Possible complications may occur before surgery, during surgery, and after surgery.
The most serious complication of a herniated disc that may occur before surgery is the development of the cauda equine syndrome. It occurs when a large particle of disc material ruptures in the spinal canal. It occurs in the area where the nerves that control the bowels and bladder travel before they leave the spine. This causes pressure on these nerves, resulting in permanent damage. Bowel and bladder controlling ability are lost. If this problem occurs, surgery could be recommended immediately to try to remove the pressure on the nerves.
Complications during surgery may occur due to anesthesia that is usually administered during surgery. Other possible complications that can occur during the removal of a herniated disc may include injury to the nerves and a dual tear. There is a risk of injuring the spinal cord, leading to nerve damage that causes paralysis. A tear in the dura mater covering the spinal cord may occur.
Sometimes, complications may take some months after surgery to become evident and may include:
- Infection: Any surgical procedure has a risk of developing an infection. Infection may occur in the skin incision, inside the disc or in the spinal canal around the nerves. If the infection involves the skin incision, antibiotics may be needed, and if the infection involves the spinal canal, a secondary operation may be required to drain the infection. Antibiotics may be required to treat the infection after the second operation.
- Re-herniation: In 10 to 15% cases, re-herniation occurs during the first six weeks after surgery. It can occur at any time and may require a second operation.
- Persistent pain: Occasionally, a surgical procedure does not eliminate the pain. Pain may persist due to several reasons. Disc herniation may put pressure against the spinal nerves, causing nerve damage; thus, resulting in pain along the nerve. Scar tissue may form around the nerves a few weeks after the operation, causing pain like the pain before the operation.
- Degenerative disc disease: Degeneration of the spinal segment can result from injury to the disc or a disc that has undergone operation has been injured. Additional problems may develop in the area where a disc has been removed. If pain from the degenerative process becomes severe, a second operation may be required. Several years may be needed to develop degenerative disc disease.