Ask the Expert: Post-Laminectomy Syndrome

In this week’s installment of Ask the Expert, Dr. Seth Waldman, director of the HSS Division of Pain Management, answers questions about post-laminectomy syndrome.

Q1. What is post-laminectomy syndrome and why does it occur?

This is not a simple question, because post-laminectomy syndrome is very complex even though it’s referred to as a single entity. Strictly speaking, post-laminectomy syndrome means that a person is experiencing pain, and that they had a prior spinal surgery (not necessarily even a laminectomy). As such, there are many different forms that this condition can take. Some possible variations include:

  • The patient had spinal surgery, recovered well, and now has developed a new and unrelated spinal problem.
  • The patient had spinal surgery, and despite the procedure going well, the original pain did not go away.
  • The patient had spinal surgery, and developed a complication such as an infection, nerve injury, or failure to heal.

The problem becomes even more complicated when you consider the role that human behavior plays in the expression of pain. People express pain differently, and sometimes for different reasons at different times.

It is also important to consider the effect of the long-term use of narcotic pain medications in people with persistent pain, including post-laminectomy syndrome. Narcotic medications (opioids such as oxycodone or morphine) work by binding to the body’s natural endorphin system- the mechanism by which our brain interprets a sensation as painful or not. In fact, most prescribed opioids bind to the endorphin system so well that they crowd out our body’s naturally-produced endorphins, and inhibit the brain’s ability to produce these natural pain-relieving substances.

In the long term, this can lead not only to the development of tolerance to opioid medications, but an increase in the overall sense of pain. This paradoxical phenomenon is called opioid-induced hyperalgesia. When possible, patients and their doctors should moderate the use of pain medications due to the increased risk for developing increased pain with long-term use; and be careful of the serious short-term risk that these medications pose in terms of addiction, respiratory suppression, constipation, nausea, itching, etc.

Q2. What are the symptoms of post-laminectomy syndrome?

The symptoms of post-laminectomy syndrome are highly variable, but broadly include low back or neck pain and pain in the extremities.

Low back or neck pain- what we call axial spinal pain- is a common symptom in post-laminectomy syndrome. We usually attribute this pain to an abnormality in one of the structures in or around the spinal column, and it has several possible causes, including:

  • Muscle spasm due to trauma or poor muscle conditioning
  • Arthritis of the spinal (facet) joints
  • Disc herniation
  • Painful instrumentation (for example, when metal has been used to secure a spinal fusion)
  • Surgical complications such as bleeding or infection

Patients with post-laminectomy syndrome may also complain of neurologic symptoms radiating to areas distant from the spine- most often the arms or legs. Neurologic pain can reproduce any normal sensation such as heat, cold, or electricity, but is being produced by the injured nerves themselves, rather than by sensing an actual problem in the extremity.

Neurologic symptoms are not limited to sensations and can include feelings of heaviness, actual loss of strength, or less commonly, dysfunction of the bladder or bowel. Sometimes, these symptoms come from an identifiable problem with a specific nerve or group of nerves such as with a recurrent disc herniation, or arachnoiditis, an often painful inflammation of the cells lining the nerve itself, but they can present without an apparent initial cause as well, sometimes making neurologic pain difficult to identify and treat.

Q3. What can you do if you have post-laminectomy syndrome?

The most important thing you can do is to get a thorough evaluation. This means reassessing the current status of your situation- even if you have done so before- with a physician experienced in evaluating this condition. A careful physical examination and high quality radiologic imaging is essential to make sure that there are no outstanding mechanical or neurological issues, which could generate pain.

Physical exercise and rehabilitation, particularly core stabilizing exercise, stretching to improve joint mobility, and weight bearing strength training for the extremities, are essential components of a multi-modal treatment of persistent spinal pain. It is when the pain becomes too severe, or does not respond to initial treatment such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, that more thorough evaluation (possibly including interventional procedures) becomes necessary.

Spinal pain is often generated from inside the vertebral column itself and can often be diagnosed and treated by using fluoroscopically guided injections. These can include common procedures such as epidural steroid injection to more complicated methods like radiofrequency facet ablation.

Neurological pain, which is pain generated from within damaged nerves, can respond to removal of a compressing structure or relief of surrounding inflammation. Again, sometimes this can be treated with targeted injection of anti-inflammatory medication around the affected nerve. For more persistent issues resulting from nerve injury, it is sometimes necessary to use medication, which reduces the abnormal firing of the injured nerve such as anti-convulsant medication, or changes the way the brain and spinal cord process the abnormal pain signals such as anti-depressant medication. In circumstances in which a patient with neurologic pain either does not respond or cannot tolerate these medications, treatment with an implanted spinal cord stimulator may be effective in controlling these symptoms.

Q4. Is there any recent research available?

