What Is a Lumbar Laminectomy?

Back pain that interferes with normal daily activities may require surgery for treatment. A laminectomy is surgery to remove part or all of the vertebral bone (lamina) to relieve compression of the spinal cord or the nerve roots. This may result from injury, herniated disk, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the canal) or tumors. A laminectomy is considered only after medical treatments have proven ineffective.

Laminectomy can relieve pressure on the spinal nerves, treat a disk problem or remove a tumor from the spine. Another 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 affects the body part where the nerve is involved, often the arms or legs. Back pain can also be relieved through a laminectomy. Physicians at Northwestern Medicine usually recommend laminectomy for back pain that continues after medical treatment or when back pain is accompanied by symptoms of nerve damage, such as numbness or weakness in the legs.

Risks of laminectomy include:

  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Blood clots in the legs or lungs
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Risks associated with the use of general anesthesia
  • 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. Be sure to discuss what to expect before, during and after your procedure with your physician.

Understanding the anatomy of the spinal column

The spinal column, or backbone, has 33 vertebrae separated by spongy disks and is classified into 5 distinct areas:

  • Cervical spine: This has the 7 vertebrae of the neck.
  • Thoracic spine: There are 12 vertebrae in the back.
  • Lumbar spine: The lower back has 5 vertebrae.
  • Sacral bones: There are 5 bones are fused into one bone.
  • Coccygeal bones: This has 4 bones fused into one bone, the coccyx.

Other parts of the spine include:

  • 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.
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