Recovering from Spinal Surgery

The entire surgical process – from deciding to have surgery through recovery – can be a thoroughly stressful time. To help reduce your stress levels as much as possible, here’s a checklist of what you’ll need while recovering from surgery, both in the hospital and while recuperating at home.

While this is written specifically for those undergoing back surgery (and particularly fusion surgery), many of these tips will apply to recovery from just about any type of surgery and hospital stay.

  • Crocs. You will want to wear slip on shoes for several weeks (and maybe more) following the surgery so you don’t have to bend over to tie your shoes. Any slip on shoes will work. Crocs are a favorite – they are easy to get on, have some grip on the sole, and can be worn indoors and out. They are useful in the hospital, as you will be encouraged to get up and walk around as much as tolerated soon after the surgery.
  • Ice packs. Ice is a valuable pain reliever. Applying an ice pack to the numb the painful area will go a long way to easing pain and discomfort. An ice massage can be very soothing. If your doctor or nurse doesn’t bring it up, you should ask about how to use ice or cold packs for pain control – it really helps! The hospital will probably have ice packs, but you may want to bring some just in case.
  • Sports bottle. You’ll be encouraged to drink a lot of liquids while in the hospital, and if you don’t want to have to sit up for each sip, bring a sports bottle with a squirt top so that you can drink while lying down or reclining without spilling all over yourself.
  • Laxatives and/or stool softeners. Chances are your doctor won’t bring up this subject, but it will be an important issue to you following the surgery. Post operative constipation is a common occurrence and it can be a major source of pain and discomfort. Prune juice, apple cider, and/or over-the-counter laxatives and stool softeners will all help prevent postoperative constipation. Your hospital will likely provide these, but you may want to bring them just to play it safe.
  • Practice the log roll. You’re going to need to learn how to get into and out of bed safely, and a log roll technique will do the trick. It’s best to ask about this before the surgery so you can practice a bit and get the hang of it without any pressure or fear of pain. Many say that getting in and out of bed after fusion surgery is one of the most intimidating and difficult aspects of the recovery process.
  • Trash bags. Putting a trash bag on the bed will reduce the friction so you slide more easily onto the bed. Also, you’ll want a trash bag to put on the car seat for the ride home.
  • Heating pads. Starting about two days after surgery, the doctor may allow you to use heating pads to alleviate local pain and discomfort.

Recuperating at home

In addition to everything from the above list (except maybe the ear plugs), you will need a few things to help with your recovery at home, such as:

  • Mini-fridge. Especially after a spine fusion, you probably won’t want to be running up and down the stairs during your recovery. A mini-fridge in your room allows you to stock up on water, juice and other essentials for the day. A cheaper alternative is a cooler that can be filled with ice packs or ice to keep your juice and snacks cool.
  • Wireless. This is a luxury worth mentioning. A wireless Internet connection will allow you to have your laptop in bed with you to keep in touch. For many, it’s helpful to be able to log onto supportive and informative discussion forums while recovering.
  • Grabber. After lumbar spine fusion, it is likely that you will be told not to bend over or reach up for anything for awhile. A simple grabber can help you pick up stuff off the floor and reach for things from an upper shelf. They can usually be found at stores like Walgreens or Walmart (in the pharmacy area) for around $10.
  • Trash bags. Putting a trash bag on the bed (and recliner, and car seat…) will grease the skids, so to speak, and allow you to slide in and out with less friction.
  • Heating pads. Starting about two days after surgery, the doctor may allow you to use heating pads to alleviate local pain and discomfort.
  • A squeeze bottle. After a fusion surgery it’s tough to twist or reach, even just to clean up after a BM. You can use a squeeze bottle filled with warm water (many women who have given birth vaginally will have done this). Moist wipes also work well, and if necessary you can use a pair of tongs (also available at most pharmacies) to hold onto the wipes so you don’t have to reach.
  • Extra pillows. A few well placed pillows add support. Try placing one under your knees while lying on your back or in a reclining position (this takes stress off the low back), and use firm pillows to prop you up to a reclining position while in bed. If you’re a side sleeper, you’ll want a pillow to tuck between your knees to keep your low back at rest.
  • Shower mat. So you won’t slip in the shower.
  • Shower brush with long handle. To clean without bending, twisting or reaching. You can get liquid soap (and liquid moisturizer, like Dove) to pour on the brush.
  • Recliner or extra cushion. In the weeks following surgery, sitting can be painful or uncomfortable. It is best to avoid sitting for long periods. A recliner can help ease pressure on the low back, and sitting on something cushioned, such as an inflatable donut pillow or hemorrhoid pillow, can make sitting more tolerable.

