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Herniated Disc Surgery: Cost and What to Expect

Updated on April 28, 2017
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My son herniated a disc in his back, causing pain, weakness, and numbness down to his foot. He then underwent a microdiscectomy procedure.

The cost of herniated disc surgery, called a microdiscectomy, is usually between $10K - $50K.
The cost of herniated disc surgery, called a microdiscectomy, is usually between $10K - $50K. | Source

Microdiscectomy Cost

For people who have suffered a herniated disc that has not healed within six months—and is causing debilitating pain that interferes with day-to-day activities—surgery, known as a microdiscectomy, may be the only option.

The goal of this kind of surgery is to remove the herniated disc material that is pressing on a nerve root or spinal cord.

Since all surgeries carry a certain level of risk, more conservative treatment options should be attempted first. In addition, the cost of surgery can be very expensive, especially for patients not covered by health insurance.

About 48 hours post surgery. Some bleeding from microdiscectomy incision
About 48 hours post surgery. Some bleeding from microdiscectomy incision

Herniated Disc Treatment Options

There are basically three ways to treat a herniated disc:

  1. Give it time to heal on its own, possibly combined with physical therapy
  2. Epidural injections to reduce inflammation
  3. Surgery/Microdiscectomy

Herniated disc material pressing on the sciatic nerve not only can cause pain in the lower back and leg, but can even cause weakness and numbness in the back, leg, and foot.

Within the last year my son herniated a disc in his back (L4/L5), and he definitely experienced pain, weakness, and numbness down to his foot. This very much affected his ability to walk.

Give It Time to Heal on Its Own

WebMD's treatment overview estimates that 50% of patients heal within the first month of herniating a disc as the inflammation decreases. Within six months, all but 10% of patients heal, and it is these 10% of patients (like my son) that opt for surgery for their herniated disc.

Not only does time allow for inflammation reduction, but it also allows for the possibility of resorption to occur. Resorption is when the body absorbs the jelly-like herniated disc material that breaks down over time.

Epidural Injections May Ease Pain

While giving the body a chance to heal on its own, patients may be in a tremendous amount of pain. Often, painkillers and inflammation-reducing medications are prescribed, though they are not necessarily effective long term. Addiction to painkillers may result.

As patients attempt to heal and avoid surgery, some decide to have epidural injections of cortisone through a procedure done with an x-ray guided needle. The idea is to reduce inflammation and ease pain. The downfall of the cortisone injections is that oftentimes pain relief is only temporary.

My son did not have this procedure done since more than six months had passed since he herniated his disc, and because his orthopedic doctor explained that the cortisone may only be a temporary solution, perhaps as little as even one week.

Choosing Surgery

After waiting at least six months and perhaps attempting cortisone injections, if there is still a lot of pain, weakness and numbness, surgery is really the only option left.

A microdiscectomy is often hospital day surgery and it only takes about an hour to perform. The surgeon will make an incision several inches long, remove a small piece of bone (laminectomy) to expose the nerve root, remove the herniated disc material, and finally close up the incision.

The patient will spend some time in a recovery room and within a few hours will most likely be released to complete recovery at home.

Cost

Once the decision has been made to have surgery, patients and their families begin to wonder about the actual financial cost of having a microdiscectomy.

Cost for medical procedures and surgeries can vary wildly from surgeon-to-surgeon, hospital-to-hospital, city-to-city, and country-to-country. Cost Helper tracks consumer prices and estimates that the cost of herniated disc surgery, including surgeon's fees, for an uninsured patient ranges from $20,000 to $50,000 (USD).

Keep in mind that the total cost of a microdiscectomy includes fees for the anesthesiologist, surgeon, and hospital, as well as radiology and medications. The chart below is a breakdown of the summary of charges for my son's microdiscectomy surgery performed in a Chicago-area hospital during 2012.

Cost of My Son's Microdiscectomy

Description
Amount (USD)
Hospital Services:
 
Anesthesia
1128.00
Medical Supplies
1969.00
Pharmacy
978.50
Radiology
646.00
Recovery Room
2466.00
Surgery
4586
Surgeon's Fee:
6329.00
Anesthesiologist's Fee:
1890.00
TOTAL CHARGES:
$19,992.25
Fees for my son's microdiscectomy, performed in a Chicago-area hospital, February 2012.

Health Insurance Coverage

While the total charges for my son's surgery were just about $20,000, luckily our health insurance covered the vast majority of it. Typically most health insurance plans, as well as Medicare, will cover this type of back surgery. The insured may still be responsible for deductibles and co-insurance.

Please note that the example of charges above is for a microdiscectomy, not a discectomy. A discectomy involves removal of part of the disc and is usually an inpatient procedure requiring a hospital stay since it is more invasive.

