We hear a lot in the media about how risky surgery can be. And it's true. From a routine tonsillectomy to major spine surgery, there's a host of things that can go wrong. But most often they don't. And for many patients, especially those choosing to undergo spine surgery, the potential benefits and opportunities for permanent pain relief often outweigh the risks.
It happens far more often than we spine surgeons wish it would. Having to turn a patient away from surgery when they would have otherwise been a perfect candidate is heartbreaking for everyone involved.
Want to avoid becoming a patient who doesn't qualify for surgery? Here are a few things you can do that can make a significant difference. The best news? If you follow these rules, you can also enjoy countless other health benefits.
Don't Smoke. We read often about how unhealthy smoking is for our lungs and hearts, but it isn't as often discussed how harmful the habit can be to our bones and discs. Why? Because smoking has been implicated in the accelerated degeneration of our discs and it hinders the ability of our bones to stay strong and re-grow when they break. So when it comes to situations where surgical intervention is required to fix degenerated bones—spinal fusion surgery, for example—if bones are already weak due to prolonged cigarette usage, sometimes even the most gifted surgeon is unable to get them to fuse back together properly. The effects can range from a delay in fusion, the ability of bones to stay fused long-term, or worse, non-fusion altogether.
In addition to problems that smoking can cause during surgery, it can also be responsible for major complications after surgery. By way of what it does to our whole body, smoking weakens the immune system. After surgery is when we want our immune system to be in its best working order. This helps us fight off infection as well as recover more quickly and completely. When immune systems are compromised, we surgeons see many more infections and healing times that are increased for far longer than they should be.
So what can you do? QUIT NOW—especially if you know that a surgical procedure is in your future. Talk to your doctor about the many resources available to help patients kick the habit for good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is one resource that provides a toll-free hotline and educational materials to help you quit.
Maintain a Healthy Weight. Many researchers have concluded that being overweight or obese can contribute to a number of spine surgery complications ranging from wound infection and pneumonia to heart issues and prolonged intubation. Interesting to note is that while those who are severely obese (with a BMI of 40 or higher) have a more significant chance of complications, people who are simply in the overweight category (with a BMI of 25 or higher) are also at an increased risk.
Unfortunately, obesity and back pain often go hand-in-hand. Our spines just weren't designed to carry around the excess weight, and they often crumble (sometimes literally) under the pressure. The great news? Losing just 15% of the excess weight has been shown to improve chronic back pain issues in those who are overweight. In some cases even, significant weight loss can cancel out the need for surgery altogether.
How to do it? Though it can be easier said than done, exercising for at least 30 minutes most days of the week and maintaining a well-balanced and healthy diet are frequently enough to provide some significant and lasting benefits to your spine and overall health.
Today's patient is so well-informed of what he or she should look for when choosing a spine surgeon—significant experience, well-rounded education and training, and ability for open dialogue, just to name a few. This is with good reason. We know that these are important factors in helping determine the most successful surgical outcomes. But what I also want patients to remember is that their efforts to present the best possible specimen (themselves and their spine), by way of what they can control in keeping their bodies healthy, is as important as the surgeon they choose to operate on them. Together, it can be a winning combination for a healthy spine and especially after spine surgery, a return to a normal, fully-functional and pain-free life.