As you recover, you may feel occasional twinges of your pre-operative symptoms, but these should be temporary. Here are some general guidelines aimed at helping you understand what to expect as you recover from one of the spinal operations described here (see Three Common Back Surgery Procedures). You may find in helpful to discuss these points more specifically with your surgeon.
If back pain was your main symptom:
- Back pain alone is not a common reason for surgery. In most cases, patients who opt for surgery are experiencing predominantly leg pain. Of course, it’s natural to hope that your back discomfort will be totally relieved as well but you should understand that this outcome is unlikely. While most people report substantial improvement in their back pain after surgery, it rarely disappears completely.
If leg pain was your main symptom:
- Leg pain related to problems in the spine is more likely to improve after surgery than back pain, and to improve quickly. If your leg symptoms have been constant for a long time—for more than a year—the surgery can be less effective, since some of the changes to the nerve root may have become permanent. This is another reason why the timing of surgery is important and it is not the treatment of last resort.
- If tingling or burning in the leg was a problem, this also typically resolves after the operation. But because the source of these symptoms is a very minor irritation in the nervous system they may persist for some time and settle slowly. In a few cases residual discomfort will remain. While it certainly can be a nuisance, it probably won’t affect how well you function.
- If you were bothered by weakness in the leg before surgery, this will probably improve after an operation. But strength recovery is not as predictable as the resolution of pain. That is one reason why surgery for “sciatica” is done primarily of pain relief. Motor recovery seems to proceed at about the same pace with or without an operation. Recovering full power to specific muscle groups in the leg can take from six months to two years. If your leg muscles have shrunk (a rare complication called “atrophy”), they will probably never regain their normal size although the strength may fully return. You should discuss this with your surgeon who may refer you to a physiotherapist for supervised exercise.
Although some people recover more slowly everyone should see some improvement. Make it clear to your surgeon if there has been no benefit at all and ask what you can expect.