While most spine surgeries have a successful outcome, the recovery process can take some time and varies widely from patient to patient. One of the more common issues to develop while recovering from neck or back surgery is constipation, due to the type of pain medications used and/or changes in diet and activity levels. Here are some tips to prevent or at least minimize the problem while making your way toward a full recovery.

1. Keep moving when possible

When recovering from spine surgery, especially the first few days, you are likely to feel lethargic and need lots of rest. However, be sure to ask your doctor how much walking is allowed or recommended when you are recovering at home. If your doctor has cleared you to start walking and doing other light activities, give it a try. Walking every day is typically recommended to help promote blood flow, healing, and regular bowel movements during the recovery process.

See Exercise Walking for Better Back Health


2. Use pain medications as directed

Opioid pain medications, which are among the strongest pain killers commonly prescribed after spine surgery, can significantly increase the risk for developing constipation. It is typically advised to transition off opioids as soon as a weaker pain medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), can effectively manage the pain. Stay in touch with your doctor about how your pain management is going and when it might be appropriate to start taking fewer opioids. If your constipation is related to pain medications, your doctor might try a different medication to see if that helps.

See Opioid Medication Potential Risks and Complications

3. Eat the right amount of fiber

The USDA recommends about 25g dietary fiber per day for women and 38g for men. 1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Try to have some fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and/or other high-fiber foods with each meal. If you have a sore throat due to spine surgery on the neck, use a blender to make foods easier to consume. And remember, don’t overdo it with too much fiber—that can also cause constipation.

See After ACDF: Trouble with Swallowing

4. Consider a fiber laxative

While recovering from spine surgery, some people may need to use a fiber laxative to help promote bowel movements by bulking up the stool and keeping more water in the colon. Some examples of over-the-counter options include Citrucel and Metamucil, which are typically taken on an as-needed basis. Check with your doctor to see whether taking a fiber laxative shortly after surgery as a protective measure is right for you.

See After ACDF: How to Prevent or Manage Constipation

Also, remember to drink plenty of fluids. If constipation persists, other treatments may be needed, such as stool softeners, suppositories, or enemas.

By following these tips, you’ll have a better chance at keeping your digestive health regular and making a smoother recovery from spine surgery.

Learn more:

How to Prep Your Home for Spine Surgery Recovery Video

Dr. Rob Dickerman is a neurological and spine surgeon at the North Texas Brain and Spine Institute. He has more than 15 years of clinical experience and specializes in spine biomechanics, spinal cord injuries, and brain tumors.