If you’re scheduled to have back surgery, you’re probably a little worried about how it will turn out. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to make sure your operation is successful.
Just ask Dwylett Montgomery. After years of living with severe back pain, she had surgery for degenerative disc disease in 2012. “The surgery wasn’t enough. Within a year, I learned I’d need to have another,” says the 43-year-old mother of three from West Chester, OH.
The good news? “The second time around, I [knew to] approach things differently,” she says. Unlike her first surgery, she interviewed multiple doctors and even talked to some of their patients. After that, she chose a different orthopedic surgeon and a different procedure, too. She had minimally invasive laser surgery rather than an “open” surgery.
“My homework paid off,” Montgomery says. “My back pain has decreased and I’m able to do things I haven’t been able to do in years.”
As she points out, preparation is key. Here are six dos and don’ts that spinal surgeons -- and people who’ve had back surgery -- say you should know before heading into the operating room.
DON’T stop moving. “Back pain can be hard to live with. Even so, you should get as much physical activity as you can before surgery,” says Federico Girardi, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Exercise can help keep the pounds off, and a healthy weight can speed your recovery. But it has another perk: “If you’re physically active, you’re less likely to have a blood clot or circulation issues that affect your surgery,” Girardi says.
DO educate yourself. “No one is as invested in your health as you are,” says Jesi Payne, 36, who had surgery in 2014 to fuse two joints in her back.
“I read medical research, looked at statistics on outcomes, and interviewed orthopedic surgeons beforehand,” says Payne, who lives in the Portland, OR, area. “So I went into surgery feeling confident about my diagnosis, my surgeon, and the procedure I was undergoing [iFuse], which was newer than many of the standard procedures some surgeons recommended.”
Today, she’s mostly pain-free and does activities she once only dreamed of, like wakeboarding.
“The more you know about what to expect, and all of your options -- and the potential outcome of your procedure -- the happier you’ll be,” Girardi says.
DON’T take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This includes ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. “You should stop taking them a week before surgery,” Girardi says. They can thin your blood, which raises your risk of problems during surgery.
Some other drugs -- including heart medications and supplements like omega-3 fatty acids -- can also thin your blood. That might stop the meds your doctor uses during surgery from working like they should. Tell your surgeon about every over-the-counter and prescription pill you take.
DO consider getting a second opinion. “If you have any doubts or simply want reassurance, see another surgeon or two,” says Ronald A. Lehman Jr., MD, director of degenerative and minimally invasive spine surgery at Columbia Orthopedics in New York.
Look for a surgeon who specializes in spinal surgery and who has performed your procedure at least a few dozen times.
“It's a red flag if a doctor tells you not to get a second opinion or that they want to perform surgery as soon as possible,” Lehman says. There’s one exception to that: If you have a serious problem, like a spinal infection, tumor on your spine, or spinal cord injury, you may need surgery right away.
DON’T think surgery will fix everything. It can make a big difference in the way you feel and function. But it’s not a cure-all. “You have to take a whole-health approach to your back,” says Stefan Prada, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, FL. Keep a healthy weight, build up your core muscles with exercise, eat healthy food, and don’t smoke or drink. All of that can lower your chances of having back problems after surgery.
DO get your family involved. It can take weeks, and even months, to recover after back surgery. Your loved ones should know that. They should be prepared to help you, especially the week after.
“With my first surgery, my kids were surprised by what rough shape I was in. With my second surgery, we sat down beforehand and talked through it,” Montgomery says. “And we were all less stressed afterward, because they knew I’d be sore and need some extra help.”