Because of the diverse nature of this group of conditions, the literature is sometimes confusing. I have included a few reviews of specific subjects, such as spinal cord stimulation and interventional pain management in general, but it is important to remember that this area of medicine is not completely understood, in rapid evolution, and that there are sometimes competing interests. Systemic research reviews, which connects the data from multiple randomized controlled studies and provide information about their quality, are generally reliable sources if they have been published in peer-reviewed journals:

  • Spinal Cord Stimulation for Patients with Failed Back Surgery Syndrome: A Systematic Review, ME Frey, L Manchikanti, RM Benyamin, DM Schultz, HS Smith and SP Cohen, Pain Physician 2009; 12: 379-397
  • Interventional Pain Management for Failed Back Surgery Syndrome, A Hussain, M Erdek, Pain Practice, Volume 14, Issue 1, pages 64-78, January 2014

Dr. Seth Waldman is the Director of the Division of Pain Management at Hospital for Special Surgery. Dr. Waldman has more than 15 years of experience in the field of interventional and medical pain management. He specializes in therapeutic and diagnostic spinal injections and the management of neurologic pain.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.


  1. I”ve had two sections fused and four Laminectomy”s (L sections) with herniated disc in C sections and similar problems in T sections. 60 years old with restrictions of mobility, pain continuous. What is future work potential?

    1. Hi Matthew, thank you for reaching out. It is best to consult with a treating physician who is familiar with your medical history and treatment plan. If you wish to receive care at HSS, please contact our Physician Referral Service at 877-606-1555 for further assistance.

  2. I had a posterior lumbar fusion of discs L4, L5 and S1 with rubber spacers. I have less back pain, no more shooting pains but still significant pain in my lower back and tailbone. I did experience a severe, probably septic, infection upon release from the hospital and had to be re admitted. My surgeon has given me 4 rounds of injections, 6 each, and physical therapy a number of times with little relief. My surgeon tells me that I have extensive scar tissue, arthritis and damage to the disc on top of the fusion. I have been on methadone and Vicodin for 3 years and nothing helps much. I think it is time for me to find another doctor as mine seems indifferent and shrugs a lot. I’m requesting a referral to a specialist at HSS, I look forward to your reply.

    1. Hi David, thank you for reaching out. If you wish to receive care at HSS, please contact our Physician Referral Service at 877-606-1555 for further assistance.

    2. I had a laminectomy/disectomy in June of 2012.while in the hospital my drainage tube came lose from the suction on 4 occasions.Post op I had to have 350 cc of blood&fluids suctioned out.
      Here we are in just about Nov 2014 I am still not right.Pain in my low back & bilaterally in the legs is far worse than prior to surge. I’m unable to sit or stand upright completely. I’m unable to stand to stand for more than 30 minutes. My entire body seems to be effected. I’m extremely depressed &barely hanging by a thread

      1. Hi Elizabeth, thank you for reaching out. Dr. Seth Waldman, Anesthesiologist, says your question “is too specific to be answered just on this basis. You should be examined by your surgeon, or could be referred to a pain management specialist if necessary. The most important point is that someone needs to evaluate you in person.” If you wish to receive care at HSS, please contact our Physician Referral Service at 877-606-1555 for further assistance.

      2. Hello Elizabeth, I see your message is several months old, and am hoping you are feeling a bit better at this time. I have had anterior/posterior spinal surgery with instrumentation on just about everything back there followed by a second surgery adding a cage. None of it has helped one iota and I was left with far more issues than those with which I began. My concern for you is that I hear your frustration, sadness and anger about your current condition. I empathize completely. I am more than familiar with these demons and fight them on a daily basis. My surgeries were in 2003 and then on 2010. I also was unable to sit with my family at a table for a meal comfortably for many years. Even now I wriggle about to keep the pain at bay. I have a whole trunk full of horror stories regarding these surgeries and my recovery through the years. I try to keep that trunk locked but the memories seem compelled to occasionally accompany me as I go about my days. I briefly allow them access to me and then reason them back into the trunk because like a grouchy neighbor, I’ll just say “hi” but there is absolutely no point in asking him to come for dinner! My point being, allow yourself to feel sorry for yourself for a moment, but honestly, you have to pull it together and make the best of things. Your condition may or may not improve, but you can change how you look at your world. If you have a family, friends, pet – these can be a source of joy and comfort in your life. I hope that there is someone there for you. Also, there’s your medical team. If you have a doctor that listens to you and is responsive to your needs you are indeed fortunate. I have been a patient of Dr. Waldman’s since 2003 and quite honestly, other than my family, he has been the reason I keep going. He is truly a good, good man. Enough said. You are not alone in this, and neither am I. Take special care of yourself.

        1. Hi Barbara, thank you for sharing your experiences and offering your words of encouragement to Elizabeth! We are wishing you all the best on your road to recovery.

  3. I had a three level fusion in 2005 and have man neurological issues that you mentioned. I would be interested in an evaluation. I wonder what insurances you take. I take Lyrica and still have numbness in my feet. Pins and needles and electric shooting pain in my right foot. I fell on black ice and that added to my pain. My toes cramp all the time and my ankle twists. The electrocution pain at night has forced me to stop working. Anxious to hear from you. I have had epidurals with short term relief. My surgery was done by Dr. Mark Camel from ONS in CT. Thank you so much. Awaiting your response.

    1. Hi Fran, thank you for reaching out. We have sent your request to our Physician Referral Service and they will contact you shortly.

If you’d like to consider HSS for treatment, please contact our Patient Referral Service at 888-720-1982. For general questions and comments, reach us on Facebook or Twitter.