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What is cervical decompression surgery?

Cervical decompression surgery is a procedure that removes any structures compressing the nerves in the neck. The cervical section of the spine begins at the base of the skull and supports the neck. During surgery, a small section of the bone that is compressing the nerve root is removed to alleviate pressure and allow the nerve root to heal. Sometimes fragments of material from the spine are lodged under the nerve root as well, and are removed during cervical decompression surgery.

If too much of the bony structures pressing on the nerve needs to be removed, it can affect the stability of the spine. In such cases, cervical decompression surgery must be combined with cervical fusion surgery. Spinal fusion corrects the instability by permanently joining (fusing) the vertebrae together to prevent them from moving. If the cervical decompression surgery is minimally invasive, the structure of the spine will stay intact and there will be no need for spinal fusion.

Cervical spinal stenosis is one of the most common reasons for cervical decompression surgery. Cervical spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spinal canal and/or the opening in the vertebra (vertebral foramen) in the neck become narrowed. If the narrowing is substantial it can cause nerve compression and result in pain, loss of balance and coordination, neck stiffness and in severe cases, incontinence.

Types of cervical decompression surgery

Most of the following procedures are performed with the goal of leaving the spinal structure intact. Once the compressing structures have been removed, your spine surgeon will evaluate the stability of your spine and determine whether cervical fusion surgery also is needed.

  • Foraminotomy—This surgery creates a bigger space in the foramen to relieve pressure on the compressed nerves. The foramen are openings in the vertebrae through which the nerve bundles pass to travel to different areas of your body. 
  • Laminotomy—Your spine surgeon creates a hole in the lamina (bone covering the spinal canal, the large hole in the center of the vertebra through which the spinal nerves pass) to make more space and to relieve pressure on the nerves.
  • Laminoplasty—Two incisions are made on both sides of the lamina to relieve neural pressure. This creates a hinge on one side and a small hole on the other side of the lamina. A spacer made out of bone, metal or plastic is inserted to hold the spinal canal open.
  • Corpectomy—This procedure is performed when cervical stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal) affects more than one disc. The surgeon removes the vertebral body as well as the affected discs to relieve pressure.
  • Microdiscectomy—Also called microdecompression, this minimally invasive surgery is performed through a small incision in the neck. The spine surgeon removes a small section of the bone over the nerve root. During this procedure, disc material under the nerve root may be removed as well. A microdiscectomy aims to relieve nerve compression and allow the nerve to heal.
  • Cervical laminectomy—This is the most common surgery for cervical spinal stenosis. The spine surgeon removes a small section of the lamina to relieve compression on the nerve. The remaining spinal bones are connected back together with titanium metal rods and screws.

Recovery

After surgery you can expect your hospital stay to last up to seven days. Full recovery from cervical decompression surgery can take an average of five weeks.

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