Cookies on the Bupa website

We use cookies to help us understand ease of use and relevance of content. This ensures that we can give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive cookies for this purpose. Find out more about cookies



Back surgery

Back surgery is usually done to relieve back pain caused by wear and tear, or for severe arm or leg pain caused by a build-up of pressure on the nerves in your spine.

You will meet the surgeon carrying out your procedure to discuss your care. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.

Your GP may refer you for back surgery if you have severe back pain that hasn't improved after other treatments (such as physiotherapy or referral to a pain clinic), or to reduce nerve pain affecting your arms or legs. There are a number of different types of back surgery. The type you have will depend on your condition.

  • Discectomy may be used if you have a bulging disc, a bone spur (a benign bony growth on a bone), or a herniated or slipped disc.
  • Spinal disc replacement is only suitable for a small number of people with a slipped or worn disc.
  • Laminectomy may be used if you have spinal stenosis (a condition in which the spaces in your spine narrow).
  • Foraminotomy is usually used if you have a bulging disc, a bone spur or a thickened vertebral disc.
  • Vertebroplasty is only suitable for some types of compression fracture to your back bone, caused by conditions such as osteoporosis or as the result of trauma.
  • Spinal fusion is carried out mostly for people with conditions such as spondylolisthesis (when one of your back bones slips forward and out of position) or severe degenerative disc disease (when the discs in your spinal cord gradually become worn down).


Read more Close
An image showing a section of the
Exercises for low back pain by Bupa UK


  • Preparation Preparing for back surgery

    If you're having a general anaesthetic, you will be asked to follow fasting instructions. This means not eating or drinking, typically for about six hours beforehand. However, it's important to follow your surgeon's advice. At the hospital, your nurse may check your heart rate and blood pressure, and test your urine.

    You may be asked to wear compression stockings to help prevent blood clots forming in the veins in your legs. You may need to have an injection of an anticlotting medicine called heparin as well as, or instead of, wearing compression stockings.

    Your surgeon will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, and any pain you might have. This is your opportunity to understand what will happen, and you can help yourself by preparing questions to ask about the risks, benefits and any alternatives to the procedure. This will help you to be informed, so you can give your consent for the procedure to go ahead, which you may be asked to do by signing a consent form.

  • Alternatives What are the alternatives to back surgery?

    If your GP or surgeon suggests back surgery, this is as a last resort. However, for most conditions causing back pain, your doctor is likely to suggest some alternative treatments to try to reduce or relieve your back pain before referring you for back surgery. You may have manual therapy, which involves manipulating and massaging your back, acupuncture, anti-inflammatory medicines or epidural injections.

    Bupa On Demand: Back surgery

    Want to talk to a Bupa consultant about back surgery? We’ll aim to get you seen the next day. Prices from £250.

  • The procedure What happens during back surgery?

    Your surgeon may use open or keyhole surgery. Open surgery involves making a single, large cut on your back. Keyhole surgery involves making several small cuts on your back and your surgeon will use special instruments to do the operation.

    Exactly how your surgery is carried out will depend on the type you are having.

    • Discectomy. Your surgeon will remove one or more of your discs through a small cut in your back. He or she may also remove part of the bony coverings of your spine (lamina), with a section of ligament.
    • Spinal disc replacement. This procedure aims to restore disc height and movement between your vertebrae. Your surgeon will remove the affected discs and replace them with artificial ones.
    • Laminectomy. Your surgeon will remove the bony coverings of your spine and shave back any thickened ligaments, joints and bone spurs (overgrowths of bone). This will widen your spinal canal and relieve pressure that has built up around your spinal nerves.
    • Foraminotomy. Your surgeon will carry out a keyhole procedure to widen your foramina (the bony holes through which spinal nerves branch off from your spinal cord) and reduce pressure on your spinal nerves.
    • Vertebroplasty. Your surgeon will make a small cut on your back and using X-rays as guidance, will slowly inject a cement-like mixture into your vertebrae to stabilise your spine.
    • Spinal fusion. Your surgeon will join two or more of your vertebrae together using a bone graft and a special metal scaffolding made of screws, rods or plates.

    If you need more information about the procedure you’re having, speak to your surgeon.

  • Back pain treatment on demand

    You can access a range of our health and wellbeing services on a pay-as-you-go basis, including back pain treatment.

  • Aftercare What to expect afterwards

    You will need to rest until the effects of the anaesthetic have passed. You may need pain relief to help with any discomfort as the anaesthetic wears off.

    If you have open surgery, you may need a catheter to drain urine from your bladder into a bag. You may also have fine tubes running from the wound. These drain fluid into another bag and are usually removed after a day or two.

    With most back surgeries, you will need to spend at least one night in hospital. You will need to spend some time resting in bed, but may be able to get up and walk around the day after your surgery. You may also be given a corset or brace to wear that will support your back, but this will depend on the type of operation you have had. A physiotherapist (a health professional who specialises in maintaining and improving movement and mobility) may suggest some exercises to help with your mobility and recovery.

    Your surgeon may close your wound with stitches or staples, which may need to be removed approximately two weeks after surgery. If you have dissolvable stitches, the length of time they will take to disappear depends on what type you have.

    Your nurse will give you advice about caring for your back, hygiene and bathing before you go home.

    You will need to arrange for someone to drive you home. You should try to have a friend or relative stay with you for the first 24 hours.

  • Recovery Recovering from back surgery

    If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

    Your physiotherapist may recommend starting an exercise programme between four and six weeks after your back surgery. The exercises are designed to help you recover and reduce any back pain you may have. Please see our frequently asked questions for more information.

