery, as their spinal cord heals from the compression injury. It may be necessary to undergo physical therapy to complete the recovery process.


Recovery time varies, but is usually a matter of days with minimally invasive surgery, and anywhere from weeks to months with conventional or traditional open surgical approaches.

Last UpdateJanuary 19, 2012