Can You Make Spine Surgery a Positive Experience? I Did!

Editor's Comment:
Thousands of patients face spine surgery every year. Perhaps you are contemplating spine surgery as a treatment option. would like to thank Ms. La Vaun M. Johns for contributing her experiences. Her article details many of the important decisions she faced while working toward regaining a healthy and active life.

So you are considering spine surgery? Perhaps just thinking about spine surgery scares you to death. Maybe you have heard horrible stories about spinal fusion. But … the constant agonizing pain day in and day out that has brought normal life to an end clouds out those fears. Normal everyday things are almost impossible to do - work, social activities, and sports. In an effort to regain your life, you have tried every type of non-surgical treatment including pain pills, shots, and physical therapy - all with little or no improvement. It seems that day after day, month after month, it just gets worse.

You may ask yourself, "But spine surgery - isn't there another way, something else that might work? Anything but surgery!" After all, you have heard about so many people who were worse after surgery and you can't imagine being worse than you are right now. Like so many patients, you are simply sick and tired of being sick and tired! Maybe you have seen many doctors and are worn out from examinations and tests. Maybe you are beginning to feel more like a mental patient than a patient with a physical problem!

Portrait of patient at doctor's office, smiling at cameraNine months ago, that was my life. Now, at age 44, I have my life back and it is full of things I love to do like deep-sea fishing, gardening, and carpentry. During my journey, I found there to be an incredible amount of information on the surgical procedure from a doctor's viewpoint, but little information from the patient's perspective. The purpose of my article is to give you a better understanding of what you might expect and the part you will play in healing process.

Is Spine Surgery for Me?
When I walked (sort of crawled) into the Spine Center, I had no life despite efforts to continue a normal routine. Until the time that my back started to bother me, I was a normal, healthy, active person. Several weeks following an initial examination and MRI, I went in for a surgical evaluation. There I learned the true severity of my problem. I was told that without spine surgery, my condition would only worsen. At home, I mulled over my two options: (1) Live like this or worse forever, or (2) take a chance to restore my life to normal. I decided on surgery.

Understand the Situation
It was important for me to be clear about the type of surgery I would undergo. I made a list of questions for my doctor a mile long.

I learned a normal disc contains water (hydrated). My disc had torn between the L5/S1 regions of my spine and was no longer hydrated. On the MRI image, the disc appeared as a black shadow.

In my case, surgery involved an anterior/posterior fusion. The surgeon would make an incision in the front (anterior) of my body and enter the spine through my stomach. Through this incision the surgeon would remove the disc and attach cadaver bone to the front of my spine. Cadaver bone is used to help the spine fuse. Next, the surgeon would make another incision through my back (posterior), attach a piece of my hip bone to the back of my spine, and stabilize (support) everything using titanium screws.

Listening to the explanation of the procedure left me afraid but also excited at the prospect of living life again. I listened to my doctor and followed his instructions to the letter before and after surgery.

Taking Charge and Setting Goals
My goals included finding a way to deal with the pain right after surgery and to heal quickly. At home I started to research everything I could find out about pain management and spine surgery. For me, it was important to prepare my body and mind. The doctor would fix the problem but it was up to me after that. Unless I was ready to make permanent changes in my life I would end up right back where I was. The final outcome was in my hands, not the doctors. So, I began to lose weight, quit smoking, and started exercises designed to help prepare my muscles for surgery. I also made a commitment to exercise regularly for the rest of my life.

Keeping a positive outlook is an important part of preparing for surgery. I concentrated on what I would gain, not the surgery itself. Yes, I was scared and wanted to call the surgery off numerous times but that would have meant giving up a chance to regain an active life. I made a decision to learn everything possible about my surgery and recovery.

How I Dealt with Post-op Pain
To prepare for dealing with the pain after surgery, I learned self-hypnosis and breathing exercises. I found this information online. I also burned a CD of nature sounds. Waterfalls, ocean waves, rain, birds singing, anything that seemed soothing. My family was instructed to place headphones on me as soon as I was brought to my hospital room and set the CD on continuous play. The combination of pain medicine delivered through my IV and the soothing nature sounds put my mind somewhere other than the hospital. Not once did I feel excruciating pain, even immediately after surgery. I realize that each person's pain tolerance is different, but I don't think I would have fared as well without these simple steps.

Walking is Great Therapy
As soon as they allowed me to, I started walking. I can't stress enough how important this is. I didn't feel like walking, but once I started, I immediately began to feel stronger. I walked up and down the halls as much as I could endure and drove my nurses nuts. Walking is the initial key to become stronger, heal quickly, and reduce pain.

Progressive Recovery
The first few weeks I spent the majority of time resting in bed. I sat no longer than 20 minutes at a time and walked several times daily. After a few weeks, I gradually increased the length of time spent walking. I walked off stiffness and soreness … walking was the one thing that made me feel better.

At seven weeks post-op, I started physical and massage therapy three days per week. This was the final step toward regaining my life. About five months after my surgery, I noticed a change in my body. It was at this point I knew I'd made the right decision. After therapy ended, I joined a gym and now work out two to three days a week and walk at least 30 minutes daily.

Fusion Tips for Patients
After a fusion, there are two significant things to know.

First, scar tissue can form around the nerves and cause pain. Make sure your doctor and/or therapist gives you exercises to help prevent scar tissue formation.

Second, the fused area no longer moves. Therefore, the rest of your spine must pick up the slack. Because of this, other discs may become damaged resulting in additional surgeries years later.

I knew there would be activities that would need to be limited or restricted. There were many things I had to learn such as the best way to bend and twist, and not to be stubborn about asking for help to move or lift things.

Concluding Thoughts
Regardless of how good I feel, I understand my limitations—even if I don't feel limited! For me, it's a small price to pay. I'm a success story not only because of my fine surgeons, but also because I made a commitment to heal afterward and to make positive, life-changing decisions to keep my spine healthy for the rest of my life.

Updated on: 01/08/16
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Spine Surgery: Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Our knowledge of the diseases affecting the spine and their treatment is rapidly evolving and we now have a multitude of diagnostic and treatment options to offer our patients. In spite of the rapid improvements in treatment options for spinal disorders, the best outcome is when each surgical technique is tailored for a specific problem in appropriately selected patients. Surgeons and patients need to be well informed about these treatment options and the expected outcomes. Internet sources such as provide a powerful source of such information, and patients now have greater access to salient and cutting-edge information about treatment of a wide array of spine diseases and are able to access background information on surgeons with appropriate expertise. Feedback from patients who have undergone spine surgery, also provide a valuable source of information to help other patients make the decision for spinal surgery. Overall, spine surgery can offer promising benefits but should in the majority of cases only be employed after a trial of nonoperative methods over a reasonable time period unless there are noticeable neurologic deficits that are worsening.
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Spine Surgery: Questions to Ask Your Doctor

If you are scheduled to have spinal surgery, one way to relieve your anxiety about the procedure is to learn all you can about the procedure. This article includes some sample questions that you can take with you to your next appointment.
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