Do I Need Surgery for Spinal Stenosis?

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on November 05, 2022
3 min read

Spinal stenosis surgery helps to reopen your spinal canal, the channel in your backbone that houses your spinal cord and other nerves.

A doctor does the surgery when the space in the canal narrows because of arthritis, bone spurs, or other problems. When that happens, the nerves can be pinched or squeezed.

It usually happens in people who are middle aged or older.

The symptoms can include pain in the neck, back, or legs; numbness, weakness, or cramping in the arms or legs; and foot problems. Sometimes the leg pain can get bad enough that you can’t walk.

Your doctor might first want to try other treatments before turning to surgery. They might suggest:

But if those things don’t work and you have trouble going through your normal routine because of pain, your doctor may recommend surgery. You and your doctor will talk over the details of your case before making that decision.

Before surgery, doctors recommend you exercise, which will help you recover faster. They will also tell you to try to quit smoking if you still use tobacco.

You should stop taking any medication that might react with anesthesia (the medicine or gasses that block pain during the procedure). Go over all medications and supplements you take with your doctor before the surgery.

You should make sure you have someone to take you to the hospital and back home.

Three common types of spinal stenosis surgery include:

  • Laminectomy. This is the most common one. Your doctor takes out the bone, spurs, and ligaments that are putting pressure on your nerves. They make either a single, large cut or several small ones.
  • Spinal fusion. Doctors sometimes do this along with a laminectomy. It involves joining vertebrae together to reduce movement within your spine. Your doctor may use metal screws, rods, or other hardware to connect the vertebrae until new bone grows between them, or they could take bone from somewhere else to spur new growth.
  • Foraminotomy. In this procedure, a surgeon expands the portion of the vertebrae where the nerve roots branch out to the rest of your body.

All surgeries carry a chance of complications, including those involved with getting anesthesia.

People who smoke, are elderly or overweight, have diabetes, or have several medical problems at once have a higher chance of complications. For spinal stenosis, specific risks include:

Some people need to stay in the hospital for a couple of days afterward. Some people may go home the same day or the day after. It all depends on the type of surgery you have and the state of your health before it.

Once you’re home, it can take 3 months or more to fully recover, especially if spinal fusion was part of your procedure.

Your doctor probably will tell you to start walking and doing other exercises to strengthen your back.

Most people have good results from surgery and are able to return to a normal lifestyle after they heal. People tend to have less leg pain and can walk better afterward.

However, surgery doesn’t cure arthritis or other conditions that might have caused the spinal canal to narrow in the first place. That means your symptoms might come back.