Do's and Don'ts After Spine Surgery

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Spine Expert Dr. Kaixuan Liu with Atlantic Spine Center offers tips to maximize recovery after spine surgery and get “back” to pain-free living.

Dr. Kaixuan Liu

Patients who’ve decided to have spine surgery need to prepare for their post-surgical recovery, which will not only lessen pain just after the procedure but improve their overall recovery.

You’ve made the momentous decision to go ahead with spine surgery to fix your chronic back problems. But your efforts toward pain-free living only renew after the procedure ends. Indeed, back surgery patients can do much to maximize their recovery and return to their favorite activities, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.

"With the steady increase in back surgeries among Americans, it’s more important than ever that patients understand what they should and shouldn’t do after spine surgery to make their recoveries safer and even more pleasant", Dr. Liu says. More than 465,000 spinal fusion operations – which comprise the vast majority of spinal procedures – are performed each year in the United States, up from about 250,000 such procedures in 2001, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

But whether you’re undergoing a discectomy, which removes all or part of vertebral discs; foraminotomy, which widens the opening in the spine from which nerve roots extend; laminectomy, which removes small bones or bone spurs in the back to lessen spinal pressure; or spinal fusion, which fuses two bones together to correct spinal problems, planning for the procedure’s aftermath is of utmost importance.

“Patients who’ve decided to have spine surgery need to prepare for their post-surgical recovery, which will not only lessen pain just after the procedure but improve their overall recovery,” explains Dr. Liu. “The treating physician and nursing staff typically provides written discharge instructions and prescriptions for pain medicine and physical therapy, but patients and their families should be aware of several things that can smooth the transition from hospital to home, and then back to regular life.”

What not to do after spine surgery. The "don'ts" after spine surgery can be just as important as the “do's,” according to Dr. Liu. In the days just after surgery, he advises patients to avoid:

  •     Impatience: Recovering from spine surgery – depending on the exact procedure – can take between a few weeks and a few months. “Most of all, don’t rush activities in the hopes of speeding up this process, since that can backfire,” Dr. Liu says. “Give yourself the time your body needs to completely heal.”
  •     Climbing stairs: Going up or down stairs once or twice a day is fine for the first couple of weeks, but try not to overdo it.
  •     Bending at the waist: Instead, bend at the knees and squat down to pick up objects.
  •     Lifting heavy weights: “Nothing over 10 pounds, or more than a gallon of milk,” he cautions. “This means no laundry baskets, grocery bags or small children. If you’ve had a spinal fusion, that also means avoiding lifting items above your head until your doctor approves.”
  •     Driving: Taking the wheel is off-limits for at least two weeks after surgery, Dr. Liu says, and try to limit time in the car as a passenger to short distances.
  •     Smoking: Smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products hinders healing, he says.
  •     Exercising: “Beyond simple walking, don’t start swimming, golfing, running or other strenuous activities without first getting your doctor’s OK,” Dr. Liu says.

What to do to improve spine surgery recovery. After explaining all of the no-no’s following spine surgery, Dr. Liu likes to focus on what patients can do to maximize their recovery. His list of “do's” includes:

  •     Taking pain medication: If your doctor prescribes post-surgery pain medications, it’s important to stay on top of the recommended dosage in order to prevent pain from escalating, Dr. Liu says.
  •     Doing physical therapy: If your doctor recommends physical therapy, it’s important to prioritize this form of rehabilitation. “You’ll need to learn how to move and do activities in a way that prevents pain and keeps your back in a safe position,” Dr. Liu says. “Physical therapy also teaches patients how to get out of bed or up from a chair safely; how to dress and undress; and how to keep your back safe when doing other activities, which eventually will include lifting and carrying items.”
  •     Wearing a brace: “If your doctor prescribes a back brace, wearing it will help stabilize your back as it heals,” Dr. Liu notes. “Wear it when you are sitting or walking, and only take it off during pre-approved periods of time.”
  •     Sleeping in any position that doesn’t cause back pain: “Continuous, uninterrupted sleep is important for healing faster,” he says. “Some back surgery patients prefer to sleep on their side with a pillow between their knees or behind them to support their back.”
  •     Moving regularly: Regular, gentle movement helps keep blood circulating, speeding healing, Dr. Liu says.

Most importantly, Dr. Liu’s “do's” include calling your physician whenever in doubt about your surgical recovery or if you begin to backslide.

“If you run a fever, lose feeling in your arms or legs, have difficulty urinating or controlling bowel movements, or if your back pain begins to worsen and doesn’t get better with rest and pain medications, don’t hesitate to be in touch with your doctor,” he says. “We only want the fastest, most optimal recovery for our spine surgery patients, and being in touch is crucial.”

Atlantic Spine Center is a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with several locations in NJ and NYC.,

Kaixuan Liu, MD, is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery at Atlantic Spine Center.

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