After Spine Surgery: Eat Right to Heal Fast

Once you’re back home and eating regularly, post-op is one time when more is better: more calories, more protein, more of the healthy foods to help your body recover as quickly as possible.

The days, weeks and months after neck or back surgery are not only a time for your spine to heal—but your entire body goes through a recovery process. The progression is generally slow, but after you are able to eat normally, a high-quality diet or meal plan can help ensure a smoother and speedier healing process.

salmon steak and vegetables

For the first few days after your surgery, you may feel nauseous, which is common for anyone coming out of anesthesia and starting on pain medications. You won’t feel like eating much, and that’s just as well, because your gastrointestinal tract will need time to get back on track after spine surgery. (The first good sign that your digestive system is starting to work properly, though a little embarrassing, is when you are able to pass gas.) As you recover in the hospital, your surgical team gradually transitions you from a clear liquid diet to a soft diet to solid food.

By the time you leave the hospital, you should be ready to eat normal meals. As you prepare to go home, someone on your surgical team will provide you with specific meal planning advice, but the general approach to a spinal post-op diet plan goes like this:

More Calories
After spine surgery, your metabolism increases with the need to heal, so your body needs extra calories—about twice as many as usual—for proper recovery. And it’s important that these extra calories come from healthy foods like grains, legumes and fresh fruits and vegetables that provide your body with the extra vitamin C and other nutrients it needs for wound healing and recovery.

High-Protein Diet
Protein is the key nutrient required for healing after surgery, so many of your extra calories should come from lean meats, poultry and fish, eggs, tofu, and other high-quality protein foods. Low-fat dairy products are a good source of protein that also provide the calcium and vitamin D you need for bone restoration. High-protein foods tend to be high in zinc, which is essential for fighting infection.

Small Meals, More Often
Instead of three big meals, eat four to six smaller, well-balanced “mini meals,” spaced throughout the day. That will be easier on your digestive system, especially when you are increasing your calorie intake.

Supplemental Shakes
Smoothies and shakes are a good way to boost both calories and protein in your post-op diet. You can make them yourself with a milk, soymilk, yogurt, or another high-protein food or beverage as the base, or you can buy prepared shakes in the supermarket or drugstore that are specifically prepared to boost calories and protein.

Vitamins and Minerals
Your spine surgeon is likely to recommend vitamin and mineral supplements, and possibly other dietary supplements to help promote healing.

  • Important: Be sure to get your doctor’s approval before you take any other supplements during your recovery.

Fiber and Water
If your pain medication leaves you constipated, the first most important thing to do is make sure you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day, which is essential to the overall healing process. Then be sure you are eating plenty of high-fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. You can also get a natural laxative effect from drinking prune juice or eating prunes (dried plums).

If you have trouble following your post-op diet plan or any questions about food or supplements at any time, contact your surgeon’s office or the hospital dietitian. At a regular follow-up appointment, you might want to ask how long you will need to stay on a special diet, so that you can plan accordingly.

Updated on: 03/25/16
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