The following 3 situations may lead to surgery:
1. Persistent disabling leg pain with failure of non-operative treatment over approximately 6 weeks.
2. Progressive weakness in the legs.
3. Cauda equina, which is characterized by intense back and leg pain, weakness in the legs, numbness in the groin and buttock area, and difficulties with bowel and bladder function
If the radiculopathy is caused by arthritis that is pinching nerves, surgery typically consists of a lumbar decompression (laminectomy). This surgery consists of removing the bone spurs and soft tissue that are pinching the nerves and causing lower extremity symptoms. If there is suspected instability in the spine a lumbar fusion may be necessary in addition to the lumbar decompression.
The recovery depends on what type of surgery is performed. Patients often go home the same day or stay one night after a laminectomy. Fusions typically require 2-3 nights in the hospital. The wound is quite tender for the first few days after surgery, and most surgeons send patients home with prescription narcotic medications. You can typically get out of bed and walk within an hour or two after surgery is completed. Many patients who have sedentary office jobs can return to work within 2-4 weeks, while those who have jobs requiring heavy lifting will often need to be out of work for 3 months.
Most patients experience at least 80% improvement in leg pain. Leg weakness and numbness and tingling are less predictable, and patients can expect approximately a 50% improvement.