Back pain is one of the most common ailments for Australians, with approximately 4 million people reporting to have back problems. For the majority of people with back pain, conservative treatment options such as physiotherapy, anti-inflammatory medication and gentle exercises may help provide relief.
For some people, however, these treatment options do not ease their pain and they are unable to fully participate in their day to day life. In these cases, they may seek information on back surgery.
When should you consider back surgery?
Back surgery is often the last resort for people living with chronic back pain who have not found relief from physiotherapy, pain medication or other non-surgical treatment options. If your pain has prevented you from leading your life and enjoying your favourite activities, spinal surgery might be considered.
If you’re questioning if spinal surgery is right for you, check out our guide on questions to ask yourself before spinal surgery.
When you meet with your orthopaedic surgeon, they will take a full history from you and review all of your previous reports and imaging. If required, you may be referred for additional scans such as an MRI or x-ray. This is to make sure that your surgeon has the full picture and understanding of your pain, in order to provide the most appropriate treatment plan.
What are the different types of back surgery?
The type of spinal surgery that you are referred for will depend on your specific condition and needs. The most common types of surgery are:
- Spinal decompression – A portion of a herniated spinal disc is removed to widen the spinal canal, relieving pressure on your nerves.
- Spinal fusion – Two or more vertebrae are fused together to improve the stability of your spine.
- Fixing spinal fractures – Increasing your mobility and reducing the effects of your injury to your spine.
- Draining spinal infections – If a bacterial or fungal infection affects your spine, surgery may be required to drain the pressure on your spinal nerves, or reduce the impact on your spinal stability.
At Victorian Orthopaedic Spine Service, Dr David Edis is one of the few spinal surgeons who use robotic guidance and CT navigation during surgery.
What should you expect after back surgery?
Immediately after your surgery
Depending on the type of surgery you’ve had, you will likely be in hospital for several days. You will likely be given pain medication, and encouraged to start moving again as soon as possible to help your mobility.
You will also be visited by a physiotherapist or other movement specialist, who will take you through range-of-motion exercises to start rebuilding your strength and get you walking again. They will prescribe exercises for you to continue at home as part of your care plan.
The first few weeks after your surgery
The first few weeks after your back surgery is when your body does some of its most important healing, so it is important that you follow your doctor’s orders exactly at this time. Before leaving hospital, you will have been given a care plan outlining how to care for the surgery site, what exercises you need to complete and how often, and which follow up appointments you will need to attend. You will also be prescribed pain medication based on your specific needs and situation.
Your doctor and physiotherapist will advise you on the best positions to sit (most likely in an upright position on a firm chair), sleep and stand, as well as which movements you can commence at the different stages of your recovery. You will most likely want to wear button up clothes and slip on shoes so that you do not need to bend or twist to get dressed.
After a few weeks, you will likely start to be able to start resuming some of your normal activities. However, you should still try not to twist or bend your back, or lift anything heavier than a bottle of milk, unless advised by your doctor and physiotherapist.
The months after your surgery
In the months following your back surgery, you will be able to return to most, if not all of your previous activities. While there may still be some restrictions imposed by your doctor or physiotherapist, you should be able to return to driving, work and your day to day activities.
You will likely have to continue your physical therapy for some time after surgery, but your visits may become less frequent and the exercises will change. If necessary, your physiotherapist will also be able to provide advice on how to modify your work space to best accommodate your needs as you return to work.
How long does it take to recover from back surgery?
Back surgery recovery time will vary depending on the type of surgery you’ve had, your specific condition and your age.
If you underwent a spinal decompression that removed part of the soft tissue rather than bone, you may begin to see improvements within weeks. However, if you had a spinal fusion or a more invasive procedure involving the bone, it may be much longer before you begin to return to work or your daily activities.
Your pre-surgery fitness level, your lifestyle and your age will also contribute to your recovery time. Younger people tend to heal from back surgery faster, while lifestyle factors such as smoking can slow down your healing process.
What should you do if you have questions?
If you have any questions about back surgery, either before or after your procedure, you should contact your surgeon. At the Victorian Orthopaedic Spine Service, our team is available to help answer your questions and help you on your recovery journey. Contact our experienced team today.
All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion. Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks.
About Dr David Edis
Dr David Edis is an Orthopaedic and Spine Surgeon. David’s areas of special interest include the management of adult spinal conditions as well as hip and knee replacements. He has extensive experience in all facets of spine surgery from simple to complex, covering cervical to lumbo-pelvic conditions. He is an active researcher and medical educator and believes in lifelong learning. He is constantly updating his skills and helping other surgeons.