In addition to following the doctor's post-surgical recommendations, such as rehabilitation and physical therapy, it is a good idea for back surgery patients to examine areas that are under his or her control that will help with their post-surgical recovery process.

Here are a few lifestyle changes for patients to consider:

  • Avoid smoking. Smoking is a known contributor to back pain and any form of nicotine will hurt the post-surgical healing process. This is especially true for fusion, as nicotine is known to inhibit the bone growth necessary to achieve a solid fusion.
  • Avoid drinking excess alcohol. Alcoholic beverages are a depressant, and patients will benefit from keeping a positive frame of mind during their recovery process. Alcohol will also significantly increase sedation when consumed in combination with narcotic pain medications and muscle relaxants. Because alcohol may interact unfavorably with other medications, read the medication instructions carefully and consult a healthcare provider or pharmacist with any questions.

    See Side Effects and Risks of Muscle Relaxers

  • Avoid sitting for prolonged periods. Prolonged sitting can create strain on the low back because it is difficult for most people to maintain good posture when they sit for long periods of time. Although sitting will not cause damage after back surgery, during the first few weeks, prolonged sitting is usually uncomfortable and people do best if they get up, move around or change position on a frequent basis (e.g. every half hour).
  • Achieve a healthy weight. Excess weight means excess stress on weight-bearing structures, including the discs in the low back. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight will help minimize loading on the spine.
  • Eat nutritiously. Healthy foods will nourish the entire body and help with the healing process. Patients should ask their doctor if there are any nutritional implications of post-surgical pain medicine that they should be aware of. For example, some narcotic agents lead to constipation, so eating plenty of foods with high fiber content (e.g. bran and fruit) is important.

    See Nutrition and Diet for Weight Loss

  • Drink plenty of water. Staying well-hydrated by drinking several 8 ounce glasses of water each day will help with overall nutrition, as well as help reduce the risk of constipation.
  • Get enough continuous sleep. It is well known that surgery, postop pain and the medications used to treat it will certainly disrupt the normal sleep cycle. Frequently, people rest and nap more than usual after surgery which contributes to the problem of wakefulness at night. It may take some time for things to get back to “normal” and this can be frustrating to patients and their families. When possible, take medications that cause drowsiness before bedtime and minimize their use during the day. Practicing good sleep habits will also make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. It is suggested that people establish a comforting evening pre-sleep ritual such as reading a good book or doing something else relaxing. Going to bed at about the same time each night, avoiding caffeine and meals in the hours leading up to bed time may also help. For those who have chronic difficulty staying asleep, there are prescription medications available but healthcare providers may or may not wish to rely on these in the early postop period.

    See Chronic Pain and Insomnia: Breaking the Cycle

In summary, research has shown that having a positive attitude enhances the patient’s overall experience and leads to less pain after surgery and a faster recovery process. Feeling well prepared for surgery will help foster a sense of control and confidence. Patients and caregivers who have a thorough understanding of what to expect before and after surgery, and most importantly, know who to call with questions, will have less anxiety in the days and weeks surrounding the event.

Pamela Verkuilen is a board-certified and licensed nurse practitioner at NeuroSpine Center of Wisconsin. She has more than 20 years of experience as a nurse practitioner in orthopedic spine surgery. Pamela collaborates with spine surgeons and physiatrists to help evaluate and treat patients with a range of spinal disorders, and she assists surgeons in the operating room.