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What Causes Headaches After Discectomy Surgery and How to Treat Them


8.25 - Are Headaches Common After Discectomy Surgery

If you have recently undergone discectomy surgery, you may experience headaches as a side effect. A discectomy is surgery to remove part or all of a herniated spinal disc that is pressing on a nerve and causing pain. While this surgery can relieve your back or neck pain, it can also cause headaches in some cases. This article discusses some possible causes and treatments for headaches after discectomy surgery.

Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak

One of the most common causes of headaches after back surgery procedures is a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak. CSF is the fluid that surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord. During back surgery, such as a discectomy or less invasive microdiscectomy, a small tear or hole may occur in the dura, which is the tough membrane that covers the spinal cord. This can allow CSF to leak out of the spinal canal and reduce the pressure around the brain, which can in turn cause headaches that worsen when you stand up and improve when you lie down. Other symptoms of a CSF leak include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, and ringing in the ears.

A CSF leak can sometimes heal on its own with conservative measures, such as bed rest, hydration, and caffeine intake. However, if these do not work or if the symptoms are severe, you may need a procedure called an epidural blood patch. This involves injecting your own blood into the space outside the dura where the leak is located. The blood forms a clot that seals the leak and restores the pressure. If this fails, you may need surgery to repair the dura.

Nerve Damage or Irritation

Another possible cause of headaches after discectomy surgery is nerve damage or irritation. The nerves in the neck and head are sensitive and can be affected by the surgery. For example, if a nerve root is compressed or injured during the surgery, it can cause pain that radiates to the head. Alternatively, if a nerve is irritated by inflammation or scar tissue after the surgery, it can also trigger headaches.

Other Factors

There are also other factors that can contribute to headaches after discectomy surgery. These include:

  • Stress and anxiety – Surgery can be a stressful event that can cause emotional and physical tension. This can lead to muscle spasms in the neck and shoulders that can cause headaches. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, and massage, can ease stress and reduce headaches.
  • Anesthesia – Some people may have an adverse reaction to anesthesia or pain medications used during or after surgery. This can cause nausea, vomiting, or low blood pressure that triggers headaches. These usually resolve once the drugs wear off or are adjusted by your doctor.

Managing Post-Discectomy Headaches Effectively

For those grappling with post-discectomy headaches, the good news is that various strategies can alleviate discomfort and improve overall wellbeing:

  • Medication – Over-the-counter pain relievers or medications prescribed by your healthcare provider can provide temporary relief from headache symptoms.
  • Physical therapy – Engaging in gentle neck and shoulder exercises under the guidance of a physical therapist can alleviate muscle tension and promote better posture.
    Hydration and nutrition – Staying adequately hydrated and consuming a balanced diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can support the body’s healing process.
  • Stress management – Stress can exacerbate headaches. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can aid in stress reduction.
  • Correcting posture – Maintaining proper posture, both during activities and while resting, can significantly reduce strain on the neck and spine.
  • Following medical advice – Adhering to your surgeon’s post-operative instructions and attending follow-up appointments can ensure any complications or concerns are addressed promptly.

When to See a Doctor

Most headaches after discectomy surgery are mild and temporary and can be managed with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. However, you should see your doctor if:

  • Your headache is severe or lasts longer than a few days
  • Your headache is accompanied by fever, stiff neck, confusion, or loss of consciousness
  • Your headache does not improve with rest or medication
  • You have any signs of infection at your incision site, such as redness, swelling, pus, or warmth
  • You have any signs of nerve damage or weakness, such as numbness, tingling, or difficulty moving your arms or legs

Post-discectomy headaches, although not experienced by everyone, are a reality for a notable portion of patients. Understanding their potential causes and effective management strategies can empower individuals to navigate this phase of discectomy recovery with greater confidence. Remember, each person’s journey is unique, and seeking professional guidance is key to ensuring a smooth recovery process. By arming yourself with knowledge and actively participating in your healing journey, you can make the road to recovery a smoother and more comfortable one.

Even though discectomy surgery is a common and generally quite successful procedure, a hole is frequently left in the outer wall of the disc. In fact, patients with these large holes in their discs are more than twice as likely to reinjure themselves by having what is known as reherniations. These reherniations often require additional surgery or even fusions. Fortunately, there is a new treatment specifically designed to close the large holes that are often left in spinal discs after discectomy surgery. Barricaid is a bone-anchored device proven to reduce reherniations, and 95 percent of Barricaid patients did not undergo a reoperation due to reherniation in a 2-year study time frame. This treatment is done immediately following the discectomy—during the same operation—and does not require any additional incisions or time in the hospital. 

If you have any questions about the Barricaid treatment or how to get access to Barricaid, ask your doctor or contact us at 844-288-7474.

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