Help with expectations and recommendations heading into back surgery
August 12, 2013 9:47 AM   Subscribe

My Mom is a recently retired professor in her mid 60s who has had been interrupted in enjoying the neat stuff she had lined up to do by some back problems that now require a fusion of a couple discs in her spine to permanently remedy the condition. She is going into surgery this week. I'd appreciate any advice or information that anyone who has been through something similar would have liked to hear in advance, that wasn't covered in the usual consults.

She's had pre-op consultations and etc. but my sense is that it might be helpful to hear from people who have gone through this sort of thing--she hasn't had any major hospitalizations since my sister's birth, a very long time ago, and this is also her first serious bout with a health challenge in aging. She is also someone who like to plan everything out, and is reassured by feeling as prepared as one can be.

So, anything that you weren't told in the usual consults or didn't expect or think about and in retrospect would have liked to have had known about would be appreciated.

Anything related to what to expect in recovering, and anything that might contribute to an easier, faster or maximally complete recovery would be appreciated. My Mom is active, fairly athletic, has a lot of things that she wants to do and her biggest concern in this has been getting back to her baseline.

Tangentially, I'd be curious about any apps or games that a non-techie, non-gamer of her generation might be amused or distracted by during a brief hospital stay. She has a 3rd gen iPad and a new MBP that replaced her former work laptop (13" retina). Maybe of the contemplative, freeform, relaxing variety rather than anything too fast-paced or frustrating?
posted by snuffleupagus to Health & Fitness (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My dad has gone through this a couple of times. His advice to everyone is to do the physical therapy, religiously, every day.
posted by elizeh at 10:35 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A friend of mine is an orthopedic surgeon with serious back problems, and he's had 3 such surgeries in the time I've known him (about 15 years). From what I saw, the procedure has improved quite a bit over that period, with recovery times becoming shorter and distinctly less unpleasant. Still, there were several days after his last surgery when he was a bit pissed at his surgeon for not being fully forthright about how stressful the recovery would be. Despite that temporary resentment, the surgery went far to reduce pain that had really been compromising his quality of life, and he's glad he did it. I guess I'm saying that your mom shouldn't expect this to be easy or fun, but I'm sure she knows that already. It sounds like she's motivated to do whatever therapy they recommend, which is great.
posted by jon1270 at 10:37 AM on August 12, 2013

Best answer: I had a fusion many/many years ago (L4-L5) following an acute herniation that lead to the loss of all deep tendon reflexes in one leg. Here is my story very simply. The surgery was extremely successful. Six weeks post op I biked from Ohio to NY State with Dr's blessing, religiously did exercises to strengthen abdominal and back muscles and stretch hamstrings and quads and kept off about 25 lbs of extra weight. The only activity I gave up was tennis as there was something about serving ( twisting and turning) that never felt right. Other than that I can not think of any way the surgery has compromised an active life. I can not over emphasis the importance of post op rehab, long term strengthening/stretching and weight control to minimize post op relapse and complications.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:56 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was fused T12-L2 subsequent to traumatic burst fracture of L1. Needless to say I didn't get much in terms of pre-op consult, just "we're going to take care of you".

What I would impart from my experience to your mom is:
1) Stay on top of, ahead of, the pain. If you don't, early on, it can morph into chronic pain, like mine.

2) While there are plenty of anecdata ranging from "I never walked again" to "I biked from Ohio to NY six weeks later!" - expect that your body will recover at its own pace, and keep recovering for a long time afterwards. Two years later I am still improving - there's a long "tail" on my recovery curve. For me I think it was because my incision is 12" long, due to the emergency of it all; there's a lot of healing and nerve regrowth still happening in my core muscles. So keep at the PT, the yoga, the massage, swimming, the chiro, the acupuncture -- whatever helps you move and recover and feel better, do it. And keep doing it. And keep doing it, every day.

3) A wise back doc said to me: there is plenty of value in online forums for medical issues, but -- don't read or spend time on them for back pain. Just don't. He was right; the people with time and motivation to get online and post about their unresolved back pain are ... not helping themselves or you. Don't linger there.
posted by Dashy at 11:16 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have had two fusions. The first was L4-L5 in 2004. Worked like a charm. Back to playing all sports including hockey. I would say the biggest surprise was the recovery time. I was exhausted for weeks. I was hoping to be back at work in two weeks, but it took 4. Overall, it was life changing in that the pain down my legs was gone. I was able to build my core strength and leg strength. I would say that the biggest thing I learned on my own afterwards was that it was not like taking a pill and suddenly I was all better. The operation itself takes some out of you and the recovery, while different for everyone, will take a while.

The second fusion I had was in my next last year. I four vertebrae fused. I am very happy with the surgical success, but my mobility in the neck area is much less than I was lead to believe or maybe than I wanted to believe. I still have muscle spasms in my neck and shoulders from the operation. But, to be clear, I would do it again.

I Googled the specific name of the operation and the name of the medical device they used to fuse. For my neck it was a Stalif C. I was able to watch an entire operation on YouTube if that helps, and there were a bunch of people that had recorded video diaries daily of their post op experience. Those were helpful in adjusting my expectations going in.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:29 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Much appreciated.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:33 PM on August 12, 2013

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