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The road back to health: What to expect after spinal surgery

Brain and Spine Physical Therapy Healthy Aging
man with spinal injury

When a disorder impacting the spinal column and nerves make every day routines and activities challenging – possibly unbearable – it may be time for spinal surgery to correct the problem.

The path to recovery after spine surgery will depend on the severity of the diagnosis and the type of surgery needed to correct the damage. In most patients with back or neck pain, surgery is the last resort after trying other treatments, such as physical therapy, medications and possibly injections.

“By the time people need back surgery, they usually have quite a bit of pain in the back, neck and possibly limbs,” says William H. McAllister IV, M.D., a neurosurgeon with Riverside Hampton Roads Neurosurgical & Spine Specialists. “Many surgeries safely alleviate pressure on nerves, thereby decreasing and eliminating frustrating and sometimes debilitating pain and weakness for patients.”

Types of spine surgery

Spinal procedures performed at Riverside Health System include:

  • Discectomy – Surgery to remove all or part of a herniated disc that might be compressing a specific nerve. A healthy disc acts as a cushion between adjacent vertebrae. Deterioration in discs can cause pain.
  • Fusion – Surgery to join together two or more bones in the spine to stop movement between them and correct improper alignment of the vertebrae.
  • Laminectomy – Surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves by widening the spinal canal and removing arthritic bone and ligament tissue that enlarges over many years.

Recovery after spinal surgery

Recovery after neck or back surgery can range from days to months, depending on the type of surgery performed and the patient’s overall health status.

“To have a successful recovery, it’s critical to follow post-op instructions so you gradually return to activities and don’t overdo it,” Dr. McAllister says. “Your spine needs time to heal properly and regain strength and movement.”

To relieve post-surgery pain, your doctor may prescribe one or more of these medications: opioids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen) and injection or topical medication.

Here are some common tips to follow after spinal surgery:

  • Call your doctor if your wound becomes reddened, swollen or drains any fluid.
  • Don’t bend at the waist excessively.
  • Don’t repetitively lift or carry heavy objects, about what a gallon of milk weighs.
  • Keep your incision clean and dry, cleaning it as instructed by your doctor.
  • Get ample amounts of rest, sleeping in any position that does not cause pain.
  • Try not to sit for longer than 20-30 minutes at a time.
  • Wear a back brace as directed by your doctor.

Resuming activity after spinal surgery

Your surgeon will recommend careful and limited movements after surgery. You may only be able to go up or down the stairs once a day for the first couple of weeks and take only short walks. Some movement is important to prevent blood clots from forming in your legs, also known as deep vein thrombosis. Your doctor may ask you to wear compression socks, too.

You may need ongoing physical therapy at some point in your recovery. The therapist will help you strengthen and stretch your back muscles. You’ll also learn how to strengthen the core muscles which will help prevent pain and keep your spine in a safe position.

You will be limited on how much you can drive a car after surgery, especially if you’re taking opioid medications. Even riding in a car must be gradual, so you’re not sitting for too long.

Our neurosurgery team specializes in minimally invasive procedures to treat neurological and spine conditions, providing world-class medical, surgical and rehabilitative care. Check out our neurosurgery locations.

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