After back surgery – things to remember

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Although every person's body and recovery period are unique, there are certain things everyone can expect after back surgery. Being prepared for the things mentioned below, may lessen the stress of your post-operative healing period.

Pain. After any operation, it is normal to experience pain – and back surgery is no exception. Pain after surgery does not, however, mean the operation was unsuccessful. Aches, pains and muscle spasms are not unusual at all after such an operation. Medication will be given to control these.

Nutrition. Immediately after the operation you will be fed with intravenous fluids, which will be continued until you can tolerate regular liquids. Within a few days, your appetite should have returned to normal and your diet will be adjusted accordingly.

State of mind. Any surgery or anaesthetic is experienced by the body as something of a shock. It is not unusual for people to feel depressed after surgery. If you feel that it is lasting longer than it should, speak to your doctor, as a positive attitude is essential to your health and healing.

Sleeping. Doctors recommend several rests during the day in the days after back surgery. If you’re experiencing pain or discomfort, it may initially be difficult to get a good night's rest. When lying on your back, it may be an idea to put a small cushion below the small of your back to provide some support. Lying on your side with a pillow between your legs is preferable if you've had back surgery. A firm mattress is essential and will assist the healing process. Morning stiffness is not unusual. This may be relieved by taking a hot shower or going for a short walk.

Inflammation. Once you’ve left the hospital, you should watch out for any signs of inflammation. These include wound redness, swelling or drainage from the incision. Inform your doctor immediately if the area around the incision feels hot.

Hygiene. During your hospital stay, nurses will help you to wash while the sutures are still in place. Or, if the doctor gives permission, you may usually take a shower a day or two after the operation. The dressings should be kept in place to protect the incision. They could be replaced after the shower. It is fine to let the incision get wet, but it shouldn't be scrubbed or rubbed.

Constipation. Many people are constipated after surgery, as this is one of the side effects of pain medication. A laxative could sort out this problem. Once you’re eating normally, it’s a good idea to eat lots of fruit and wholegrain cereals and drink lots of fruit juice.

Exercise. Exercise is essential for your recovery, but it is important that you don’t overdo things. Get out of bed by raising the head of the bed as much as possible and balancing yourself in a sitting position. Distribute your weight evenly so as not to strain your back muscles. Remember that discomfort is normal when resuming activities, but pain is a warning signal that you’re overdoing things. Daily walking is recommended and stairs can be climbed one at a time. It is not a good idea to sit or stand for long periods of time. Positions must be changed regularly. Sexual activities that are not too strenuous, may be resumed.

Going back to work. When you return to work, will be determined by your doctor, your recovery rate and the type of work you do. If your work involves much physical activity, you may be off work longer than someone who sits behind a desk.

Reviewed by Dr Pradeep Makan, orthopaedic surgeon, Melomed Gatesville and Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town and part-time lecturer in the department of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Cape Town, 2010.

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