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Tips for Staying Active After Back Surgery

Tips for Staying Active After Back Surgery

Tips for Staying Active After Back Surgery

If you are facing the prospect of back surgery, you probably are not thinking about how to stay active as you recover! On the contrary, you are probably thinking about how long you will have to wait until the recovery period is over so you can get back to being active, in whatever way that looks for you. However, it is important to stay active during your recovery period as well! While you will want plenty of rest, especially for the first few days after the surgery, low-intensity exercising and stretching will ensure your recovery is successful and no longer than it needs to be.

How Long Does it Take to Recover From Back Surgery?

This question is typically on the forefront of most patients’ minds when facing the prospect of back surgery: How long will I be off work? When will I be able to do everyday activities again? There is good reason for this to be your primary concern, as you will want to know how to prepare and inform your employers of the time off in advance. With that in mind, the length of time it takes to recover from back surgery ultimately depends on several different factors, such as:

Type of procedure: 

For obvious reasons, a minimally invasive procedure will take less time to recover from than more invasive procedures. There are fewer surgical wounds to heal from, and the incisions are much smaller. The type of procedure you have to address back pain is the primary distinguishing factor in how long your recovery from surgery will take. However, other factors, such as the extent of the damage, your spinal condition and age, will determine the type of procedure available to you, as minimally invasive procedures may not always be available.

Examples of minimally invasive procedures for back surgery include endoscopic spine surgeries (ESS), which use micro-tools inserted through a thin, long and flexible tube known as an endoscope to ablate or decompress the source of your back pain. In general, recovery time from an ESS involves two to three days before returning home, one week or two before returning to work (for sedentary jobs) and approximately six weeks before you fully recover.

In contrast, more invasive procedures like traditional spinal fusion surgery, disc replacements or discectomies will require significantly longer recovery times. The recovery time for such surgeries can take as long as four to six weeks before patients can even perform light housework tasks and six months to one year before they fully heal and recover.

The extent of the damage: 

In the same way that a minimally invasive procedure takes less time to recover from because they inflict fewer surgical wounds, so surgery for a spinal condition that has caused minimal damage will take less time to recover from than a spinal condition with extensive damage. Moreover, spinal conditions with extensive damage may not qualify for minimally invasive spinal surgery, requiring traditional open surgery, which will significantly increase recovery time.

How well you stick to your recovery plan: 

Even the most minimally invasive spinal surgery will require a lengthy recovery time if you don’t care for yourself after surgery! Conversely, you can reservedly speed up your recovery time by taking exceptional care of yourself after surgery, regardless of whether your spinal procedure is minimally invasive or requires traditional open surgery. As such, you will want to follow your doctor’s aftercare instructions to a tee while also eating well, drinking plenty of water, getting abundant rest and staying active when it is safe and beneficial to do so.

Your age and physical condition:

In general, young and healthy individuals will heal and recover faster from back surgery than older adults with various medical conditions. That being said, age and health do not always indicate how long the recovery time from back surgery will be. Some medical conditions that commonly slow down recovery time include the following:

  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Osteoporosis

Other factors that could increase or decrease recovery time from back surgery include:

  • Complications with the surgery itself
  • Extended use of opioids before the procedure, whether they were taken as prescription pain relievers or recreationally
  • Infection in the surgical wounds
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Use of prednisone medication

Can You Exercise While Recovering From Back Surgery?

While you can do exercises when recovering from back surgery, you are limited with respect to certain motions and intensity to avoid aggravating your condition or injuring the tissues in your back and spine as they heal. At the same time, appropriate exercise while recovering from back surgery can do wonders for those tissues as they heal, as long as you allow them to heal a certain amount before beginning various recovery exercises. You should never begin any kind of exercise routine without first consulting your doctor, who knows your individual situation best.

Once the tissues have healed sufficiently a few days or a couple of weeks after surgery, depending on your doctor’s recommendations and the extent of your recovery, it is important to engage in low-intensity activity and exercises to lubricate the joints and prevent them from stiffening. The exercises and activities you engage in should not require significant bending, twisting or lifting, as such movements can put too much strain on your back tissues and interfere with the healing process.

In addition to lubricating your joints and keeping them from getting stiff, an appropriate stretching and exercise routine after back surgery can also serve to slowly restore strength and flexibility in your back to its pre-surgery levels, and ideally, to your levels before the injury or medical condition responsible for your back pain began. Moreover, low-intensity and low-impact stretching can also serve as a natural pain reliever, helping you limit your reliance on pain relief medication as you recover.

On the flip side, if you avoid doing any exercise or physical activity after back surgery, you could put yourself at higher risk of experiencing a failed back surgery, as the muscles in your back can stiffen, become weak and atrophy, reversing any benefit gained from the initial procedure.

So, whether you are anxious to get active and off the couch or are dreading any uncomfortable movement after back surgery, make sure you take time out of each day once your back has healed enough to be active and engage in appropriate exercise routines recommended by your doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist to ensure your joints stay lubricated and your muscles healthy.

Good Exercises After Back Surgery

In general, good exercises to perform after back surgery are those that involve your legs and core and keep your body straight without requiring you to bend, twist or lift heavy objects. While your doctor, physical therapist or chiropractor will give you a list of exercises that you can safely perform with information on how, when and how often to perform them, here are some examples of generally good exercises to perform after back surgery.

