With the growing number of spine surgeries in the United States comes an increasing number of patients who want to know “How can I help myself recover from spine surgery more quickly and easily?”
Kaixuan Liu, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center, finds himself offering advice on this subject to many of his patients who have often suffered with back pain for months or longer and now have deciding to undergo either “open” or “minimally invasive” spine surgery. Typically, spine surgery isn’t considered until a bevy of conservative treatments including medication, physical therapy, injections and other measures have failed to provide adequate relief.
More than a million Americans undergo procedures for spinal problems every year. The four most common types of spine operations include discectomy, which removes part or all of a spinal disc; foraminotomy, which widens the opening in the spine where nerve roots extend; laminectomy, which removes the two small bones that make up a vertebra to relieve pressure in that area; and spinal fusion, which joins two bones together to help stabilize the spine.
“No matter why a patient undergoes spine surgery, they typically ask me how they can return more rapidly to doing the activities they enjoyed before,” explains Dr. Liu. “And that’s the ultimate goal of spine surgery: to help people restore their quality of life. They can help speed along that result by taking certain measures
Establishing expectations after spine surgery
First, it’s crucial to know what to expect after spine surgery in order to tailor your at-home recovery plans, Dr. Liu says. Much depends on the type of surgery you’ve undergone; either “open” surgery, which entails a longer incision, or minimally invasive surgery, which normally involves significantly smaller incisions.
Either way, you’ll probably be dealing with some pain just after surgery and perhaps for a few days afterward, he notes. “Temporarily, you may also still feel some pain, numbness or weakness along the path of nerves that had been under pressure – the very nerves the surgery was designed to relieve,” Dr. Liu adds. “After months or even years of that pressure, understandably the nerves take a little time to feel better after surgery.”
Muscle spasms or tightness may also occur near the surgical area, as well as some short-lived swelling and redness at the incision site(s), he says. “The first few days are generally the most challenging, but from there on your comfort level should only improve,” says Dr. Liu.
Tips for an ideal recovery
Helping yourself recover starts with following the verbal and written discharge instructions your surgeon has given you to follow post-operatively, along with filling any prescription medications. In addition, Dr. Liu also offers these tips to smooth your path:
1. Ask for help: This also counts for pain – as in, asking your doctor for a medication switch or further advice if your pain prescription isn’t doing the trick. It also means asking for help at home, Dr. Liu says. “Don’t be afraid to ask family members or friends for a hand in the early days after surgery, whether that means picking up groceries or taking you to follow-up medical or physical therapy appointments,” he adds.
2. Apply ice and heat: Frequent ice application, especially in the first 2 to 3 days post-surgery, can help ease pain. In addition, heat may be used to relieve tension or muscle spasms in areas away from the surgical incision(s). Make sure to check with your doctor on what he recommends.
3. Get your zzzz’s: Most healing occurs when we’re asleep, so catching that shut-eye isn’t just a luxury, Dr. Liu says. “You can sleep in whatever position feels most comfortable, but make sure you’re not stressing your back,” he says. “Some patients like to place a pillow between their knees or behind them to support the back.”
4. Go to physical therapy: If your surgeon recommends PT after surgery, don’t blow it off as optional. “Guided exercise and stretching can greatly enhance your recovery and reduce any lingering pain,” he says.
5. Ask about bracing: Beforehand, you will find out if your doctor thinks a back brace is needed after surgery. If so, understand what type and how to use it properly.
6.Short walks pay off: Start by walking short distances in the days after surgery and increase your distance each day. Your stamina and endurance should also increase because you’ve made this effort, Dr. Liu notes.
7.Avoid certain movements: Twisting, bending, or lifting more than 5 pounds should be avoided in the first days and weeks after surgery. “Talk to your doctor about any necessary activity restrictions and how long you should adhere to them,” he says.
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