5 Tips for Faster Back Surgery Recovery
Back pain is a common problem. Stress and strain, not to mention aging, are inevitable. In most cases, conservative approaches like heat, ice, and physical therapy are effective ways to address this discomfort. In fact, 90 percent of the millions of Americans who suffer from back pain will recover without surgical intervention, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. But if you need surgery to address your back pain, your recovery time is probably one of your biggest concerns.
Your recovery time will depend on a lot of different factors including your age, your overall health, the severity of your back injury, and what kind of surgery you have. Some of the more common types of back surgery include:
- Discectomy. Discs separate each of the vertebrae in your spine. If one of these discs is damaged or slips out of place, it can place pressure on nerves in your back and cause significant pain. During a discectomy procedure, a surgeon will remove part of that disc to alleviate the pressure it is putting on the nerves. After undergoing a lumbar microdiscectomy, patients can expect to limit movement for six weeks.
- Disc replacement. In some cases, a disc can be so worn out that it needs to be replaced. If this is the case, you may be a candidate for artificial disc replacement. During the procedure, a surgeon will remove an entire disc and replace it with an artificial one made of either metal or a combination of metal and plastic. The surgery will take two to three hours, and you can expect to stay in the hospital for one to three days following the procedure, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. You will likely be encouraged to walk the first day after undergoing the procedure.
- Laminectomy. The lamina is the part of the vertebrae that help cover the spinal canal. Sometimes this part of the bone can put pressure on the nerves in the spinal canal. During a laminectomy, a surgeon will remove all or part of a lamina. This can relieve the pressure causing your back pain. The majority of patients (70 percent to 80 percent) experience a significant reduction of pain and improvement in function following this surgery. Most laminectomy patients return to basic activities within a few days or weeks, while full, normal activity may need to wait for a few months.
- Spinal fusion. Spinal fusion can be used to treat lumbar degenerative disc disease, lumbar spondylolisthesis and several other issues that cause pain in a vertebral segment. During this procedure, surgeons fuse together vertebra at the site of pain. This fusion limits movement that causes pain. Most patients will be past the most significant postoperative pain at one month following the procedure. Physical therapy may be prescribed for up to three months.
There are many other procedures that address back pain, and if you need surgery, your doctor will help you understand your options.
Once you know you are getting surgery, you can start to think ahead to your postoperative recovery. Here are five ways you can speed up your recovery time from back surgery.
Follow Your Doctor’s Post-Operative Plan
Listening to your doctor’s directions for postoperative recovery is the number one way to reduce recovery time after back surgery. Before surgery, your doctor will carefully outline your recovery plan, including realistic expectations for pain management and return to normal activities. While some of the restrictions may seem burdensome, do not push yourself beyond what your doctor recommends. These recommendations are designed to give your body the time it needs to heal properly.
Your physician is going to recommend plenty of rest, which can be frustrating for people who are used to being physically active. Remind yourself that healing is productive, though it may not feel like it. Your doctor’s recommendations will also include specific medication instructions. Be sure you understand what medications you will be taking for pain control and how often you will need to take them. If you are planning to have a friend, child, or spouse help you during recovery, it can be beneficial to let them know your medication schedule so that they can help you stay on track.
Remember that healing is a gradual process. Many patients experience emotional downswings following surgery because the restrictions on activity and slow climb to recovery can be disheartening. It can be easy to let those feelings take over, but make a conscious effort to focus on other things. Celebrate small victories, like gradually decreasing pain and increasing energy levels. A positive and goal-oriented mindset can be a significant help during your recovery period.
Don’t Ignore Your Pain
Pain is an expected part of recovery from any type of back surgery, but different types of pain mean different things. Before surgery, talk with your doctor to get a comprehensive idea of what you should expect when it comes to pain. How severe will it be? Where will you feel it? How long will it last?
Knowing what to expect will help you know whether what you are feeling is normal or warrants contacting your doctor. Some pain may be completely normal, while other types can indicate a complication from surgery.
If your postoperative pain is outside the scope of what your doctor told you to expect, do not ignore it. For example, pain or swelling located in your arm or leg could indicate a blood clot. Blood clots are a risk with any surgery because the lack of movement decreases blood flow and puts you at risk for clots. Severe pain at the site of surgery could indicate infection. Carefully monitor your pain during your postoperative recovery and think about what your doctor told you to expect. If your pain is more severe or different from what they told you to prepare for, talk to your doctor. The sooner you catch a potential problem, the less likely it is to interfere with your recovery time.
Even if you are only experiencing expected, normal levels of pain, it is important to control it. Here are a few ways you can manage your post-surgery pain:
- Wear a brace. Following certain spine surgeries, your doctor will recommend that you wear a brace. The brace may be made of cloth, or it might be a larger device made of plastic. Wearing a brace will help you keep your back in the right position, potentially alleviating discomfort from accidental slouching. Remember to wear a comfortable shirt beneath the brace to avoid irritating your skin.
