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Make Spine Surgery a Positive Experience

AnonymousUserAAnonymousUser Posts: 49,578
edited 06/11/2012 - 7:22 AM in Back Surgery and Neck Surgery
Below is the unedited version of an article I wrote. The edited version can be found at the following address: http://www.spineuniverse.com/displayarticle.php/article3068.html

I hope it helps anyone out there who has made the choice to have spine surgery. I can't say enough about the technics I used to control pain in the hospital and during recovery.

So you're considering spine surgery and just thinking about it scares you to death. You've heard horror stories about spinal fusion. But the constant agonizing pain day in and day out has brought your life to a standstill. Normal everyday things are almost impossible to do - work, cleaning, social activities, and sports. In an effort to regain your life, you've tried every non-surgical treatment including pain pills, shots, and physical therapy with little or no improvement. It seems that day after day, month after month, it just gets worse.

But spine surgery - isn't there another way, something else that might work? Anything but surgery! You've heard about so many people who were worse after surgery and you can't imagine being worse than you are right now. Like so many, you're sick and tired of being sick and tired! You've seen so many doctors and you're beginning to feel more like a mental patient than someone with a physical problem!

Nine months ago, that was my life. Now, at age 44, I have my life back and it is full of things I love to do like deep-sea fishing, gardening, and carpentry. During my journey, I found an incredible amount of information on the surgical procedure from a doctor's viewpoint, but little information from the patient's perspective. The purpose of my article is to give you a better understanding of what you might expect and the part you will play in the healing process.

Is Spine Surgery for Me?
When I walked (sort of crawled) into the Spine Center, I had no life despite efforts to continue a normal routine. Until my back started to bother me, I was a normal, healthy, active woman. Several weeks following the initial exam and MRI, I learned the true severity of my problem. I was told that without spine surgery, my condition would only worsen. At home, I considered my options: (1) Live like this or worse forever, or (2) take a chance to restore my life to normal. I decided on surgery.

Understand the Situation
It was important for me to be clear about the type of surgery I would undergo. I made a list of questions for my doctor a mile long.

My disc had torn between the L5/S1 regions of my spine and was no longer hydrated. On the MRI image, the disc appeared as a black shadow while healthy discs were white.

In my case, surgery would involve an anterior/posterior fusion. The surgeon would make an incision across my stomach, move my insides over, remove the disc and attach cadaver bone to the front of my spine. Then he would flip me over and make another incision up my back, attach a piece of my hip bone to the back of my spine, and support everything using titanium screws. The bone would eventually fuse to my spine and become a permanent part of me. Two surgeons would be involved.

After hearing the gruesome details I left his office scared out of my wits but excited at the prospect of living life again. O.k. so I wouldn't have a bikini body but I'd be fixed. I listened to my doctor and followed his instructions to the letter before and after surgery.

Taking Charge and Setting Goals
Both Surgeons and the Anesthesiologist said, "The pain will be so severe you'll want to die for the first 4-5 days but we'll make you as comfortable as possible." What kind of a statement is that? I went home and began researching everything I could find out about pain management and spine surgery. It was important to prepare my body and mind. The doctor would fix the problem but it was up to me after that. Unless I was ready to make permanent changes in my life I would end up right back where I was. The final outcome was in my hands, not the doctors. So, I began to lose weight, quit smoking, and started exercises designed to help prepare my muscles for surgery. I also made a commitment to exercise regularly for the rest of my life.

Keeping a positive outlook is an important part of preparing for surgery. I concentrated on what I would gain, not the surgery itself. Yes, I was scared and wanted to call the surgery off numerous times but that would have meant giving up a chance to regain an active life. I made a decision to learn everything possible about my surgery and recovery.

How I Dealt with Post-op Pain
To prepare for dealing with the pain after surgery, I learned self-hypnosis and breathing exercises. I found this information online. I also burned a CD of nature sounds. Waterfalls, ocean waves, rain, birds singing, anything that seemed soothing. My family was instructed to place headphones on me as soon as I was brought to my hospital room and set the CD on continuous play. The combination of pain medicine delivered through my IV and the soothing nature sounds put my mind somewhere other than the hospital. Not once did I feel excruciating pain, even immediately after surgery. I realize that each person's pain tolerance is different, but I don't think I would have fared as well without these simple steps.

Walking is Great Therapy
As soon as they allowed me to, I started walking. I can't stress enough how important this is. I didn't feel like walking, but once I started, I immediately began to feel stronger. I walked up and down the halls as much as I could endure and drove my nurses nuts. Walking is the initial key to becoming stronger, healing quickly, and reducing pain.