What to Expect Before and After the Procedure

Follow all pre- and post-operative instructions for herniated disc surgery.
Follow all pre- and post-operative instructions for herniated disc surgery. | Source

In a non-scientific poll taken on the article about my son's surgery, 79% of respondents who have undergone a microdiscectomy stated that if they had to do it again they would choose to have the surgery again.

Even though microsurgery is often day surgery, it is still major surgery and all pre-operative and post-operative procedures should be followed. Once surgery is scheduled, expect pre-operative instructions from your physician's office.

Following the microdiscectomy, you and the person with you at the hospital to bring you home will be given post-operative instructions, including information on dealing with surgical pain, wound care, and when to call the doctor or hospital. Most of these instructions will be printed to refer to if necessary.

Likewise, it is important to follow-up with the physician/surgeon as recommended. The doctor will check the site of the incision and perhaps recommend exercises to aid in proper healing and reducing scar tissue.

While the herniated disc surgery cost may be high for uninsured patients, the financial costs of surgery have to be weighed against the cost of living with the debilitating chronic pain, weakness and numbness that a herniated disc may bring.

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      Diana 7 weeks ago

      Having microdiscectomy of l2-l3, l3-l4, and l4-l5 in a couple weeks. Have been suffering for 4 years now. Tried injections, physical therapy, Meloxicam, gabapentin etc... Will not take pain pills tho. wish me luck! Grateful for all the info on this forum.

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      Robert evans 2 months ago

      along with having to do microdisectomy surgery I also have chronic pain from an electrical sensation down both legs to the bend in my feet. It causes my feet to literally jerk upward and my legs as well. No one can tell me what it is or how to treat this. I'm on hydrocodone 50 mg per day for pain. What is is it? It's driving me nuts!!

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      Peter Kennett 7 months ago

      I am an American who was in Singapore when my disk ruptured and compressed the nerve root completely - causing instant pain and paralyzed my right leg. I was taken to the ER, had an immediate MRI, and taken to surgery that afternoon for a microdiscectomy. I spent 24 hours in the hospital and felt 100% normal when I left. In fact, I was pain free as soon as I woke up, and that was without pain meds. That was in 2010 and I am still pain free now. Total cost of the incident was only $12,000 which my insurance gladly covered.

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      Bob 8 months ago

      3 years ago, I was suffering badly from pain in my buttock that ran down my leg to my foot. The worst pain I think was the buttock, but lots down the leg also. Some days could not walk across the street due to pain - before the problem I walked several miles several times per week. Physical therapy did not help. Tylenol, ibuprofen, vicodin, percoset, gabapentin, blah, blah, blah did not help. Finally MRI revealed very large bulge in L5/S1 disc. Doc gave me a shot of cortisone in my buttock. In a couple of hours it took effect and for literally 5 or 10 minutes I was painfree! Then, slowly over a couple weeks pain returned. Maybe 5 months into the whole ordeal, suffering greatly the entire time, my doc put me on Meloxicam - 15mg/day. After a few weeks pain was gone with only residual minor tingling in leg/foot - no big deal. Still on Meloxicam. Still minor tingling in leg/foot which increases if I lift something weighing over 20 or 30 pounds; which I avoid like the plague.

      2 questions:

      a) Any limit on time that a person can be on Meloxicam?

      b) Any guess as to why the cortisone shot in the buttock made me painfree for a brief time if the problem is a bulging L5/S1 disc?

      Thanks for any reply and no, I will not consider your advice to be official - just your opinion.

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      kcjones 2 years ago

      my son lives in iowa and is on medicaid. He has suffered so long. The doctor wanted to do get the surgery done right away, but we are in a holding pattern - waiting to see if Medicaid approves. I do not live in Iowa, and will need some notice so I can get there. We had it all planned, until Medicaid put the screeching brakes on. In the meantime, my son cannot do anything but lay on the floor.

    • ktrapp profile image
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      Kristin Trapp 4 years ago from Illinois

      Vespa - I know my son could not have endured any more pain from his herniated disc; surgery really was not even all that optional for him. He's had a complete recovery and it has now been more than a year. I am very thankful though, that we have good health care coverage. I cannot imagine being in the situation of having to endure tremendous pain and limitations only because the cost of herniated disc surgery might be too much. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

      I know such a complicated, expensive and risky surgery is the last option, but I have friends who have done it and don't regret the outcome. It's interesting that's what the statistics say, too. One can only endure so much pain. Very interesting and useful.

