Recovering From Spinal Surgery
If you’ve been suffering from chronic back pain, you may be hoping that spinal surgery will provide relief. Although spinal surgery is not the answer for everybody, it can be helpful for certain patients.
However, spinal surgery alone is only half of the equation. There is a recovery period in the hospital, followed by months of rehabilitation. Taking steps to support your recovery is essential otherwise you might find yourself feeling disheartened that you’re still in pain months later.
The human body is incredibly complex, and no one body part operates in isolation. This is particularly true of the spine. When you’re considering back pain and all of the factors that can contribute to it, there is a lot more to look at than just the structure of your spine. These include weight, posture, biomechanics, and muscle control.
So while spinal surgery may help with specific back problems, there could still be other factors in play that could be causing pain.
Additionally, when your body is injured – including after surgery – it compensates, trying to rest the affected part. After spinal surgery, the body will put extra load on other areas of the spine without you even being aware. The end result could be referred pain.
For these reasons, relying on spinal surgery alone – without support during the recovery phase – can actually lead to a 5% increase in disability!
A study on post-surgery by the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation also found that both post-surgery disability AND leg pain is reduced by a massive 55% when your rehabilitation program includes active care and spinal manipulation.
This is why it is important to seek the support of a spinal consultant throughout your recovery, so you can work towards a pain-free future.
Most common types of back surgery
The recovery time and tips for recovering from spinal surgery will vary depending on which spinal surgery you have had.
Foraminotomy – A foraminotomy widens the space around a bone in your spinal column, called the foraminal canal. The goal of this is to relieve pressure on compressed nerves.
Discectomy – This surgery aims to fix a disc in a lower back by removing part of a herniated, bulging, extruding, or fragmented spinal disc.
Laminectomy – This is the most common surgery used for spinal decompression. It removes a portion of the spine that might be trapping nerves and causing pain and pressure. Laminectomies are often performed in conjunction with another type of surgery, called spinal fusion.
Spinal Fusion – Rather than removing bone or tissue, spinal fusion permanently joins the bones in your back (vertebrae) together. The theory is that if two unstable vertebrae are causing pain and discomfort, reducing movement and instability will alleviate symptoms.
How to prepare to get the best results from spinal surgery
While it’s a big hurdle out of the way, surgery is not the end of the journey. It will take time and work to recover post-op. The best thing you can do is be prepared, and stock up on anything you might need ahead of time so that you can feel ready for your recovery.
Here are some steps you should tick off your to-do list before surgery:
Prepare a list of questions and concerns to discuss with your surgeon. Ask your surgeon if there are particular rehabilitation requirements for your type of surgery, and how it might impact your daily life. For example, if your house has access via stairs, you may want to check if you will be able to climb stairs straight after surgery.
Stock up on anything you might need ahead of time, because driving usually isn’t permitted for several weeks after spinal surgery.
Some items that you might like to stock up on include:
Healthy meals and snacks: You might find it helpful to ‘meal prep’ ahead of time and freeze pre-prepared portions of food such as soup or chicken and rice. That way you can simply take them out of the freezer and heat them up.
Alternatively, you could consider a meal kit or meal delivery service that will bring food to your door for a few weeks. This will mean that you don’t have to worry about getting to the store, carrying and preparing the food. It would also mean that you can focus on eating well to reduce overall inflammation and give your body the best chance of a speedy recovery.
Items used for support and pain relief: These may include ice or heat packs, additional pillows or body pillows for when you are lying in bed, and a pill organiser to dispense your medications into.
You might also find that it is helpful or necessary to invest in other items: items such as a shower chair, back brace, or cane to support your walking. It’s best to find out what you need ahead of time, rather than trying to organise everything after surgery.
Ensure that you moderate your rest and your exercise. Both are important parts of recovery. Your surgeon will likely advise you on when to get up and walk around, and how frequently. Make sure that in between these periods of exercise you are giving your body adequate rest. Avoid overly strenuous activities and stock up on movies and games so that you aren’t left wishing for entertainment.
