The prospect of any surgery can be scary for patients, and that’s especially true for spine surgery. Patients wonder whether surgery will negatively impact their mobility, increase their pain or require a long recovery.
What’s scary for patients, though, is routine for experienced orthopedic surgeons. We’re always developing new techniques to lower pain and enhance patients’ well-being.
Below, I’ll address patients’ 10 most frequently asked questions about spine surgery. You can also learn more about how to prepare for spinal surgery here.
Do I need spine surgery?
Generally speaking, most spine surgeries are not urgent, so the question of whether a surgery is needed often falls on the patient. They need to decide if they’re okay living with the current level of pain or discomfort. Spine surgery typically only comes up as an option after multiple steps of non-surgical treatment.
What exactly will you do during the operation?
There are two big categories or types of spine surgery that we do: decompressing the nerves if the pain that we’re trying to eliminate is related to their compression; and stabilizing the spine, when it’s required, which consists of placing hardware into bony elements of the spine to keep them stable and to achieve healing. Our surgeries are often a combination of those two categories.
How long will the surgery last?
The most common surgeries will last anywhere from one to three hours. Certain surgeries take longer, but those are so-called complex spine reconstructions and are not often required.
Can I get paralyzed during the procedure?
This is a question we get often, and patients overestimate the likelihood that they can be permanently injured by surgery. In fact, the chances of complete paralysis or a patient being unable to ambulate because of the surgery are extremely, extremely low. Out of tens of thousands of procedures nationwide, paralysis happens in fewer than 0.5 percent, and even then, it's often a temporary phenomenon.
How much pain should I expect after the surgery?
We cannot make the whole process painless, but we do have new techniques and innovations in spine surgery that are allowing us to relieve more pain than previously. The pain is generally worst in the first few days and progressively resolves. Within a week or two after surgery, patients start to feel better than they did before the procedure.
When can I expect my current symptoms to improve after surgery?
Many if not all symptoms should improve immediately after surgery, particularly pain related to nerve compression that radiates to the extremities. That said, patients may experience new pain related to the incision for a certain period of time.
How quickly will I be able to walk after a spine operation?
After every surgery, patients can walk immediately — but being able doesn’t mean that they will. Patients will be groggy from anesthesia and will need time to recover. We do like them to walk and mobilize very quickly, however, and we like to say that “motion is lotion.”
How many nights will I spend in the hospital after surgery?
With a number of procedures, patients go home the same day. If they have a drain or are experiencing more pain, we may have them remain in the hospital for one or two nights.
How long is the recovery?
Depending on the procedures, recovery can take from three weeks to three months.
Will I have any limitations after surgery?
Generally, right after surgery, surgeons may ask patients not to perform lifting, bending or twisting. For procedures that stabilize the spine and involve putting in some instrumentation, those limitations may last for up to three months after surgery.
If you have any other questions about spine surgery or non-surgical treatments, don't hesitate to ask your orthopedic surgeon or specialist. Being well informed will ensure that you're prepared to play an active role in your care.