What Is Nerve Decompression Surgery?
Nerve decompression surgery is any operation to alleviate pressure on a nerve. Some nerves are more prone to compression than others due to the surrounding skeletal structure. The aim of nerve decompression is to either remove whatever is pressing on the nerve or open up any narrow spaces to give the nerve more room, or both.
Nerve decompression surgery can be thought of as two subtypes: spinal and peripheral. Spinal decompression surgery is in response to conditions caused by pressure on nerve roots in the spine, such as herniated discs and spinal stenosis. Peripheral nerve decompression is for conditions that begin somewhere other than the spine, such as the wrist in the case of carpal tunnel syndrome or the elbow for cubital tunnel syndrome.
Common Reasons for Nerve Decompression Surgery
Common reasons for needing a decompression surgery include:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Cauda equina syndrome
- Cubital tunnel syndrome
- Herniated disc
- Spinal stenosis
- Tarsal tunnel syndrome
Candidates for Nerve Decompression Surgery
Candidates for nerve decompression surgery are generally those who have tried more conservative methods—such as anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy—without success.
Cauda equina syndrome, which is the result of long-term compression of a bundle of nerves in the lower spinal cord, is a surgical emergency and must be treated as soon as possible. Symptoms include bladder or bowel incontinence and altered sensation or paralysis in the legs. In some cases, the damage is permanent.
Nerve Decompression Procedures
The exact procedures will depend upon which nerve is being affected. For some nerves that pass through a narrow structure, such as the median nerve in carpal tunnel syndrome or the ulnar nerve in cubital tunnel syndrome, part of the structure—usually a ligament—will be cut away to give the nerve more room.
In the case of a herniated disc, the disc is pressing on the nerve and part or all of it will be removed. In spinal stenosis, a bony structure on the vertebra will be removed so that it no longer touches the nerve.
Recovery from Nerve Decompression Surgery
There may be pain immediately following the surgery, which can be managed by anti-inflammatories and painkillers. Physical therapy is sometimes necessary in order to regain complete function of the areas the nerve controls. Some surgeries require immobilization of the area.
Recovery time varies based on the nerve and the procedure. Nerves tend to recover slowly. It will likely be a matter of months before the patient can return to normal activities.
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