Disc Extrusion: A Neurosurgeon’s Advice

by Mary on October 24, 2016

My doctors had told me that orthopedists and neurosurgeons have different approaches and I’d have to decide which one I preferred for managing my disc extrusion. I saw one of each and they were definitely very different. The orthopedist told me that it’s only worth operating for pain and surgery will not improve the chance of nerve recovery. He had me fill out a pain drawing but did not do a neurological exam.

The neurosurgeon, Dr. C., did a full neuro exam but no pain drawing. He said, “While it might sound cruel, I don’t care about pain. I’ve never once in my career operated solely for that indication. There are medications for pain, it’s a subjective sensation, and it will eventually go away. I only operate for motor weakness.” He told me that motor neurons are hardier than sensory neurons so weakness shows a more significant injury. 

Even the way they showed me the MRI was different. The orthopedist started with the bones of the spine. The neurologist went over the details of spinal cord and the nerves within it before moving on to talking about the extrusion.

I told Dr. C. what the orthopedist had said about only operating for pain. He said that he knew the other doctor and he did good work, but orthopedists are focused on bones, while as a neurologist he’s focused on the nerves.

The orthopedist had ordered a second MRI and the neurosurgeon went over it with me. To make for another confusing detail, the radiology report had said that the extrusion was unchanged and my other doctors had taken that report at face value. But comparing the images side by side it’s definitely a bit smaller. Often when a doctor shows me an image it’s not something I could easily pick out for myself, but this was readily apparent. (Update: I’ve read Dr. C.’s notes and he thought the herniations were a bit worse, not better. Just shows how hard communication can be. Always good to see the notes, especially for a surgical consult.)

Dr. C. told me that there are only a few red flags that would make him tell a patient that they definitely need surgery for a herniated disc, otherwise the choice is always up to the patient. For patients without red flags he encouraged three months of conservative care. That gives the herniation time to possibly heal on its own and allows time to discover the slope of improvement. If recovery is rapid it would be likely that natural healing of the nerve would happen on its own.

He starts offering surgery at three months and feels it that if surgery is going to be chosen, it should be done by six months for the best result. He’s very reluctant to operate after a year when any nerve damage would already be irreversible. No guarantees, though, that the surgery would help, the nerve could already be permanently damaged by the injury.

Nerves only continue to try to regrow for a certain period of time, possibly a year, and if they haven’t reached the muscle they control by the end of that time the nerve dies back. He said they grow at 3 mm a day and for getting from the spine to the foot I could “do the math.”

He told me that the spinal nerve can’t start healing until the compression is off of it. Given that extrusions usually resorb the compression would likely subside eventually, but not necessarily in time for the nerve to heal. Hearing that of course makes me want to choose surgery, and soon.

Being a reader and a research geek I’ve continued to read up on the treatment of disc herniations with motor weakness. It’s a contested topic that’s being duked out in the journals: I ponied up to read a recent point/counterpoint article with an example case very much like mine. But as I told my husband last night, when the experts disagree there’s no way that research alone can guide me.

It’s easier to believe someone who says they might be able to help me than someone who says they can’t. But it does make intuitive sense that getting the pressure off the nerve would help. So I’m leaning toward surgery. The other modalities I’ve tried, even PT, don’t have much evidence behind them that they help this situation either, and yet I’m quite willing to try them. Looking back I’ll want to be able to feel that I’ve done everything I could to try to heal.

As before, I’ll keep you posted on my decision.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa October 24, 2016 at 10:04 pm

You are facing a really difficult decision, Mary. It’s so interesting how different the 2 doctors approached your appointments. It still seems like whatever decision you make will be appropriate. I think maybe I’d be leaning towards the surgery? Good luck as you continue to research and mull over what to do. Hugs!


Mary October 25, 2016 at 1:27 am

Thanks Melissa, I appreciate your input and concern.


Eva at Eva Bakes October 25, 2016 at 1:33 am

Wow – this is so fascinating. I am glad you are getting different viewpoints. Have you considered working with a doctor who is certified in Asian/Eastern style medicine? Would acupuncture or something along those lines help at all?
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Mary November 2, 2016 at 6:21 am

I’ve been working with an acupuncturist all along, one who I’ve known for over 20 years. In fact he came to treat me at my house when I was in labor! My sports medicine doctor agreed that acupuncture might help. But if it has, it hasn’t been enough.


Marcia October 25, 2016 at 9:26 pm

Sounds to me like you’re doing all the research and getting all the opinions in order to make the best decision for you. Back issues are definitely difficult to deal with . My brother had spinal fusion a few years ago and there was so much back and forth and trips down other avenues before he got to that point. I hope you’re not in too much pain and that all of this resolves in the best possible outcome. We missed seeing you this past weekend! xo
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Mary October 29, 2016 at 5:32 pm

Yes, I missed being there too, hope you had fun! I hope your brother is doing well, I’m sure fusion is even harder to decide on. I’m not in too much pain anymore, only concerned to recover function. Thanks for wishing me the best outcome, I hope I get there.


Jo October 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm

Mary, it sounds like you’re not a “red flag” and that the second MRI shows that some healing is taking place. Both are good signs even if they make the treatment more questionable. Will they offer you another MRI before you need to make a decision? In my neck of the woods, scheduling concerns can be an issue for surgeries, so hopefully you’ll have some flexibility if you decide to have surgery but then have some evidence that you don’t really need it.
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Mary October 29, 2016 at 5:33 pm

No that’s it on the MRI’s. It does take insurance a while to approve the surgery so that does give some thinking time. I’m getting an EMG on Monday so that will be one more bit of evidence to consider.


Zoe Campos October 8, 2020 at 1:42 pm

It’s interesting to know that your doctor recommended surgery only after three months of non-surgical treatment. My friend is suffering from a herniated disc and she’s already confused about her possible treatment options. Maybe it would be better for her to consult at least two doctors to verify if she’s in need of neurosurgery.


Mary October 28, 2020 at 5:56 am

Hi Zoe. I hope your friend has had an MRI, that can help determine the severity of her situation. When a disc problem is bad enough, it’s obvious you need surgery, but when it’s not as bad, it’s confusing. Do you wait for it to heal, and maybe it doesn’t and you have permanent nerve damage? Do you go ahead with surgery and maybe it wasn’t needed? In these intermediate cases the doctors around here seem to have a protocol where they want you to go through various ‘conservative measures’ like PT, medicines, injections, to see if they can help before going to surgery. I have become a fan of consulting more than one doctor, especially for surgical consults. They can have very different takes on things and different treatment plans. I’m now four years out from that surgery and it was a success. The nerve on the left is not quite as strong as normal, but I can figure skate again, and I’m not in pain. That’s an excellent outcome. Good luck to your friend, sorry it took me so long to reply.


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