Work closely with your physiotherapist in the time following the surgery.
Your physiotherapist can be your best friend through the time following surgery. They will be able to suggest appropriate strengthening exercises and other things that you can do to aid in your rehabilitation. The advice will be tailored to the type of surgery you have had and your particular circumstances in order to best meet your needs.
What you need to know about recovery – key areas.
Pain Management and Medication
Pain and stiffness are commonplace after any spinal surgery. You’re going to receive a pain management plan and medication from your surgeon post-surgery.
It’s important to carry out these instructions to assist in your return to activity. Pain medication reduces discomfort and makes movement easier post-op.
Decreasing Hip/Back Strain
During the recovery period, you need to take extra care to reduce the stress on the spine. This means making sure that the spine and hips are well-aligned when sitting, standing, and lying down.
You’ll also want to reduce the amount of time you spend static. Too much time in one position may immobilise the spine and weaken the muscles, leading to stiffness and possible future problems.
Upright posture is important when sitting or standing. Slumping or hunching (especially while seated) can place undue pressure on the lower back and hips, “deactivating” important muscles that stabilise the spine. Proper posture reinforces good habits and may reduce pain/stiffness.
Sitting aids and adjusted seating may be helpful during the recovery period. Lower back support can be added to most chairs and helps you achieve this upright posture.
You can also find general support garments for posture – especially for the lower back. These may provide some benefits for hip/back posture. Remember, however, that they won’t accelerate recovery or replace proper movement/posture.
Sleeping and Rest
Sleeping posture is something that easily goes unnoticed. After all, you’re not awake!
Sleeping in a contorted, twisted position may be problematic during recovery. Too much rotation in the spine or tilt in the hips will contribute to pain and stiffness.
Sleeping supports are available with similar aims to chair supports: they reduce pressure on the pelvis and lower back. These lumbar supports may reduce pain and stiffness in the area, aiding in muscular control and recovery of the spine.
Be careful when rolling over because you can easily rotate the spine or hips independently. This twisting can be a problem during the early days of recovery from spinal surgery, exacerbating symptoms. Try to turn your whole body together.
Graded Exercise and Activity
You should aim for gentle movement once you’ve returned home from the hospital, in-line with your surgeon’s post-op instructions.
Take gentle walks during your recovery period and change positions often. Increased yet safe physical activity can improve recovery outcomes.
Graded exercise which involves gradually increasing physical activity is a gentle approach to exercise and helps ensure that you’re working at an appropriate level for your recovery. It can help improve recovery outcomes and allows you to rehabilitate the muscles around the spine, reducing re-injury and back-pain risks.
Speak with your doctor or one of our team to see when this activity can be incorporated into your recovery program.
What does a spinal consultant do?
In order to get the best results, you can expect to work with your physiotherapist on your rehabilitation for at least 6 to 10 weeks
If you are worried that you will be in too much pain after your operation to embark on a rehabilitation program with a physiotherapist – there is no need to be.
Our Spinal Consultants at The Brisbane Spine Clinic have a wealth of knowledge and experience in this area and can help you with a comfortable rehabilitation program.
Focus on your muscles and movement – Guide you with a personalised treatment program to build your muscle strength and help you regain a better range of movement. You don’t want to undo all the good work by overdoing it!
Address the underlying causes – As mentioned earlier, factors like weight, posture, and biomechanics may be contributing to your back issues – all things your physiotherapist can help with.
Answer your questions – With extensive experience in this area, our team are happy to answer your questions throughout your recovery.
At The Brisbane Spine Centre, we take a holistic approach to your body and well-being. If you are about to undergo surgery for back pain or have just had surgery, contact us about our rehabilitaiton services. We can support you throughout your recovery.
All information is general in nature and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The Brisbane Spine Clinic can consult with you to confirm if this advice is right for you.