Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a laminotomy?

Laminotomy is the surgical incision and removal of a small part of a bony area of the spine called the lamina. The lamina is the back part of each vertebra and forms the back wall of your spinal canal. Your spinal cord runs through your spinal canal in the center of your vertebrae. Certain conditions of the spine can compress the spinal cord and cause pain. A laminotomy can relieve pressure in your spinal canal and on spinal nerves. 

The word laminotomy is often used interchangeably with laminectomy. However, laminotomy surgery removes only a small part of the lamina, while laminectomy removes most of the lamina. 

Laminotomy is a common but major surgery with serious risks and potential complications. You may have less invasive treatment options. Consider getting a second opinion about all your treatment choices before having a laminotomy. 

Types of laminotomy

When laminotomy surgery involves one vertebra, it is called single level. When it involves more than one vertebra it is called multilevel.

The types of laminotomy procedures include:

  • Cervical laminotomy is the removal of part of the lamina in the neck area (cervical spine).

  • Lumbar laminotomy is the removal of part of the lamina in the lower back (lumbar spine).

  • Sacral laminotomy is the removal of part of the lamina in the back between your pelvic, or hipbones (sacral spine).

  • Thoracic laminotomy is the removal of part of the lamina in the middle part of the back (thoracic spine).

Other procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may perform other procedures in addition to laminotomy. These include:

  • Discectomy is the surgical removal of part or all of a spinal disc. A discectomy treats degenerated, herniated or ruptured spinal discs.

  • Foraminotomy is the widening of the opening where the nerve roots leave the spinal canal. Your doctor may use this procedure when the opening (foramina) is narrowed causing pressure on the spinal nerves.

  • Spinal fusion is the permanent joining together of two vertebrae. Spinal fusions use a bone graft to fuse or join two vertebrae. Sometimes, your doctor will also use screws, rods or plates to hold your vertebrae in place. This procedure permanently stops movement between the two vertebrae.

Why is a laminotomy performed? 

Your doctor may recommend a laminotomy to treat certain diseases and conditions of the spine. Your doctor may only consider laminotomy for you if other treatment options with less risk of complications have been ineffective. Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion before deciding on a laminotomy.

Your doctor may recommend a laminotomy when you have spinal cord compression with symptoms of myelopathy. Myelopathy is impaired function of the spinal cord due to compression. Symptoms include weakness, pain, numbness, clumsiness, poor balance, difficulty walking, and stiffness in the extremities. The goal of laminotomy is to relieve spinal pressure to stop myelopathy progression and allow healing.

Your doctor may recommend a laminotomy for persistent spinal or leg pain caused by: 

  • Bone spurs, abnormal growths of bone on a vertebra, which can lead to compression of the spinal cord and nerves

  • Herniated spinal disc, displacement of the cushioning disc between the vertebrae 

  • Sciatica, pain that runs down the buttock and leg due to compression of a nerve in the lower back

  • Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column causing pressure on the spinal cord and nerves

Who performs a laminotomy?

An orthopedic surgeon or a neurosurgeon performs a laminotomy. An orthopedic surgeon specializes in surgical treatment of diseases and conditions of the muscles and bones, including the spine. A neurosurgeon specializes in the surgical treatment of diseases and conditions of the nervous system, including the nerves of the spine.

How is a laminotomy performed?

Your laminotomy will be performed in a hospital or surgical center. Your surgeon will perform the surgery by taking out part of the lamina, the back part of your vertebra. This relieves pressure in your spinal canal or on the nerves in your neck or back.  

Surgical approaches to laminotomy

Laminotomy is performed using one of the following approaches:

  • Microlaminotomy is a minimally invasive procedure. It involves inserting special instruments and an arthroscope through small incisions in your back or neck. An arthroscope is a thin, lighted camera that transmits pictures of the inside of your body to a video screen viewed by your surgeon while performing the surgery. Microlaminotomy generally involves a faster recovery and less pain than open surgery. This is because it causes less damage to tissues and organs. Your surgeon will make small incisions instead of a larger one used in open surgery. Surgical tools are threaded around muscles and tissues instead of cutting through or displacing them as in open surgery.

  • Open surgery requires a large incision in your back over the affected vertebra. The length of the incision will depend on how many vertebrae need to be treated. Open surgery allows your surgeon to directly see and access the surgical area. Open surgery generally involves a longer recovery and more pain than minimally invasive surgery. Open surgery requires a larger incision and more cutting and displacement of muscle and other tissues than minimally invasive surgery. Despite this, open surgery may be a safer or more effective method for certain patients.

Your surgeon will advise you on which procedure is best for you and how long you need to stay in the hospital based on your diagnosis, age, medical history, general health, and possibly your personal preference. Learn about the different procedures and ask why your surgeon will use a particular type for you.
Types of anesthesia that may be used

Your surgeon will perform your laminotomy using general anesthesia. General anesthesia is a combination of intravenous (IV) medications and gases that put you in a deep sleep. You are unaware of the procedure and will not feel any pain. 

You may also have a peripheral nerve block infusion in addition to general anesthesia. A peripheral nerve block infusion is an injection or continuous drip of liquid anesthetic. The anesthetic flows through a tiny tube inserted near your surgical site to control pain during and after surgery.

What to expect the day of your laminotomy

The day of your surgery, you can generally expect to:

  • Talk with a preoperative nurse. The nurse will perform an exam and ensure that all needed tests are in order. The nurse can also answer questions and will make sure you understand and sign the surgical consent form. 

  • Remove all clothing and jewelry and dress in a hospital gown. It is a good idea to leave all jewelry and valuables at home or with a family member. Your care team will give you blankets for modesty and warmth.