- Use heat and ice. Alternating heat and ice packs on your back can help ease your pain, but be careful not to get the site of the surgery wet until you are cleared by your doctor to do so.
- Take pain medication. Your doctor will prescribe you medication to take after your surgery and recommend over-the-counter options. Your pain control options could include opioids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and local anesthetics. It is important that you follow the medication instructions closely and it can help to ask a family member or friend to manage your medication schedule. It is important to note that you may need to take laxatives, too, as certain pain medications can slow down your digestive system.
Prepare Your Home for Optimal Recovery
Recovery time from spinal surgery varies on a case by case basis, but you can expect to spend a good chunk of time recuperating at home. This means you should prepare your home ahead of time. The more comfortable your recovery space, the easier your rest period will be. Here are few ways you can prepare the major rooms in your home.
- Bedroom. First things first, think about where your bed is located. Is it on the first floor? If not, move it to the first floor if possible. Navigating stairs will be a challenge after surgery.
Next, think about everything you will need while you are recuperating. Place as many of those items as you can within easy reach. This might mean bringing a TV or table close to the bed or moving your phone charger to a bedside table. Have a medication organizer ready and keep plenty of clean clothes within easy reach. Place a heating pad by your bed and consider keeping a cane or walker by your bed for when you are ready for some mobility. You’ll also need to think about what kinds of pillows will keep you most comfortable.
- Bathroom. If possible, make sure your bathroom is on the same floor as your bed. A toilet riser and shower chair may also make your daily routines easier. Remember to have plenty of toilet paper available, too, since you won’t be able to make a trip to the store if you run out.
- Kitchen. Take dishes and silverware out of cabinets that will be hard to reach during your recovery. Keep them on the counter or a convenient shelf in the pantry. You will also want to stock up easily prepared meals. Remember that healthier foods will help you in your recovery. It is ok to indulge in unhealthy snacks, but do your best to stick to an overall healthy diet.
Not everyone can have a person with them 24 hours a day during their recovery, but you should aim to have a loved one check in on you regularly. This person can help you with the things you can’t reach and run to the store for anything you need.
Commit to Physical Therapy
Surgery is not the final step in addressing back pain. Following your surgery, you will spend at least a few weeks of physical therapy. Physical therapy is designed to help your body reach optimal recovery, but it can be very difficult. Push yourself to follow all of your therapist’s instructions as closely as possible. This can help significantly speed up your recovery time.
Physical therapy will likely focus on the muscles surrounding the injury and site of surgery. The exercises your therapist has you perform will provide more stability to the area and help prevent future problems.
Physical therapy does not stop once you and your therapist part ways, though. Your therapist will send you home with exercises to do and it’s important to stay on track with these at-home activities.
Focus on Building Healthy Habits
While you are recovering, it can be tempting to indulge in junk food and other bad habits. These indulgences might make you feel better in the short-term, but they will likely hinder your recovery. Here are a few postoperative healthy habits to adopt.
- Healthy diet. During your recovery time, your body is going to need additional calories to fuel its healing, but these extra calories do not need to come from fatty foods and sweets. Instead, focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, high-protein foods, and other nutritious options. You can also take supplements and vitamins if your doctor recommends them and work protein shakes and smoothies into your diet if you find it hard to work the extra calories into your diet. It is also important to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water.
- No smoking and drinking. Smoking and excessive drinking are not healthy habits for anyone, and this is especially true while recovering from surgery. If you are a smoker, try to avoid cigarettes during your recovery. Nicotine can slow down the rate at which your bones heal. Likewise, avoid drinking to excess. Alcohol can have dangerous interactions with the pain medications you will need to take post-surgery.
- Stick to a sleep schedule. You need a good amount of sleep for a speedy recovery. This can be hard to achieve with the discomfort you may experience, but try to build a sleep schedule and stick to it. If you feel yourself drifting in the middle of the day, try to distract yourself with some kind of entertainment. This will make it easier to get an uninterrupted night of sleep.
- Exercise. Check with your doctor and physical therapist on appropriate exercises that can help speed up your healing. This habit is also a good one to stick with after your recovery. Regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight, which is vital to avoiding future back issues.
- Focus on good posture. Good posture can help you avoid discomfort during your recovery, and it helps you achieve proper alignment for your spine. Try to change positions frequently while you rest to remind yourself to maintain good posture. You can also get low back support pillows to help you with your posture.
These general back surgery recovery tips can be helpful, but the first step on the road to addressing your back pain is connecting with the right doctor. The right physician will help you reach a diagnosis, build a treatment of plan, and put you on the path to swift recovery.