The entire surgical process – from deciding to have surgery through recovery – can be a thoroughly stressful time. To help reduce your stress levels as much as possible, here’s a checklist of what you’ll need while recovering from surgery, both in the hospital and while recuperating at home.
While this is written specifically for those undergoing back surgery (and particularly fusion surgery), many of these tips will apply to recovery from just about any type of surgery and hospital stay.
- Crocs. You will want to wear slip on shoes for several weeks (and maybe more) following the surgery so you don’t have to bend over to tie your shoes. Any slip on shoes will work. Crocs are a favorite – they are easy to get on, have some grip on the sole, and can be worn indoors and out. They are useful in the hospital, as you will be encouraged to get up and walk around as much as tolerated soon after the surgery.
- Ice packs. Ice is a valuable pain reliever. Applying an ice pack to the numb the painful area will go a long way to easing pain and discomfort. An ice massage can be very soothing. If your doctor or nurse doesn't bring it up, you should ask about how to use ice or cold packs for pain control – it really helps! The hospital will probably have ice packs, but you may want to bring some just in case.
- Sports bottle. You’ll be encouraged to drink a lot of liquids while in the hospital, and if you don’t want to have to sit up for each sip, bring a sports bottle with a squirt top so that you can drink while lying down or reclining without spilling all over yourself.
- Laxatives and/or stool softeners. Chances are your doctor won’t bring up this subject, but it will be an important issue to you following the surgery. Post operative constipation is a common occurrence and it can be a major source of pain and discomfort. Prune juice, apple cider, and/or over-the-counter laxatives and stool softeners will all help prevent postoperative constipation. Your hospital will likely provide these, but you may want to bring them just to play it safe.
- Practice the log roll. You’re going to need to learn how to get into and out of bed safely, and a log roll technique will do the trick. It’s best to ask about this before the surgery so you can practice a bit and get the hang of it without any pressure or fear of pain. Many say that getting in and out of bed after fusion surgery is one of the most intimidating and difficult aspects of the recovery process.
- Trash bags. Putting a trash bag on the bed will reduce the friction so you slide more easily onto the bed. Also, you’ll want a trash bag to put on the car seat for the ride home.
Additional things you may want to bring to the hospital:
- Lip balm or chapstick and hand moisturizer – the air in most hospitals is uncomfortably dry
- Foot cream – if they put the special booties on your feet to help prevent a blood clot, you’ll want someone to put some moisturizer on your feet to prevent soreness
- Comfortable robe – you’ll be encouraged to be up and walking around as soon as possible after the surgery, and those hospital gowns don't afford much coverage in the back
- Pajamas – if you bring PJ's, make sure they button up the front so you won't have to reach over your head to pull the top on.
- Toiletries – in case you’re allowed to shower, and definitely toothpaste and toothbrush. You can even brush your teeth in bed – just spit into a bedpan.
- Hairbands – if you have long hair and don't want it to get all tangled up, bring something to pull your hair back. Maybe a cap if you don't want your visitors to see your unwashed hair.
- Ear plugs - if you're a light sleeper, use ear plugs to get some rest – hospitals are busy, noisy places. A walkman or iPod will also drown out the noise
- Scratcher – bring some type of long stick for getting those hard to reach itches. A long-handled wooden spoon will work just fine, but you can also get a cute long-handled scratcher.
Recuperating at home:
In addition to everything from the above list (except maybe the ear plugs), you will need a few things to help with your recovery at home, such as:
- Mini-fridge. Especially after a spine fusion, you probably won’t want to be running up and down the stairs during your recovery. A mini-fridge in your room allows you to stock up on water, juice and other essentials for the day. A cheaper alternative is a cooler that can be filled with ice packs or ice to keep your juice and snacks cool.
- Wireless. This is a luxury worth mentioning. A wireless Internet connection will allow you to have your laptop in bed with you to keep in touch. For many, it’s helpful to be able to log onto supportive and informative discussion forums while recovering.
- Grabber. After lumbar spine fusion, it is likely that you will be told not to bend over or reach up for anything for awhile. A simple grabber can an help you pick up stuff off the floor and reach for things from an upper shelf. They can usually be found at stores like Walgreens or Walmart (in the pharmacy area) for around $10.