  • Talk with the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist about your medical history and the type of anesthesia you will receive.

  • A surgical team member will start an IV.

  • The anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist will start your anesthesia.

  • A tube will be placed in your windpipe to protect and control breathing during general anesthesia. You will not feel or remember this or the surgery as they happen.

  • The surgical team will monitor your vital signs and other critical body functions. This occurs throughout the procedure and your recovery until you are alert, breathing effectively, and your vital signs are stable.

What are the risks and potential complications of a laminotomy? 

As with all surgeries, a laminotomy involves risks and possible complications. Complications may become serious and life threatening in some cases. Complications can develop during surgery or recovery.  

General risks of surgery 

The general risks of surgery include: 

  • Anesthesia reaction, such as an allergic reaction and problems with breathing 

  • Bleeding, which can lead to shock

  • Blood clots, in particular a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) that develops in the leg or pelvis. A DVT can dislodge and move to a lung causing a pulmonary embolism.

  • Infection 

Potential complications of laminotomy

Complications of a laminotomy include:

  • Bone infection of the vertebra

  • Nerve and blood vessel damage

  • No pain relief or little pain relief following surgery

  • Recurrent symptoms, including back and leg pain

  • Spinal nerve injuries causing weakness, numbness or pain

Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce the risk of certain complications by following your treatment plan and:

  • Following activity, dietary and lifestyle restrictions and recommendations before surgery and during recovery

  • Notifying your doctor immediately of any concerns, such as bleeding, fever, increase in pain, or wound redness, swelling or drainage 

  • Taking your medications exactly as directed 

  • Telling all members of your care team if you have any allergies

How do I prepare for my laminotomy? 

You are an important member of your own healthcare team. The steps you take before surgery can improve your comfort and outcome.

You can prepare for a laminotomy by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history and medications you take. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Getting preoperative testing as directed. Testing varies depending on your age, health, and specific procedure. Preoperative testing may include a chest X-ray, EKG (electrocardiogram), blood tests, and other tests as needed.

  • Losing excess weight before the surgery through a healthy diet and exercise plan

  • Not eating or drinking before surgery as directed. Your surgery may be cancelled if you eat or drink too close to the start of surgery because you can choke on stomach contents during anesthesia.

  • Stopping smoking as soon as possible. Even quitting for just a few days can be beneficial and help the healing process.

  • Taking or stopping medications exactly as directed. This may include not taking aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and blood thinners. 

Questions to ask your doctor

Facing surgery can be stressful. It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during their doctor’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your doctor with concerns and questions before surgery and between appointments.

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointments. Questions can include:

  • Why do I need a laminotomy? Are there any other options for treating my condition?

  • Which type of laminotomy procedure will I need? 

  • How long will the surgery take? When can I go home?

  • What restrictions will I have after the surgery? When can I return to work and other activities?

  • What kind of assistance will I need at home?

  • What kind of rehabilitation program or physical therapy will I need?

  • What medications will I need before and after the surgery? How do I take my regular medications? 

  • How will you treat my pain?

  • When should I follow up with you?

  • How should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

What can I expect after my laminotomy?

Knowing what to expect can help make your road to recovery after laminotomy as smooth as possible. 

How long will it take to recover?

You will stay in the recovery room after surgery until you are alert, breathing effectively, and your vital signs are stable. Your care team will likely have you up and walking once you are alert. 

You may have a sore throat if a tube was placed in your windpipe during surgery. This is usually temporary, but tell your care team if you are uncomfortable.

Laminotomy may be an outpatient procedure in which you go home the same day. You may need to stay in the hospital for up to four days if you have both a laminotomy and spinal fusion

Recovery after surgery is a gradual process. Recovery time varies depending on the procedure, type of anesthesia, your general health, age, and other factors.  Your doctor will likely recommend a course of physical therapy to help you recover. Full recovery takes several weeks.

Will I feel pain?

Pain control is important element for healing and a smooth recovery. There will be discomfort after a laminotomy. Your doctor will treat your pain so you are comfortable and can get the rest you need. Call your doctor if your pain gets worse or changes because it may be a sign of a complication.

When should I call my doctor?

It is important to keep your follow-up appointments after laminotomy. Contact your doctor for questions and concerns between appointments. Call your doctor right away or seek immediate medical care if you have:

  • Bleeding

  • Breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, or wheezing

  • Change alertness, such as passing out, dizziness, unresponsiveness, or confusion

  • Chest pain, chest tightness, chest pressure, or palpitations

  • Fever. A low-grade fever (lower than 101 degrees Fahrenheit) is common for a couple of days after surgery and not necessarily a sign of a surgical infection. However, you should follow your doctor's specific instructions about when to call for a fever.

  • Inability to urinate or have a bowel movement

  • Leg pain, redness or swelling, especially in the calf, which may indicate a blood clot

  • Pain that is not controlled by your pain medication, worsening pain, or pain that is different or occurs in a new area, such as in your arm or leg

  • Unexpected drainage, pus, redness, tenderness or swelling of your incision

  • Weakness, numbness or difficulty moving a part of your body

How might a laminotomy affect my everyday life?

Laminotomy may significantly reduce your symptoms so you can lead an active, normal life. For example, laminotomy may relieve or lessen your back pain

A laminotomy will not cure your spine problems or reverse permanent nerve damage caused by long-term spinal cord compression. You can help prevent further spine problems by:

  • Following your doctor’s instructions about how to move, walk, sit and stand

  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including an appropriate body weight

  • Practicing good posture

  • Strengthening your back and leg muscles with exercises as recommended by your healthcare provider

  • Using proper body mechanics when lifting or carrying objects

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 15
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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