Other things you may need (and/or may want to discuss with your doctor):

  • Shower seat and handicap rails in the shower. Not everyone needs these, but it is something you may want to discuss with your doctor.
  • Toilet riser. This will help immensely with going to the bathroom, especially if you’re a female and drinking all the liquids you’re supposed to! The ones with hand rails to lean on are most helpful.
  • Cane or walker. You may feel more comfortable walking with some added stability, and if so discuss getting a cane or walker with your doctor.

Devices such as a shower chair, toilet seat riser and walker or cane are usually covered by insurance, so check with your doctor and have it sent home with you from the hospital if it’s possible. These types of equipment are also available to rent or buy from most medical supply stores, and are often available second hand (and inexpensively) at Salvation Army or other resale stores.

Prepare your home

When recovering from back surgery, it is best to change a few things around in your house to ease your way back in to daily life.

  • Put stuff where you can reach it. It helps to put the stuff you use daily (toothbrush, plates and cups, pajamas, etc.) on shelves that are around waist level high so that you don’t have to reach up or down at all.
  • Have meals ready. Make meals ahead of time and freeze, or buy healthy microwaveable meals and snacks, so you don’t have to do any food prep. Frequent small meals throughout the day are best to help deter constipation.
  • Avoid the dishes. Use paper plates, silverware, and cups so you’ll have less cleanup to do. You won’t want to be bending over the sink to wash the dishes or to stack the dishwasher right after a fusion.
  • T-shirts. If your doctor will prescribe a postoperative brace, make sure you have plenty of clean, well-fitted cotton t-shirts or tank tops to wear under your brace. Ideally, you can wear the brace before the surgery in order to get used to it.
  • Raise your bed. You may want to raise your bed up a bit to make it easier to get into and out of. You can place sturdy storage bins under the bed frame to act as blocks.
  • Subcontract the laundry. You won’t be able to do laundry – or any chores that require bending or reaching – for awhile. My suggestion is to put someone else squarely in charge of the laundry, even if that means you have to pay extra to send it out to a dry cleaner who will wash and fold it for you.
  • Don’t trip! Remove anything you might trip on, such as throw rugs. Try to make sure someone else is responsible for picking up shoes and other items you could trip on while you’re getting used to walking around.

Getting the OK to Leave the Hospital

After spine surgery, most patients need to remain in the hospital for a few days. During that time, you will gradually increase the amount of time you are up and walking before you can be discharged. Before getting the okay to go home, your doctor will also make sure you have normal vital signs and bladder function, you can eat without feeling nauseous, and there are no signs of infection at the incision site.

Recovery at Home

Upon discharge, your doctor will give you detailed instructions about what activities you can and cannot do. Follow these instructions carefully. Remember, some discomfort is normal, but pain is a signal to slow down and rest.

  1. Once home, you will be strongly encouraged to do the following:
  2. Avoid sitting and standing for long periods of time. Change positions frequently to avoid muscle spasms and leg cramps.
  3. Get plenty of rest but do not spend all of your time in bed. If possible, take short naps during the day. Sleeping on your side, with the knees bent or with a pillow between the knees is the best way to maintain spinal alignment. Stiffness in your back upon waking is common. Try taking a short walk or a warm shower to relieve a stiff back.
  4. Take care of your incision by washing the area (do not scrub) and gently patting it dry. If your stitches were removed before you left the hospital, you do not need to keep the incision covered. Signs of infection like swelling, redness or draining at the incision site, and fever should be checked out by the surgeon immediately.
  5. Establish a daily low-impact exercise program. Walking, and slowly increasing the distance each day, is the best exercise after spinal surgery. Daily exercise is important for recovery and to build strength and maintain muscle tone. It is also a great way to control your weight. Excess weight places a lot of strain on the back and is not good for your overall health.
  6. Establish a balanced, low-fat diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruit.Since you will be less active during your recovery, avoid heavy, fattening foods and foods that are high in calories. Eating well is essential for a successful recovery and will help keep your weight under control after your recovery is over.
  7. See your doctor for a post-operative checkup. At this visit, your physician will be able to tell if your recovery is going well. Talk to your doctor about returning to work, especially if your job requires a lot of bending, lifting, standing, or twisting. Your doctor will also be able to tell you if it is okay to resume normal activities such as driving or playing sports.