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Question: Do You Have Any Spinal Fusion Recovery Tips?
I am 14 days away from mine and scared out of my mind. I’m wondering about how to prepare for the post-op/recovery at home. Do you have any tips or hints? Are there any devices or things that made life easier for you?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions, and for good reason – spinal fusion recovery is tough, and anything that can possibly make it easier is worth a shot.
The following is a list of tips, suggestions, and devices that may make your recovery a bit more comfortable. Each one is either something I’ve tried personally, or a suggestion from someone who’s had a spinal fusion. When possible, I’ve included a link to a specific product. (These may be affiliate links, which means that if you use the link to make a purchase, I get a very small commission, which I use to keep this site running. Feel free to search for the product directly without using my link.)
Spinal Fusion Recovery Tips
Shower Chair: This is probably my #1 recommendation. After surgery, you won’t be able to submerge your incision for at least 2 weeks – so even if you were able to get in & out of the bathtub (you probably won’t be), baths are not an option. I was allowed to take showers right away, but I wasn’t able to stand without assistance. My shower chair allowed me to shower independently. We borrowed the chair, but if you start looking early you might be able to buy one secondhand. I saw one today on Craigslist for only $10:
Some shower chairs are like little stools, but I’d definitely suggest something like the one pictured above. You’ll need the back to help support your weight, and you almost certainly won’t have the strength to sit unsupported on a stool early on. If you have to purchase a new one, I’d recommend something like this shower chair from Amazon.
Reacher/Grabber: Like the name suggests, this will help you grab things that aren’t within easy reach. You will be on BLT (bend, lift, twist) restrictions for the first few weeks of your recovery. And even after that, it may be a while before you can pick things up from the floor. Early on when I spend the majority of time in bed, I used my grabber to reach things like books and snacks. Later on, I used it to help with laundry and other chores. (Side note: I still use it now because #shortpeopleproblems.) I purchased my grabber on Amazon for about $15.
TENS Unit: As I’ve shared before, my TENS unit was an absolute lifesaver. I don’t know much about TENS – I just know that it relieved the worst of my pain post-op when nothing else could. There are lots of affordable models to choose from, but I just happened to already have this TENS unit. You should also consider purchasing some extra pads to have on hand, as they tend to lose their stickiness after lots of use.
Ice Therapy Machine: These are pricey but so worth it. My hospital sent me home with one, and my health insurance paid for it, and I hope yours will do the same. I used it so much that I wore out the pump.
Heating Pad/Ice Packs: Initially I was instructed to ice my back after surgery. But after my two week follow-up appointment, my surgeon said that I could use either heat or ice – whichever worked better for me. While I didn’t use the heating pad on my back right away, I did use it to alleviate the nerve pain in my leg. I’d recommend keeping both a heating pad and ice packs handy.
Satin Sheets: This suggestion comes from a reader (thanks Rebecka!), and it’s a great one! Turning over in bed can be one of the most painful things you do after a spinal fusion. Satin sheets will help eliminate some of the friction from your movement. I’ve read that garbage bags can do the same thing, although I don’t know anyone personally who’s tried this. (Let me know if you have and whether it worked!)
Non-Skid Socks: You definitely want to avoid falling, and non-skid socks will help. I wore the socks that the hospital gave me, but you can buy them inexpensively at Walmart or Target. (Side note: putting on my own socks was one of my biggest early post-op challenges.)
Non-Skid, Slip-On Shoes: If putting on socks was difficult, you can imagine what it was like putting on my shoes! Slip-on shoes are great, especially if you’ll be on your own for a significant portion of your recovery. Or you can do as I did and just deal with the indignity of having someone else tie your shoes.
Non-Slip Rugs: Again, you want to eliminate potential fall risks. Non-slip rugs are essential, especially in your bathroom.
Medication Organization System: One piece of advice you’ll hear a lot is to “stay on top (or ahead) of the pain.” Pain medication can take a while to kick in, so if you wait until you’re in pain to take it, you’re not going to get immediate relief. And on the flip side, you don’t want to accidentally take too much pain medication either. So the key is to take your meds on a schedule. There are a number of ways to do this – you’ll have to find what works best for you. For me, this was keeping a notebook beside my bed and writing down the time and amount of each dose. I know other people who keep track with an app or a pill organizer. And others put a family member or caregiver in charge of their meds. You can even use something like this Talking Alarm Clock to give you reminders.
Fiber: I’ve got 3 words for you – Opiate Induced Constipation. The meds they give you after surgery are very likely to cause constipation. And to add insult to injury, the muscles that you use to “go” will be weak and ineffective. Do your best to prepare for this ahead of time – stock your home with fresh and/or dried fruit, prune juice, stool softeners, etc. And be sure to drink plenty of water. I would probably avoid laxatives unless absolutely necessary, because getting to & from the bathroom in a hurry is not going to happen, and you don’t want to find yourself in an urgent situation.
Entertainment: It’s important to keep your spirits up during the healing process. This means doing things that make you feel happy or connected – as long as you can do them from your bed, of course. We don’t usually have a TV in our bedroom, but we moved one in temporarily while I was recovering. The girls would lay in bed with me and watch TV. And every night Vic and I would eat dinner in bed and watch House of Cards. I also did a lot of crossword puzzles (my favorite!) and coloring. I’d suggest keeping a variety of things nearby – books, puzzles, a tablet, knitting, spiritual items. And keep your phone (and charger) handy too, as it may be your only connection to the outside world. I had a handful of friends and family members that were amazing about checking in on me and keeping me company.
Storage Box: You’ll want to keep your necessities within reaching distance. I did this by keeping a mini-crate next to my bed – it held my entertainment stuff, my medication, a notebook & pens, snacks, extra socks, chapstick, and whatever else I needed for the day. You’ll definitely want to keep water and snacks nearby. Even if you have someone at home taking care of you full-time, you’ll need the ability to do somethings independently too. I say this from experience – about a week or so into my recovery, my husband left me home alone for a few hours to run some errands and pick up my medication at the pharmacy. No big deal – except both of us forgot that I’d need to eat at some point! I was still unable to get downstairs and had no way to eat for most of the day. No fun.
Spinal Fusion Recovery: Final Thoughts
I think the main idea here is to make yourself: 1) as comfortable as possible, and 2) as independent as possible. While there’s obviously no way that you can predict everything you’ll need, I hope this list is a good start. I also found this comprehensive list of Post-Op Must-Haves – there’s some really great stuff on there, so check it out while you’re making your preparations.
I also want to point you toward another great read: 6 Tips to Recover From Back Surgery Successfully by Bart Astor. I stumbled across this article while doing research for this post, and it’s spot on – definitely worth a read.