    • ktrapp profile image
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      Kristin Trapp 4 years ago from Illinois

      habee - Hopefully you can avoid surgery. I know for my son though, surgery was a necessity. He lost feeling in his leg and toes, was in a lot of pain and could hardly walk from his herniated disc.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 4 years ago from Georgia

      Great info about herniated disc. I have a coupe of those, and I'm hoping to avoid surgery. Voted up!

    • ktrapp profile image
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      Kristin Trapp 4 years ago from Illinois

      Kohji - I can understand your frustration, both with doctors and finding a way to deal with your ongoing pain while trying to go to school. You may want to ask your neurosurgeon's opinion about using a chiropractor.

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      Kohji 4 years ago

      Hi again ktrapp! I went today to see the neurosurgeon. He said it was not a herniated disc, but a bulging disc. I had 3 orthopedic that said it was hernia. I'm afraid I might have a trust issues with doctors. He also said he is not recommending the surgery yet. And NOT sure what is causing the pain. I'm dying because of pain now. I guess I will sign the organ donation paper thingy before I commit suicide. Just kidding. But the pain is for real and tired of taking medicines. Looking for alternative ways to relieve the pain while I'm studying again. What do you think of chiropractors?

    • ktrapp profile image
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      Kristin Trapp 4 years ago from Illinois

      Kohji - The cost of my son's herniated disc surgery (microdiscectomy) is in U.S. dollars. I am unsure of your healthcare system in Japan and how your medical/insurance costs compare to ours in the U.S. I certainly hope it all works out for you, both health-wise and financially. Best of luck to you.

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      Kohji 4 years ago

      With that cost. I might sell my kidney first. Im not a rich guy, 21 years old. I have it on c3, c4. Its on neck. Have it for more than 2 years. I feel the pain of other hernia patient. I hated lyricas too. I'll have an appointment with neurosurgeon on jan 16. Im so scared not the result but the price might be. I have to quit college too. I live in Japan btw. I hope insurance would help me.

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      Buzz11 4 years ago

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write about your son's story. I just had urgent micro discectomy 3 days ago Friday, November 2. I am very healthy 47 year old female. After $2000 worth of every treatment possible surgery was the only option. They removed two bones from my spinal canal. I am walking Fine but I am on OxyContins. What I am concerned about is that my left leg is totally numb, especially my big toe. Worse than before the operation. From what I am reading this could be normal. I am taking advil to keep The swelling down. I will keep you posted I mean, it's only day three. And I had top neurosurgeons operate on me. So presently I am very optimistic.

    • ktrapp profile image
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      Kristin Trapp 5 years ago from Illinois

      RTalloni - The advances in surgery really are astounding. And the fact that so much of it is so much less invasive than years ago is even better. The fact that your husband can have four "repairs" just goes to show how amazing it all is when medicine meets technology. Of course, the cost of surgery can be astounding. I hope your husband has a speedy recovery.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      To think about how little real help was available for injuries even just 25 years ago compared to what we have now is amazing. Thanks for sharing this good overview of your son's experience.

      I am caring for my hubby right now--4 repairs in one shoulder this week. Not trying to derail your topic, just to say that we're very thankful for the technology that allows such help.

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      destinlov 5 years ago from savannah

      Im new to the hub ... I wish to stay connected ...

    • ktrapp profile image
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      Kristin Trapp 5 years ago from Illinois

      I'm certainly sorry to read that your disc issues are degenerative. From the little I know about that disease, it sounds like treatment is more focused on minimizing the pain caused by the degeneration. Of course you are probably very aware of this.

    • destinlov profile image

      destinlov 5 years ago from savannah

      Aww thank you .. I really appreciate your article and response now I will inquire again about the surgery .. its been 2 yrs ... severe back..behind..down the leg .. they say its degenerative spondylosis bilateral bulging disc ...

    • ktrapp profile image
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      Kristin Trapp 5 years ago from Illinois

      destinlov - Without knowing the details of your herniated disc (how long, type of symptoms, etc.) I am a little surprised that your neurosurgeon didn't give you a greater success rate. Typically for anyone who has a herniated disc and experiences leg pain, the success rate of a microdiscectomy is 85-95%. But if the nerve is pinched too long, then the chances of success decrease. Many disc ruptures do heal over a long period of time without surgery, but for some people like my son, the pain and physical limitations were too much to live with for a year or two longer. Best wishes to you as you let time be the healer. I hope all works out for the best.

    • destinlov profile image

      destinlov 5 years ago from savannah

      My neurosurgeon did not give me a great success rate for L5 S1 .. stated that there's a great chance for the pain to stay the same or get worse .. epidural injections send my glucose levels so high being diabetic I became very ill .. so I do time management .. been placed on cymbalta and lyrica which helps .. God bless your son .. back to living life to his fullest.