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How Do You Know if Your Discectomy Is Infected?


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Undergoing a discectomy can be a life-changing procedure for those suffering from debilitating back pain due to herniated discs. While this form of back surgery often provides significant relief, it is not without risks. One of the potential complications is infection. Recognizing the signs of an infected discectomy early is crucial for effective treatment and a smooth recovery. This article will explore the symptoms, causes, and steps to take if you suspect an infection.

Causes of Infection after a Discectomy

A discectomy, such as a cervical or lumbar discectomy, is a surgical procedure to remove the damaged portion of a herniated disc in the spine. This surgery aims to relieve pressure on the spinal nerves, which can cause pain, numbness, or weakness. It is typically performed when conservative treatments, such as physical therapy and medications, fail to provide relief.

Infections after a discectomy can occur due to several factors, including:

  • Bacteria introduced during surgery – Despite sterile techniques, bacteria can sometimes be introduced during the surgical procedure.
  • Postoperative care – Poor wound care or exposure to contaminated environments post-surgery can increase the risk of infection.
  • Weakened immune system – Patients with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to infections.
  • Prolonged surgery – Longer surgeries can increase the risk of infection due to extended exposure of the surgical site.

Signs and Symptoms of an Infected Discectomy

Recognizing the signs of an infection early can prevent serious complications. Key symptoms to watch for include:

  • Fever – A persistent high fever post-surgery may indicate an infection.
  • Increased pain – While some pain is expected after surgery, a sudden increase in pain or pain that worsens over time can be a sign of infection.
  • Redness and swelling – Redness, swelling, or warmth around the surgical site may indicate an infection.
  • Drainage – Pus or other unusual discharge from the wound is a common sign of infection.
  • Chills and night sweats – These symptoms, along with fever, can indicate a systemic infection.
  • Difficulty moving – Increased stiffness or difficulty moving the spine more than expected post-surgery can be a sign of an underlying issue such as infection.

Monitoring Your Symptoms

  • Keep a symptom diary – Track your symptoms, including their onset, duration, and severity. This can be invaluable information for your healthcare provider.
  • Regularly check your temperature – Monitor your temperature twice daily to catch any spikes that may suggest an infection.
  • Inspect the incision site – Look for changes in color, size, or discharge. Use a mirror or ask for help if the site is difficult to see.

Diagnosing an Infected Discectomy

If you experience any of the above symptoms, it is crucial to contact your healthcare provider immediately. To diagnose an infection, your doctor may perform several tests, including:

  • Physical examination – Assessing the surgical site for signs of infection
  • Blood tests – Elevated white blood cell counts and other markers can indicate an infection
  • Imaging studies – MRI or CT scans can help doctors identify abscesses or other signs of infection around the surgical site
  • Wound culture – Collecting a sample of the wound drainage to identify the type of bacteria causing the infection

Treatment Options for an Infected Discectomy

The treatment for an infected discectomy depends on the severity and extent of the infection. Common treatments include:

  • Antibiotics – Oral or intravenous antibiotics are the first line of treatment for infections.
  • Surgical drainage – In some cases, surgical drainage of an abscess or infected area may be necessary.
  • Debridement – This surgical procedure involves removing infected tissue to promote healing.
  • Extended hospital stay – A severe infection may require an extended hospital stay for intravenous antibiotics and close monitoring.

Preventing Infection Following a Discectomy

While not all infections can be prevented, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk:

  • Follow postoperative instructions – Adhering to your surgeon’s postoperative care instructions is crucial for preventing infection.
  • Maintain good hygiene – Keeping the surgical site clean and dry reduces the risk of infection.
  • Avoid smoking – Smoking can impair healing and increase the risk of infection.
  • Eat a balanced diet – A nutritious diet supports your immune system and promotes healing.
  • Attend regular check-ups – Attending follow-up appointments allows your doctor to monitor your recovery and catch any potential issues early.

When to Seek Medical Attention

It is essential to be proactive about your health after a discectomy. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following:

  • High fever – A fever over 101.5°F (38.6°C) that does not respond to medication
  • Severe pain – Pain that is not controlled by prescribed pain medication or is getting worse
  • Severe redness and swelling – Significant changes in the appearance of the surgical site
  • Unusual discharge – Any pus or foul-smelling discharge from the wound
  • Difficulty breathing – Can be a sign of a more serious systemic infection

While a discectomy can offer significant relief from pain caused by a herniated disc, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of an infection. Early detection and treatment are crucial for preventing serious complications and ensuring a successful recovery. By understanding the risks, following postoperative care instructions, and maintaining good communication with your healthcare provider, you can minimize your chances of developing an infection and enjoy a smoother recovery process.

Although discectomy surgery is generally a very successful procedure, patients with a larger hole in the outer ring of the disc have a significantly higher risk of reherniation following surgery. Often, the surgeon will not know the size of the hole until he or she begins surgery. A new treatment, Barricaid, which is a bone-anchored device proven to reduce reherniations, was specifically designed to close the large hole often left in the spinal disc after discectomy. This treatment is done immediately following the discectomy—during the same operation—and does not require any additional incisions or time in the hospital. In a large-scale study, 95 percent of Barricaid patients did not undergo a reoperation due to reherniation in the 2-year study time frame. 

If you have any questions about the Barricaid treatment or how to get access to Barricaid, ask your doctor or contact us today.

For full benefit/risk information, please visit:

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