Herniated Disc Surgery: What to Expect on the Day of Surgery

If you are having surgery for a herniated disc, also known as a discectomy, knowing what to expect on the day of your surgery is part of your preparation. What will happen will depend on the location of your herniation (neck, lower back, etc.) as well as whether the surgery will take place at a hospital or an outpatient surgery center.

By understanding what will happen before, during, and after your herniated disc surgery, you can maximize your chances of having a favorable outcome. This surgery is done to relieve pain from compression from a spinal nerve that occurs when a disc in your back or neck pushes out of place.

Photo of a woman in a hospital preparing for surgery.
Ariel Skelly / Getty Images

Before the Surgery

On the day of surgery, you can arise from bed and get ready. Most surgeons do not want you to consume food or drink on the day of surgery.

Anesthesia is used during the surgery, and this may relax muscles of your gastrointestinal system, resulting in possible regurgitation during the operation. The staff at your surgeon's office can give you direct instruction on what you can and cannot consume on the day of surgery.

Some surgeons will have you shower at home the morning of your surgery and use a special antiseptic body wash. This helps to decrease bacteria on your skin that may cause an infection during the surgery. Be sure to use the antiseptic wash appropriately by following the instructions provided by your surgeon.

Your herniated disc surgery will take place at a hospital or outpatient surgical center. Upon arriving at the hospital or center, you will be brought to the pre-op area. There, the nursing staff will begin prepping you for your surgery. Various things will take place, including:

Once you are prepped for surgery, you will be able to relax in the pre-op area until it is time for your surgery.

During the Surgery

When it is time for your herniated disc surgery, you will be brought via a stretcher or wheelchair to the surgical suite. There, you will be greeted by your surgeon, anesthesiologist, and nursing team.

You will transfer to the operating table, and medicine will be introduced to sedate you under anesthesia. Don't worry; your healthcare team will keep you safe during the operation.

If your herniated disc is in your neck, you will be placed on your back, and a small incision will be made in the front of your neck. From there, your spinal column will be accessed, and the disc material that is pinching your nerve will be removed. A small spacer may be placed between two vertebrae, and small screws may be placed in the bones to fuse them together.

If your herniated disc is in your low back, you will be placed in a face-down position. A small incision will be made in your low back, and specialized surgical tools will be used to cut through and retract the muscles in your back. Sometimes, a small amount of spinal bone will be cut away to get near the disc.

Some surgeons use a microscope during surgery to closely visualize the nerve and herniated disc material. Once the herniated disc, and the nerve it is pinching, is visualized, instruments will be used to cut away the disc material and decompress the nerve. Once that is accomplished, your surgeon will remove all sponges and instruments and your muscles and skin will be sutured.

During the surgery, your family or trusted friend will be waiting in the waiting area. They may have some contact with your surgeon once your operation is complete. Most often, the surgeon will be able to tell your family member that the surgery was successful and that you can start your recovery process.

After the Surgery

After your herniated disc surgery, you will be brought to the post-operative recovery room. Most often, you will still be under general anesthesia, but as that wears off, you will slowly wake up. The nursing staff will be there to provide you with comfort and to monitor your vital signs.

After surgery, several milestones will need to be passed for you to progress to the ultimate goal of leaving the hospital and going home. These include:

  • Urinating
  • Demonstrating good bowel sounds, and perhaps passing stool
  • Eating and drinking
  • Moving from a bed to a chair
  • Walking
  • Exhibiting normal heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels

These milestones progress at different rates for everyone, but most people accomplish these tasks within a few hours after surgery.

If you have had your surgery in the hospital and the operation was uncomplicated, you will likely spend the evening in the hospital and go home the next day.

While in the hospital, the IV will remain in your arm until you are ready to leave. Pain control will be accomplished with medication, and the nursing staff will ensure that your needs are met. You should rest comfortably, and walk with supervision to the restroom and down the hallway.

Some people have herniated disc surgery on an outpatient basis at a surgical center. If this is the case, you will likely spend a few hours in the recovery area. Once your vital signs have proven to be stable, the IV will be removed from your arm and you will be provided with discharge instructions.

Common discharge instructions after herniated disc surgery include:

  • Avoid sitting slouched, bending your spine, or lifting items over 5 pounds.
  • Avoid driving.
  • Monitor your surgical incision to ensure it remains dry and free from excessive bleeding.
  • Avoid getting your incision wet.
  • Take your pain medication as prescribed.
  • Gently increase your walking and activity level over the next five to seven days.

Be sure to monitor your health during the immediate post-op period for signs of infection. Watch for fever, chills, or any unusual or excessive bleeding from your incision. If you suspect anything negative is happening, contact your physician immediately.

Most people follow up with their surgeon about one week after surgery. At that appointment, your physician will discuss how your surgery went. They will likely remove any sutures in your surgical incision, and pain control measures will be discussed.

Some people benefit from working with a physical therapist after herniated disc surgery to safely increase mobility and activity level. Most people return to their previous level of activity about four to six weeks after surgery.

A Word From Verywell

Herniated disc surgery can be a painful experience, but most people recover fully in just a few short weeks. Having an understanding of what to expect before, during, and after your disc surgery can help you have confidence in your decision to have the operation. That way, you can focus on quickly and safely returning to your previous level of activity.

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