Back surgery in 5 days: What am in for?
December 14, 2013 5:46 PM   Subscribe

Having back surgery on Dec. 19th. Fusion of L5-S1 with bone from pelvis and some "hardware". Doc has been great with the exception of what I'm in for in terms of post-op pain and recovery. Basically, he's told me "it varies." I do know I'll be hospitalized for at least 2 nights.

Mefites who've been through this or similar, can you relate your recovery in terms of post-op pain and recovery? I know I can't drive for 7 to 10 days following surgery and at some point I'll start physical therapy. But beyond that, it's a mystery.

Others in my work and social circles who have had back surgery have related tales ranging from 10 to 12 weeks of hell to returning to work within a week. I know there's a lot of variables here, but I'm looking for

I've been in pain for 5 months, so more pain I can deal with. But the idea of doing little or nothing for an extended period of time fills me with dread. I live alone, but I'll have friends and family looking in on me.

So what am in for?
posted by jrchaplin to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I didn't have back surgery but I had a back procedure (blood patch twice in 2 days) and the pain after the procedure was worse than any back pain I had before for about a week. It felt like I had strained every muscle in my back. After 10 days my pain was all gone but I did have 2 weeks of bed rest to deal with. I slept and watched a lot of Netflix on my iPad. Good luck!
posted by saradarlin at 8:40 PM on December 14, 2013

I had an L5-S1 laminotomy last week. (Herniated disc plus bone spurs and sciatica) My doctor was also very vague about how I would feel afterwards. He'd say I'd be sore but then say plan to take two weeks off of work in case. (I have a part time desk job. I went back to work after a week.) My surgery was much less involved than yours will be, it seems, but for me the after-surgery pain was NOTHING compared to the pain of the original backache. I was sore and stiff and the incision hurt but nothing like the days I spent lying on the floor crying in October and November. I wasn't supposed to drive for 7 days but my doctor said I could earlier if I could move around well enough and wasn't taking painkillers anymore. I felt physically fine to drive after about 4 days, but I was still too sleepy and out of it despite not taking any painkillers. Going to a movie wore me out. Now it's been a week and a half and I'm fine but if I do too much I get sore. I don't care about being sore except that it makes me freak out slightly, thinking the original pain is about to come back. So I go back to the sofa and netflix for a while and I'm fine. Good luck!
posted by artychoke at 8:50 PM on December 14, 2013

I was a caretaker during my Father's recent recovery from back surgery.

One of his biggest problems was that the pain meds made him nauseous yet they had to be taken with food...So have crackers, tea, etc. ready. Your, ahem, system may be off so some dried fruit is helpful. A cane or walker is good too.

I really recommend having someone with you for the first few days. Just keeping track of when to take meds and making sure you eat and stay hydrated will be more than you may be able to do.

Best of luck and a quick recovery!
posted by cat_link at 10:07 PM on December 14, 2013

Hi! I've had three back surgeries, (L4-L5, L5-S1 x2) the worst being an emergency surgery due to Cauda Equina Syndrome. I'm about to have a cervical neck fusion in a month as well.

Each time, my pain and discomfort was GREATLY reduced by surgery. While it took me a great deal of time to recover from my Cauda Equina (I had partial paralysis and was in inpatient spinal cord rehab for a month) with the other two surgeries I was back up and moving in about 2-3 weeks.

With a fusion, it might take longer but there are so many factors at play. I was young and fit when my back issues began and my doctor said my age and health definitely helped me bounce back faster.

Do as much prep beforehand to make yourself comfortable post surgery. Make sure the house is tidy, all your favorite comfortable clothes washed and foods you like are in easy reach.

Will someone stay at the house the first few days? Do you have someone who can help change banadages or do some tasks for you in the first two weeks? I was forever thankful to have someone bring me food as well as cleanup - especially the first week. Do not try to do anything that requires lifting or deep bending. My doctor said nothing heavier than a half-gallon of milk until I came in to have my sutures out.

I'm sure your doctor will want you to move around safely soon after surgery. The first few days, I went around the apartment but soon graduated to short walks outside. Moving around is a good way to reduce your recovery time. I'm sure your doctor will detail when you should start and what level of activity to shoot for.

I can't speak for anyone but myself but my body was so tired that it craved rest and nothingness to repair itself for a few days. After that, I watched Netflix, had my friends visit and wrote. I didn't mind the hours of nothing because I always would get tired and take a nap.

Usually on the 6-7 day mark, I managed to get out for a short lunch in my neighborhood. This would exhaust me enough that I'd nap for a while afterwards.

If you are worried about idle time, maybe you could do something like code academy or similar learning websites when you feel less groggy?

Two weeks post-op I was walking a few blocks and was able to be more social. By week 3 I was back to work. It took my another few weeks before I was moving at a better clip.

Lastly, The first shower post surgery feels SO good. I have a shower chair which was needed due to the paralysis but I'd recommend it even to someone who is recovering from back surgery who wants a little more security when in a tub.