1. Abdominal Contractions (or Draw-ins)

Abdominal contractions are a straightforward, low-intensity and low-impact way to keep your core toned. As such, they are an ideal exercise to perform early on in your back surgery recovery. To perform an abdominal contraction, also known as an abdominal draw-in, follow these steps:

  • Place an exercise mat on the floor
  • Lie down on the exercise mat on your back with your hands resting beneath your ribs, your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground
  • Once you are ready and comfortable, tighten your abdominal muscles by flattening your lower back against the floor and squeezing your ribs down toward your back
  • Hold this position for 5 seconds
  • Release and relax
  • Repeat the contraction 10 times

2. Heel Raises

Heel raises are not quite as effortless to perform as abdominal contractions, as they require you to be on your feet to perform them. All the same, heel raises are still simple exercises that are minimal in both intensity and impact and are great as an exercise you can perform during the initial stages of your back surgery recovery. The steps to perform a heel raise exercise are:

  • Stand within arms’ reach of a wall with both feet on the floor and your weight evenly distributed between them
  • Slowly raise your heels off of the floor so that you are standing on the tips of your toes
  • Hold this position for 5 seconds
  • Gently lower your heels to the floor and take a few breaths
  • Repeat this movement 10 times

3. Wall Squats

You may remember wall squats (perhaps not so fondly!) from gym class. While they provide a great way to increase your core strength, the intensity of the wall squats you do while recovering from back surgery are significantly less intense than those required in gym class. Instead of holding your position for around one minute, you will only need to perform each squat for a few seconds. With that in mind, you can perform a wall squat by following these steps:

  • Stand with your back against a wall
  • Keeping your back against the wall, walk your feet approximately 12 inches in front of your body — this will put you in a squatting position
  • Try to maintain at least a 45-degree angle with your knees, while keeping your abdominal muscles tight and your back against the wall
  • Hold this position for 5 seconds
  • Slowly return to a standing position
  • Repeat the squatting process 10 times

4. Single Knee to Chest Stretch

The first three exercises in this list are good to do during the earlier stages of your back surgery recovery, although wall squats may not be always be recommended during those stages, depending on your condition. This next exercise, known as a single knee to chest stretch, is recommended to practice during the middle stages of your recovery, as it involves slightly more bending, even though it is performed while lying down. To complete a single knee to chest stretch, follow these steps:

  • Lie on your back on an exercise mat with both of your knees bent
  • Place your hands on your thigh behind the knee and bring one knee to your chest
  • Hold this position for 20 seconds, then release and take a few breaths
  • Repeat this movement 5 times for each leg

5. Hamstring Stretch

A hamstring stretch is also better to practice in the middle stages of your recovery to avoid placing too much strain on your muscles early on after back surgery. Hamstring stretches can be performed according to the following steps:

  • Lie on your back on an exercise mat with both of your legs bent
  • Place your hands on one thigh behind your knee
  • Slowly straighten your knee while holding your thigh until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh
  • Hold this position for 20 seconds, then relax
  • Repeat this process 5 times for each leg

6. Hip Flexor Stretch

A hip flexor stretch is only recommended during the later stages of your back surgery recovery, as it is slightly more intense than the other exercises in this list. Performing a hip flexor stretch involves the following steps:

  • Lie on your back with your butt close to the edge of your bed
  • Hold your knees to your chest
  • Gently lower one leg, keeping the knee bent, until you feel a stretch across your hip and thigh
  • Hold for 20 seconds, then gently release
  • Repeat this movement 5 times for each leg

Tips for Back Surgery Recovery

While safe, low-impact and low-intensity exercise is excellent for your back surgery recovery, it is not the end all be all of your recovery. Here are some other tips to keep in mind as you recover from back surgery.

Have Help Around the House

It can be challenging to go from an independent adult who can freely perform routine household tasks without any assistance to requiring help for even the most basic tasks. While it may be tempting to “grin and bear it” so that you can continue performing those tasks, it is better to remember that your recovery is temporary and sufficient rest is essential to that process. So, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. If you live alone, consider asking a close friend or family member for some assistance as you recover from back surgery, especially in the early stages of your recovery.

Use a Grabber Claw

While help around the house is crucial to your recovery, sometimes it’s too much of a hassle to ask for help with minor tasks. Say you drop something or need to pick something up, but your helping hand is in the other room, out of the house or running errands. Waiting for them to pick up the object may seem more annoying than it’s worth. In such situations, having a grabber claw close by can easily solve this problem without putting any strain on your back.

Avoid Alcohol and Tobacco

Alcohol and tobacco use increase inflammation in your body, slowing down recovery and increasing the pain you experience. As such, if you smoke regularly, consider taking steps to quit or reduce your smoking habit before your surgery to prepare yourself for your recovery better. Likewise, limit or stop drinking alcohol after your surgery as you recover to minimize the amount of inflammation in your body, which will already be higher than usual due to the healing process.

Take Pain Medication Only as Directed

Only take pain medication as prescribed by your doctor. While pain relievers are often necessary after surgery, they should not be excessively relied upon or taken in different ways than they are prescribed, as this can lead to an unhealthy dependence on the medications or significant complications that compromise your recovery and health.

Nutrition: Eat Inflammation-Reducing Foods

Since inflammation will be high in your body as it heals, it is important to stay away from unhealthy fats from foods like French fries, red meat, margarine or pastries that spike inflammation and instead eat a diet rich in inflammation-reducing foods. Some examples of such foods include green leafy vegetables, fatty fish like salmon or tuna, fruits, tomatoes, olive oil and nuts like almonds or walnuts.

Minimally Invasive Procedures at Spine INA

At Spine INA, our medical doctors and physician’s assistants have a wealth of experience providing minimally invasive spine procedures to our treasured patients with various back pain conditions throughout New Jersey. Whenever possible, we highly recommend opting for minimally invasive procedures over traditional open surgery, as such procedures have fewer risks, smaller incisions and shorter recovery times. We proudly provide several minimally invasive procedures for back pain conditions and would be delighted to speak with you to find one that works for you!

Please feel free to contact us for an appointment or more information about our minimally invasive spinal surgery options.


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