A lot of times, you can treat your back or neck problems with medication, heat, ice or physical therapy, and you don’t need to have surgery. But sometimes, if these treatments don’t work, surgery might be the answer. If you have certain disc problems, bone spurs, degenerative spine conditions, an infection, a tumor or trauma, back or neck surgery might be your best bet for reducing your pain and improving your mobility.
If you need to have spine surgery, you probably have a lot of questions about what you’ll be able to do afterward and how you can feel your best and recover as quickly as possible. Christina Cannata, a nurse practitioner with Banner Brain & Spine, says that a lot will depend on what type of spine surgery you have, what your overall health is like and what preferences your surgeon has.
“I think the best thing you can do is to write down all of your questions about surgery and recovery and ask your surgeon or your surgeon’s care team ahead of time,” she said. “That will give you the best idea of what to expect.”
Cannata answered some of the most common questions people have before undergoing spine surgery. You can ask your surgeon these questions to get a better idea of what your personal experience will be like.
1. How long will I have to take off from work?
It depends on the type of job you have and the type of surgery you need. People who have less extensive surgeries and less physically demanding jobs can usually return to work sooner than those who have more extensive surgery and more physically demanding jobs. However, after spine surgery, some people may find working behind a desk and sitting in a chair for long periods of time uncomfortable.
2. Can I drive after surgery?
Most of the time, you shouldn’t drive for a few weeks after surgery. Your surgeon can tell you how long to expect to be off the road.
3. How long will recovery after surgery be?
Recovery time varies a lot from patient to patient and depends on how extensive your surgery will be. “In general, recovery from spine surgery can take from several weeks to several months,” Cannata said.
4. Will I have to wear a brace or cervical collar after surgery?
It depends on the type of surgery you need and what your surgeon recommends.
5. Will I need to do any physical therapy after surgery?
That depends on your surgeon. Some surgeons recommend physical therapy for everyone after spine surgery, while others may decide on a case-by-case basis.
6. What will I be able to do after surgery?
You should be able to walk the day of or the day after your surgery. Walking can help with your recovery. “I encourage walking frequently, as much as you can tolerate. I usually recommend that you start with a few short walks each day, and gradually increase the distance and frequency,” Cannata said.
You should avoid bending or twisting at the waist or neck, depending on where surgery was performed, and avoid lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds after surgery. You should hold off on strenuous activity or exercise until your surgeon says it’s OK.
Cannata recommends having a family member or friend available to help for several days after surgery. You might need them to pitch in with things like household chores, grocery shopping and rides to doctors’ appointments.
7. How can I take care of my personal hygiene?
Most people can take care of their hygiene without too many modifications. “I recommend that you have a family member or close friend available to help, just in case it’s needed,” Cannata said. Showering is usually the personal hygiene activity that people have the most trouble with, and using a shower chair can make it easier.
If you have an incision on your back or the back of your neck, you might want to have a family member or close friend check it for you. If your surgeon recommends keeping the incision covered with a dressing, they can help with dressing changes as well.
8. Should I change my bed or mattress?
You don’t need to change your bed or mattress unless it’s uncomfortable. If your bed is very high or low, you might want to modify it so you can get into and out of it more easily. If you have an extra bedroom or a family member’s room with a bed at a better height, you might want to use that bed for the first few days after surgery.
9. What type of chair is best after surgery?
You can use whatever chair feels most comfortable. “I would recommend thinking about chairs that are easy to get in and out of,” Cannata said.
10. Will I have pain after spine surgery?
You’ll likely experience some amount of pain, and it’s normal to have good days and bad days throughout your recovery period. Your surgeon’s care team will let you know what options you have for pain management and work with you to find the best solution. You can always contact them during your recovery if you feel you’re not getting enough pain control.
The bottom line
If you need spine surgery, you probably have a lot of questions about what to expect afterward. Everyone’s experience is different, depending on the type of surgery you need, your overall health and your surgeon’s preferences. Be sure to ask your surgeon and the care team all your questions ahead of time so that you can be prepared for your recovery.
Have questions about spine surgery?
Make an appointment with a Banner Brain & Spine expert.
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Disclaimer: The contents of this article are intended for informational purposes only. It is important to follow the guidance and recommendations of your surgeon and care team based on your unique situation.