10 Tips for Spine Surgery Caregivers

Spine surgery is a major life event, not just for patients, but also for their caregivers. Whether you're a spouse, child, friend, or relative, being a caregiver to a spine surgery patient is a commitment in time, energy, and resources, as well as a true test in patience and compassion.
Caregiver with an elderly patientTo help caregivers prepare and initiate constructive conversations with the loved ones they're caring for, I'm sharing some practical "top tips" my practice provides to the supporters of patients embarking on a spine surgery journey.

1. Remember that compassion is key. Recovery from any type of surgical procedure can be tough on patients and their caregivers. Especially when it comes to spine surgery recovery, even the most everyday tasks we perform can be taken for granted when patients have to re-learn how to do them after surgery. Be kind, supportive, and compassionate. Even when you feel as though recovery frustrations are being directed at you, you really aren't the cause. As recovery progresses, I assure you those early frustrations will turn into triumphs that you too will be able to share in the joy of.

2. Take notes. When you accompany the patient to any pre- and post-surgical appointments with their physician, especially immediately after surgery when the patient is still recovering and potentially unable to hear the information or instructions, take copious notes. That way, if the patient needs a refresher of what was covered during the visit, they'll have the detailed notes you've taken as a reference.

3. Talk it out. Before surgery, talk in person with the patient about their expectations for your caregiving so that you're both on the same page when the patient gets home. Be realistic, ask lots of questions, and write down what you both agree upon so you both feel confident with the plan of action and approach.

4. Have handy tools. Having simple tools like a "grabber" nearby in a few rooms will help the patient reach things, regain independence, and avoid injuries while doing routine activities such as pulling on or taking off socks.

5. Invest in easy-to-wear garments. Identify clothes and shoes that are easy to put on and remove, and will be sensitive to incision areas. Organize these clothing articles in a place that makes them easily accessible for you and the patient. 

6. Minimize injury risks. In the bathroom, look for ways to minimize fall risks such as installing temporary grab bars near the toilet and in the shower, installing an elevated toilet seat, and placement of non-slip mats on the floors of surfaces that may become wet and slippery. Make sure all other walkways in the home are clear, as patients can be unsteady on their feet for a while after surgery. This includes keeping pathways clear of clutter such as low-to-the-ground side tables or other items (even small ones) on the floor.

7. Keep the first floor functional. If the patient will be recovering in a two-story home, discuss whether temporary accomodations are available downstairs to avoid trips up and down stairs, which may result in unnecessary trauma to a recovering spine.

8. Become the "Back Police." Depending on the type of procedure, ensure that the patient is consistently following the doctor's orders including wearing of any post-surgical devices/garments, not bending or lifting too soon, taking appropriate medications, and completing physical therapy if it has been recommended. Remind the patient to slow down when walking; forward momentum while hurrying on a recovering spine can cause falls.

9. Be a subtle cheerleader. When even the simplest of successes is finally achieved post-surgery - pulling on socks with ease or walking confidently without assistance, for example - be encouraging. Just try not to overdo it. Most adults don't want to feel like a circus animal being applauded for jumping through a flaming hoop. A simple "awesome job" can be all the encouragement needed.

10. Relax as much as possible. Life immediately after surgery can be mentally and physically challenging for both the patient and the caregiver. When possible, accomplish all of your necessary errands and to-dos before the surgery. This way, as the caregiver, you can also rest while the patient is resting.

Of course, every spine surgery experience is different. I like to encourage caregivers to join my patients at as many appointments as possible to ensure that both have a clear understanding of at-home care instructions, recommendations, medications, and what to expect. As serious as spine surgery is, outcomes are much better when patients have great support from loved ones who will be part of the recovery process.