    Depending on what type of surgery you have had, your surgeon may advise you not to lift heavy objects, bend, sit still for long periods or stretch for the first four weeks after surgery. You may also be unable to drive a vehicle. If you have any concerns about what you can and can’t do, speak to your surgeon.

    You can usually return to work after about eight weeks, but this depends on the type of surgery you have had and what your job involves.

  • Risks What are the risks?

    As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with back surgery. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your surgeon to explain how these risks apply to you.


    Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure, for example, feeling sick as a result of the general anaesthetic. You will feel some pain and stiffness in your back and possibly in your legs.


    This is when problems occur during or after your operation. The possible complications of any operation include an unexpected reaction to the anaesthetic, excessive bleeding or developing a blood clot, usually in a vein in your leg (deep vein thrombosis, DVT).

    Complications may require further treatment such as returning to theatre to stop bleeding.

    A general complication of back surgery can include spinal cord or nerve damage. This can lead to numbness, pain, paralysis and loss of muscle, bladder or bowel control, and erectile dysfunction if you’re a man, but this is very rare.

    You may have complications specific to the type of operation you have. For example, after surgery for a slipped, herniated or bulging disc, around three to 12 in 100 people will have another slipped disc and need further treatment. Or, if you have an implant fitted, the screws or implants in your back may come loose and you will need further surgery.

    If you experience any unexpected problems after your surgery, such as ongoing pain, or arm or leg weakness, contact your GP or surgeon.

  • FAQs FAQs

    Is there anything I can do to help my recovery after back surgery?


    Yes, there are lots of different things you can do to help your back recover after surgery.


    Your surgeon or physiotherapist may suggest some exercises or general things you can do around your home to help you recover after back surgery. These may include the following.

    • Eat a well-balanced diet with sufficient levels of calcium and phosphorus to help your bones heal and grow.
    • Try to maintain a healthy weight or lose excess weight – this will reduce the pressure on the muscles in your lower back.
    • Sit on chairs that support your lower back. If you need to sit for long periods of time, make sure you switch sitting positions every now and again, and stretch to relieve any tension. You can also place a pillow or rolled-up towel behind the small of your back to maintain your posture.
    • If you smoke, try to stop because smoking reduces blood flow to your lower back and can cause your discs to degenerate.

    What exercises can I do to strengthen my back after my back surgery?

    Exercises for low back pain by Bupa UKAnswer

    There are many different exercises you can do to help strengthen your back after you've had a back operation.


    The type of exercises recommended by your physiotherapist will depend on the type of back surgery you have. Don't do any exercises until you have spoken to your physiotherapist. He or she may suggest that it will be helpful to do some spinal mobility and flexibility exercises. This can include gentle core stability exercises to help improve the mobility of your back and strengthen your muscles and ligaments, such as the following.

    • Pelvic tilt. This is where you lie on your back and tilt your pelvis into a neutral position.
    • Knee roll. This is where you lie on your back with your knees together and roll them from side to side.
    • Bridging. This is where you lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and gently raise your back.
    • Tummy tightening. This is where you pull in your stomach muscles.

    If any particular exercise makes your pain worse, stop and seek advice from your surgeon or physiotherapist.

    Click on the image to open our infographic of exercises for low back pain.

    Will I be able to play sports after my back surgery?


    Yes, but this really depends on when you feel ready. It's also important to seek the advice of your surgeon.


    About six weeks after back surgery, you may be able to start activities which cause the least strain and pressure on your spine, such as swimming.

    Walking, swimming and gentle back stretches may all be beneficial for people with chronic back problems. Ask your physiotherapist or surgeon for advice about when to start exercising and what activities you can do.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Low back pain fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke., published December 2011
    • Handout on health: back pain. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases., published July 2010
    • Low back pain. The Merck Manual., published April 2008
    • Low back pain. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), May 2009.
    • Questions and answers about spinal stenosis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases., published April 2009
    • Open discectomy. North American Spine Society., published 2006
    • Preparing for low back surgery. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, published May 2010
    • Ostelo RWJG, Costa LOP, Maher CG, et al. Rehabilitation after lumbar disc surgery. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008. Issue 4. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003007.pub2
    • Spinal instability and spinal fusion surgery: treatment. eMedicine., published 2 March 2012
    • Degenerative disc disease treatment and management. eMedicine., published 24 September 2012
    • Back exercises. National Library of Medicine., published 16 December 2012
    • Low back pain exercise guide. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons., published July 2007
  • Has our information helped you? Tell us what you think about this page

    We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Produced by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, November 2012.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.

  • Information Standard

    We are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
    Information standard logo
  • HONcode

    This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify. This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:
    verify here.

  • Plain English Campaign

    We hold the Crystal Mark, which is the seal of approval from the Plain English Campaign for clear and concise information.
    Plain English Campaign logo

What our readers say about us

But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.

Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.

It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.

Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.

Our core principles

All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.

An image showing or editorial principals

                  Click to open full-size image

The ‘3Rs’ encompass everything we believe good health information should be. From tweets to in-depth reports, videos to quizzes, every piece of content we produce has these as its foundation.


In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.


We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.


We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.

Our accreditation

Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.

  • The Information Standard certification scheme

    You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.

    It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.

    Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.

  • HONcode

    We comply with the HONcode (Health on the Net) for trustworthy health information. Certified by the HONcode for trustworthy health information.

  • Plain English Campaign

    Our website is approved by the Plain English Campaign and carries their Crystal Mark for clear information. In 2010, we won the award for best website.

    Website approved by Plain English Campaign.

  • British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards

    We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.

Contact us

If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: Or you can write to us:

Health Content Team
Bupa House
15-19 Bloomsbury Way

Find out more Close

Legal disclaimer

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Such third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the 'About our health information' section.

^ Calls may be recorded and may be monitored.