25 October 2011
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Back Surgery Recovery Tips

recovery back surgeryOur number one tip for recovering from back surgery? Don’t smoke. A huge number of studies have found that smoking seriously hampers back surgery recover and, indeed, recovery from any kind of surgery. Quitting smoking is however just one way to improve your chances of having a successful and speedy healing process after back surgery. Ensuring that you stay hydrated, taking the advice of your surgeon and refraining from engaging in inappropriate physical activity, such as marathon-running, whilst recovering are all other top tips for reducing the risk of failed back surgery syndrome.

Returning to Normal After Back Surgery

Recovery from back surgery is often lengthy and arduous with the time it takes to heal varying according to the type of back surgery as well as the general health of a patient. Some minimally invasive back surgeries can result in so little trauma to the spine and surrounding tissues that patients are fine to return to work and normal activities within just a few days or weeks. Other surgeries, particularly open back surgeries can take months, or even a year or more to heal. This is one of many reasons that patients, and their physicians, may opt for a less invasive procedure such as a microendoscopic discectomy rather than an open discectomy with spinal fusion.

Getting Up and About After Back Surgery

Immediately after surgery patients are usually advised to start moving as soon as possible so as to reduce the risk of clotting and stiffness in the joints. Appropriate physical activity will also reduce the risk of scar formation which could lead to pinched nerves and similar symptoms to those which initially prompted surgery. Walking, first for short periods and building up the time, is the usual gentle exercise recommended for post-back surgery recovery as higher-impact exercise could jolt the spine and cause problems with any hardware fitted or the general healing process as tissues settle into their new positions. Activities such as swimming might seem fine as the water supports the body’s weight but those having surgery on the cervical spine may find that swimming actually puts strain on the neck and causes pain and discomfort and slows their recovery.


A good rule of thumb, which might seem like common sense but is often simply ignored, is that any activity which causes sharp pain or persistent pain should be avoided and patients should mention the symptom to their physician or physical therapist. Any other symptoms, particularly unusual symptoms such as sudden weakness or abnormal sensation in the limbs or back, should also be brought to the doctor’s attention for assessment as these could be signs of surgical complication. Swimming can also pose a risk of infection in cases where the surgical incision has not yet fully closed and all patients should be alert to the signs of infection such as fever, redness, swelling, or weeping from the incision. Adhering to the guidance for changing bandages and dressings, as well as for keeping the incision clean and dry makes it less likely that infection will occur. Where the patient is at high risk of infection they may be given prophylactic antibiotics after back surgery and patients are often advised to check their temperature at the same time every day in order to observe early warning signs of infection.

Back Support After Surgery

back brace back surgery recovery

A back brace may be needed after back surgery but if worn for too long it can actually cause more harm than good.

The majority of patients undergoing back surgery or neck surgery will not need to wear a brace or supportive garment for a significant time after surgery. However, patients having undergone spinal fusion or significant surgery for conditions such as scoliosis may need back supports for a number of weeks or months to prevent any implanted hardware from moving out of position or fracturing as the spine settles into its new posture and the spine fuses. There is a fine line in such cases where support becomes harmful however as wearing a neck collar or back brace for too long may cause atrophy in the spinal muscles and resulting weakness. Carefully adhering to physical therapy guidance given after surgery is vital in making a good recovery and even seemingly unimportant pieces of advice may prove essential for some patients. A good example of this is the need to wear a brace or collar during car journeys, at least for a short time after some surgeries; the benefit of this will be felt should the vehicle need to make a sudden stop as without the support the neck or back may suffer significant damage and recovery be severely compromised. Avoiding long car journeys after back surgery is also advised for most patients with the longevity of such suggestions depending on the surgery type and existing injuries or conditions.

Unavoidable Back Surgery Risks

Unfortunately, in every back surgery there is a risk that despite following every piece of advice to the letter the surgery will not be successful. This can happen where the patient’s condition is severe and permanent damage has already occurred or when some complication during surgery has created an environment optimal for scar formation and nerve adhesion, or where the nerves or muscles were themselves damaged during back surgery. Follow-up appointments are usually set two weeks after back surgery to assess the degree of improvement, if any, in the patients’ condition. At these appointments patients often undergo X-Rays or other diagnostic scan to evaluate the success of decompression or the maintenance of hardware positioning where used. Anomalies in the spine may be detected at this time and appropriate action taken, which could include further back surgery.

Deciding on Back Surgery

Knowing the risks associated with back surgery, as well as the potential benefits, puts you in a much stronger position to make the decision about your own health care. Although many back surgeons are passionate about their chosen profession and the potential to improve patients’ lives with back surgery, conservative care may be more appropriate for some patients and surgery could actually worsen their condition and prognosis. If you choose to undergo back surgery then make sure you follow the surgeons’ tips for back surgery recovery and give yourself the best chance of success at relieving back pain and disability.

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