- Trash bags. Putting a trash bag on the bed (and recliner, and car seat…) will grease the skids, so to speak, and allow you to slide in and out with less friction.
- Heating pads. Starting about two days after surgery, the doctor may allow you to use heating pads to alleviate local pain and discomfort.
- A squeeze bottle. After a fusion surgery it’s tough to twist or reach, even just to clean up after a BM. You can use a squeeze bottle filled with warm water (many women who have given birth vaginally will have done this). Moist wipes also work well, and if necessary you can use a pair of tongs (also available at most pharmacies) to hold onto the wipes so you don’t have to reach.
- Extra pillows. A few well placed pillows add support. Try placing one under your knees while lying on your back or in a reclining position (this takes stress off the low back), and use firm pillows to prop you up to a reclining position while in bed. If you’re a side sleeper, you’ll want a pillow to tuck between your knees to keep your low back at rest.
- Shower mat. So you won’t slip in the shower.
- Shower brush with long handle. To clean without bending, twisting or reaching. You can get liquid soap (and liquid moisturizer, like Dove) to pour on the brush.
- Recliner or extra cushion. In the weeks following surgery, sitting can be painful or uncomfortable. It is best to avoid sitting for long periods. A recliner can help ease pressure on the low back, and sitting on something cushioned, such as an inflatable donut pillow or hemorrhoid pillow, can make sitting more tolerable.
Other things you may need (and/or may want to discuss with your doctor):
- Shower seat and handicap rails in the shower. Not everyone needs these, but it is something you may want to discuss with your doctor.
- Toilet riser. This will help immensely with going to the bathroom, especially if you’re a female and drinking all the liquids you’re supposed to! The ones with hand rails to lean on are most helpful.
- Cane or walker. You may feel more comfortable walking with some added stability, and if so discuss getting a cane or walker with your doctor.
Devices such as a shower chair, toilet seat riser and walker or cane are usually covered by insurance, so check with your doctor and have it sent home with you from the hospital if its possible. These types of equipment are also available to rent or buy from most medical supply stores, and are often available second hand (and inexpensively) at Salvation Army or other resale stores.
Prepare your home:
When recovering from back surgery, it is best to change a few things around in your house to ease your way back in to daily life.
- Put stuff where you can reach it. It helps to put the stuff you use daily (toothbrush, plates and cups, pajamas, etc.) on shelves that are around waist level high so that you don’t have to reach up or down at all.
- Have meals ready. Make meals ahead of time and freeze, or buy healthy microwaveable meals and snacks, so you don’t have to do any food prep. Frequent small meals throughout the day are best to help deter constipation.
- Avoid the dishes. Use paper plates, silverware, and cups so you’ll have less cleanup to do. You won’t want to be bending over the sink to wash the dishes or to stack the dishwasher right after a fusion.
- T-shirts. If your doctor will prescribe a postoperative brace, make sure you have plenty of clean, well-fitted cotton t-shirts or tank tops to wear under your brace. Ideally, you can wear the brace before the surgery in order to get used to it.
- Raise your bed. You may want to raise your bed up a bit to make it easier to get into and out of. You can place sturdy storage bins under the bed frame to act as blocks.
- Subcontract the laundry. You won’t be able to do laundry – or any chores that require bending or reaching - for awhile. My suggestion is to put someone else squarely in charge of the laundry, even if that means you have to pay extra to send it out to a dry cleaner who will wash and fold it for you.
- Don’t trip! Remove anything you might trip on, such as throw rugs. Try to make sure someone else is responsible for picking up shoes and other items you could trip on while you’re getting used to walking around.
These are just guidelines and suggestions - your experience will be somewhat different depending on your clinical situation, your surgeon, your hospital, and the type of fusion you’re going to have. For example, from what I’ve seen, many people undergoing lumbar fusion surgery from the front (e.g. an ALIF) versus from the back, have much less pain and many are able to go home from the hospital the same day as the surgery. Be sure to ask your doctor about what to expect so you can prepare accordingly. And remember, nurses are often more knowledgeable than the surgeon when it comes to knowing what will help with your recovery.
For those of you preparing for surgery, best wishes for a successful surgery and speedy (and uneventful) recovery!