Back Surgery – Through a Patients Eyes

You’ve done your research…and decided that back surgery is right for you.  But, what can you expect to encounter through your journey?  What plans do you need to make? Are there some ideas to make the process go smoother?

I’m currently 10 weeks post op from having “Lumbar Fusion”… a disc placed through the front, and a rod placed through the back.  As a patient, I am so willing to share my experience, and the things that I’ve learned which helped me through this challenge.  Let’s go there now…

Surgery Date 

You have learned the risks of the surgery; you have heard the good and the bad. Today is the day that you do not think of any of the negative or worries of the surgery. When you start to play those thoughts through your mind, distract yourself. You can get unnecessarily worked up, and today is not the day for that.  You also need to remember, your job is to just show up to the hospital… That’s it!  You will be asleep through the entire thing. Put your confidence in the surgical team that has spent many years learning and practicing for this day.

Prepare for and Manage the Pain

This is a BIG topic, and you will find meaningful results with a little pre-planning.  With the opioid epidemic that the nation is facing, it will affect your life for the next 12 hours. Hospitals now have policies in place to “under treat” your pain initially.  They will always start with medication very mild, and will work up to something stronger that matches your pain level.  However, in my case, I went 8 hours at a pain level of 10 before comfort came. 8 hours in that kind of pain is horrible.  So what can you do to prepare?  I learned the next day in talking with my doctor that his orders were that I could have anything up to a certain level or morphine without him even being called.  So, why then did I suffer? Not because of doctors’ orders, but because of hospital policy.  I HIGHLY recommend that you have a discussion with your surgeon prior to your surgery that goes something like this, “I’ve learned that hospital policies have changed to better control pain management right out of surgery.  Should they start with a low dose of medication that is not treating the pain, what do you suggest that I do?”  You then have a plan with the surgeon going into the surgery that you can lean on if the hospital falls short of dealing with your pain.

Hospital Stay

When my doctor said to plan on 5 days in the hospital, I blew it off as… “He doesn’t know me”.  PLAN ON 5 DAYS!  It doesn’t matter how tough you think you are, expect time there.  This is a big deal, and is a major surgery… from both sides of your body. Should you have a complication from surgery, it is likely to up and be recognized through the staff there, as well as your vital signs etc.  Don’t push things at this step.  The hospital will likely keep you until you satisfy these categories:

Your O2 Sats stay above 90 without oxygen. (Don’t cheat on this on.  You don’t want to be home with breathing issues.  The surgery will affect the way that your lungs process oxygen.

   Your Bladder needs to be working properly. The surgery affects your bowels big time. Even though they have not been operated on, they have been moved out of the way to allow the surgery.

You need to have a bowel movement in order to be discharged.

Physical Therapy has to give you the green light to go. You need to be able to walk down the hall and back in control with a walker.  Therapy will likely come to your room twice a day.  You are never happy to see them.  You’ve just basically been in a car accident and they want you to go on a walk with them.  This is the time to push yourself. Walking will be your best friend, as you will find it to be the best way to minimize your pain. When you stand, expect some discomfort as you are placing the load on your spine.  Give yourself a few minutes before you actually start to walk. The first time I stood, the pain was intense, as I had a “stinger” on one side.  I couldn’t put any weight on one leg.  The second time up, still having the pain, I began to put just a bit of pressure on that foot…. and in 10 minutes, I started to walk. The next day, the longer I walked I noticed the pain start to diminish.

Equipment

The hospital gave me a Walker and a Reach Gripper Tool.  I’m 6′ 2″ so I needed a toilet riser which you can get on Amazon for $35.  You will need all 3 of these items if you are tall. You will use the walker for 2 weeks.  Save yourself some dignity, and don’t put tennis balls on the back legs. This only needs to be done if you have hard floors and someone lives beneath you, as it does make a lot of noise.  The gripper tool is a MUST. This is how you pick things up, as well as assist you in getting dressed. Attach it to your walker so it’s always available.  If you have this, you will not be tempted to bend over which is forbidden.  After two weeks of the walker, I was stable enough to walk with a cane.    Don’t spend a lot of money on this, because you will likely only need a cane for a week. I got mine at the dollar store and mounted some Harley Davidson hardware on it… cuz… that’s how I roll.

Recovery

It took me 10 weeks to become pain free.  Set your mind to this time period. Each day up to this time period, you wonder if you will ever have a quality of life.  The mornings are the worst.  While you have been sleeping, your back gets stiff, and you always wake up to a paralyzing pain. The best thing that you can do is to get moving.  Work through the pain to get to your feet and walk, (using a walker at first). The very worst thing that you can do is to lie in bed all day trying to recover.  Get up frequently, and walk around the house. Avoid Bending, Twisting and Lifting.  You will find pain relief from walking.

Back To Work

Getting back to work and having a routine is very helpful.  You and your doctor can determine when it’s time to return.  My doctor told me 4 to 6 weeks, which would have driven me nuts. My indicators in returning to work were:

  1. Distance walking. Can I walk (with a walker) the required distance that my job demands?
  2. Comfort in riding in the car. Don’t overlook this requirement. Getting in and out of the car is a challenge, sitting for the entire ride, and dealing with the bumpy rode are all factors.
  3. What does your job entail? I work in an office behind a desk which allowed me to return sooner.

At a week and a half, I came to work for 3-4 hours a day.  I did that for a week, and then went to full time.  This was the perfect balance for me.

Physical Therapy

At 6 weeks, I attended a physical therapy session.  I recommend this to all of you. The therapist did a quite extensive skeletal evaluation to see if the fusion was happening correctly.  In addition, you will be shown the several exercises that you can do at home each day.  These are helpful, and include muscle stretching. The focus here is not weight training, rather, to get your body as flexible as possible.  When this is optimized, your entire body will distribute your task weight distribution…. and not just your lower back.  Being overly independent, I did not continue my physical therapy at the clinic, but am involved each day with a self-guided program.

Would I Do It Again?

Simple answer… YES!! Prepare yourself mentally, if not you will sink into despair. 70 days of pain is what you are signing up for.  The pain is controlled by medication for the first week or two. And it certainly gets less and less with time, but expect each morning to be greeted with pain.

I am 100% now… I’m far better than before my surgery. I still have my weight lifting limitations, which are very doable.

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