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What Should I Expect after Spine Surgery?

There Are No Usual Expectations

Question: My husband is very healthy and fit. But after a recent accident in the garden, he has lost the ability to do many of the activities he's used to because he has numbness and weakness in his knees. He will have a laminectomy in a few weeks. We have heard stories of those who recovered easily and then nightmare tales about those who never really recover. Is there such thing as "usual" expectations about pain control and length of recovery from spine surgery?
—Glendale, AZ

Answer: The short answer to your question is that there aren't any typical expectations regarding spine surgery recovery. That's because many factors are involved in a patient's recovery, and every patient is unique.

From the patient's own pain tolerance to the extent of surgery that was done, outcomes can be hard to predict. I have had very frail elderly women with major reconstructive surgeries leave the first day after surgery, while their younger counterparts undergoing a microdiscectomy remain bedridden in pain unable to leave the hospital for days.

Fortunately, there are some factors that may improve your husband's chances of having a smooth recovery from spine surgery. Patients with good outcomes often share similar characteristics, which include:

  • using minimal pre-operative narcotics
  • having a shorter surgical time
  • having realistic expectations regarding post-operative pain
  • having a positive outlook
  • having a strong desire to get back to work

Typically, pain in the back is worse after surgery for a week or two. Leg pain is usually somewhat better right away. However, sometimes there is an increase in leg pain and tingling after the nerve is decompressed. Numbness is one of last symptoms to improve with full recovery, taking several months at times. But really, your husband may have a different experience.

My advice would be to learn as much as you can about the procedure. If you need a place to start, you may want to read about the differences between a laminotomy and a laminectomy. I would also suggest visiting SpineUniverse's Spine Surgery Center—it contains many helpful resources, including articles on pre-operative steps and post-operative care. The more you and your husband understand about his procedure, the more realistic your expectations will be. I wish your husband a successful recovery!

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