Progressive Recovery
The first few weeks I spent the majority of time resting in bed. I sat no longer than 20 minutes at a time and everytime I began to feel pain I'd walk it off. After a few weeks, I gradually increased the length of time spent walking. I walked off stiffness and soreness … walking was the one thing that made me feel better.

At seven weeks post-op, I started physical and massage therapy three days per week. This was the final step toward regaining my life. About five months after my surgery, I noticed a change in my body. It was at this point I knew I'd made the right decision. After therapy ended, I joined a gym and now work out two to three days a week and walk at least 30 minutes daily.

Fusion Tips for Patients
After a fusion, there are two significant things to know.

First, scar tissue can form around the nerves and cause pain. Make sure your doctor and/or therapist gives you exercises to help prevent scar tissue formation.

Second, the fused area no longer moves. Therefore, the rest of your spine must pick up the slack. Because of this, other discs may become damaged resulting in additional surgeries years later. To help prevent this I knew there would be activities that I'd need to limit or restrict all together. There were many things I had to learn such as the best way to bend and twist, and not to be stubborn about asking for help to move or lift things. Let's face it, I won't be bowling or golfing anytime soon and I can assume skydiving's out of the picture.

Concluding Thoughts
Regardless of how good I feel, I understand my limitations—even if I don't feel limited! For me, it's a small price to pay. I'm a success story not only because of my fine surgeons, but also because I made a commitment to heal afterward and to make positive, life-changing decisions to keep my spine healthy for the rest of my life.



  • Very well put lmj. Though I am only 4 weeks and 4 days out of my fusion surgery I agree with a lot of what you said. I know I hold a huge amount of power over what my personal prognosis will be and between my faith in God and faith in myself I have and will do everything I can to be a success story. I am already super-seeding my expectations. I am pleased with my decision to have the surgery at this point.

    Thanks for sharing!!
  • I am now 47. Once I returned to work full-time and again made work my priority I fell back into some of my old habits like not exercising regularly. I also continue to try to do things I shouldn't. Because of this, some pain has begun to return. Each time I begin my routine of exercise and being careful, the pain subsides and I begin to feel great again. It's a vicious circle I fight constantly. At the rate I'm going I fear one day I'll need additional surgery but I'm hoping by that time the medical technology will have advanced to the point I'll be able to order a whole new 20 something year old body.
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  • unfortunately for many of us spineys, for life. I just try (and it's not always easy of course) to acknowledge, appreciate and concentrate on the positive. I feel like I might "pollute" myself if I only empower the negative by giving it too much attention. I'm not sure if that makes sense or not but I'm trying to be a half full glass kind of gal lol. I hope you can find a happy medium and maintain good healthy habits and that you feel better on a regular basis.
  • Very well written!!
  • LMJ,

    Your comments are so true. Unfortunately, it took me a year to realize the importance of walking. Prior to this past April, I spent more time with my heating pad taking pain meds, sitting in front of the TV. Now, I walk. Today was a perfect example. Its cool and raining here in New England. Instead of being stiff and miserable, I put on my rain suit and walked 3 miles.

    Emergency surgery in March of 2006 for spinal infection of L 2 and L 3. During surgery, discovered I had Cauda Equina Syndrome. Spine became unstable after surgery and had 360 fusion with 10 pedicle screws, plates and rods in April of 2007.
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  • I am so glad you posted the article! It says everything I would have said :)

    Well, except I'm only 42 ;)
  • Lmj, this is an amazing article and full of so much truth and sense. I had a similar outlook to you before and after my previous surgery and I made such a good recovery, even though it took over 2 years to get to my best. Like you, once I went back to full time work it was difficult to keep up with my exercise regime and coupled with the extra driving involved, my pain began to return. I would say that the lifelong commitment to exercise after your recovery is THE single most important thing you can do to maintain your reduced pain levels. I certainly won't be making that mistake again when I have my next surgery.

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us :)
  • Your story is similar to mine in many ways and we have both made excellent recoveries. One of the common demoninators I believe is that we both made a very real and conscious commitment to the recovery process - the commitment was not simply to have surgery, the commitment was to do everything reasonably within our power to improve ourselves after surgery: to give our bodies the greatest chance of successfully recovering after surgery.

    Yes, it is easy to slip into old habits (read slackening up on exercises!) and yes, muscular pain does return if you do slacken up. It seems to me that our bodies body never learn to compensate fully for the geometric changes made by fusing some joints and we continue to run the risk of muscle pain if we are not careful.
    Keep positive!


    ...an old timer here and ex-moderator

  • Thank you for your well said words of wisdom :)

    Christina :)
  • lmj, that pretty much made my decision...thank you...why live with excruciating pain when there's options?
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