In short:

- Netlifx = your friend.
- Rely on friends and family to do tasks, the less physical bending, lifting and twisting motions you attempt, the better off recovery seems to be.
- You will probably have post surgical soreness and need to let your anethesia wear off completely so don't worry if you are groggy and tired the first few days. Your job is to recover!
- Moving around will help with your bowels - anethesia and post-op pain mess can't make you very constipated. Drink lots of water and eat healthily!

Best of luck to you - and a pain-free New Year!
posted by carmenghia at 10:18 PM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Simple things will be hard for a while. Putting on clothes, taking off clothes, washing, going to the bathroom, opening doors. When you drop something, you may have to just leave it there until someone can pick it up for you. Finding comfortable positions to sit in (and that you can get up from), or to lie down/sleep. Side effects from pain meds are particularly annoying, especially constipation. Easy to get depressed so prepare to avoid it. You get better both faster and slower than you expect. Good luck.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:16 AM on December 15, 2013

Depending on how your incision is, you might want a donut shaped pillow to put between your back and whatever you're lying/sitting on. It'd need to be a thin one so you're not arching your back or anything but I didn't like when positions that were comfortable for my back involved lying or leaning on my stitches.
posted by artychoke at 7:46 AM on December 15, 2013

General pro tips for the immobile:
1. Cut your toenails before going to the hospital. You won't be able to reach for a while.
2. Upgrade your data plan if needed. The hospital is boring as hell and usually doesn't have wifi. My husband and I used on average 0.5-1 gb/day.
3. Identify online grocery, etc in advance and set up accounts.
4. Make sure you've done your Christmas shopping!
5. Hire cleaners if you don't have them already, have them clean in advance and give key so they know what you like.
6. Stock up on durable goods.
7. Place cache of essentials on main floor on mid height shelf or hook so you can dress, eat prepared foods, use toilet, sponge bathe without having to bend or reach, just in case.
8. Have slip on slippers and shoes handy, socks suck if you can't bend.
9. Consider purchasing long handled reacher, long handled shoe horn, long handled bath sponge/brush again for self service.
10. Make sure there is chair with arms so you can lift self in/out. Stool in kitchen may help if standing is uncomfortable. Table on wheels is handy so you don't have to carry items.
11. If you are not in too much pain now practice squats, strengthen core, strengthen arms, do hip stretches (ie: do yoga) as these muscles will do work as back recovers.
12. Think up a practical project to keep mind busy, I like to code but yours may vary. Watch the page count if ordering books, the purchase of 1400 page Python book was ill advised.
13. Take out cash and stash it in your house. It is useful when sending people to run errands for you.
14. There are mobile massage or manicure/pedicure services that can come to your house, what a difference if you are craving human contact.
15. Arrange delivery of turkey dinner, Christmas alone can be a drag, having the trimmings helps.
16. Memorize credit card number, including code on back, so you can call for takeout from hospital without worrying about your card getting stolen. The food is terrible.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:16 AM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also - if you take maintenance medication, especially if you take variable dose prn, call your pharmacist and ensure they have max dose on file before your surgery. Hospital may check records and make order through pharmacy records you might have trouble getting on call doc to order the higher dose.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:21 AM on December 15, 2013

I had a microdisectomy about 2 months ago and it, thankfully, was a success. I got a lot of insight on the recovery, pain, etc. at, specifically the forums. Join the December Surgery buddies list to find a great, virtual support group.

Remember that you will have good and bad days, and don't push yourself on those good days. Ice packs were my best friends. Have a laxative around too, the pain meds mess the digestive system up.

Good luck!!
posted by psususe at 5:00 PM on December 15, 2013

Best answer: I had L4=L5 and L5-S1 fused nearly a decade ago. Your surgeon is correct in that recovery varies. (Mine had patients who hadn't progressed in 3 months as far as I did in 3 weeks.)
The biggest thing to realise is that you won't be able to sit up for extended periods for a while -- I reclined for a couple of weeks; and putting on socks/shoes is going to be nearly impossible. Dressing will be difficult -- PJs (with a soft waistband!) are the way to go.
Reaching *up* for things will be nearly as bad as reaching down. Bending or twisting is something you will not do more than once.
Rent/borrow a walker for getting up/sitting down (including on the toilet!).
I read a lot, but I know some people who can't read while they're on pain meds.
You'll sleep a lot -- I napped more in the month after surgery than I did when I was a kid, and it took a couple of weeks for the post-surgery sleep-10-hours-a night to wear off.
I was doing the grocery shopping and erranding by myself less than a month after surgery, but I don't think I'd have been able to go back to an office job -- working from home would have been possible. (Although it's not like I really had any time "off" other than the three days I was in hospital -- even with MrR working from home for three weeks after surgery I was still "Mom", although the 14 yo did much of the laundry.)
posted by jlkr at 5:19 AM on December 16, 2013

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