The thought of getting surgery can always be scary, but it’s something many of us face sooner or later in our lives. A common reason people often have to get surgery is because of a car accident. After a car accident, if something doesn’t feel like it’s healing properly or you think too much time has gone by and you’re still feeling sore, you may consult with a doctor who tells you surgery is your best option.
Many surgeries following car accidents are on the neck and the back because these are areas commonly injured. Spinal fusion is one such surgery, and along with needing this surgery because of the effects of an accident, it may be needed for the following reasons:
- Degenerative disc disease
- Scoliosis, which is an abnormal curving of the spine
- Spinal stenosis, meaning your spinal canal is narrowed
- Spondylolisthesis, which is a shift of the spinal disc forward
- Spine infections
If your doctors recommended this procedure, the following are things to know and ways to prepare so you can get your health back on track once the surgery is over.
The Basics of Spinal Fusion
Spinal fusion is a surgery that is done to permanently connect vertebrae in your spine so there’s no longer movement between them. The underlying premise of spinal fusion surgery is that it’s a way to replicate how bones naturally heal. During the surgery, the doctor will put bone or material like bone between the space of two vertebrae. Then plates, screws, or rods might be used to hold the vertebrae together so that it can then heal into one unified section.
Spinal fusion can reduce pain and correct deformities. You are placed under general anesthesia, so you aren’t conscious during the surgery, and surgeons use different specific techniques for this surgery, depending on your health and your body. Most spinal fusions start with an infusion in your neck, your back, or one side of your spine. Sometimes a surgeon might make the incision through the throat or abdomen to reach the spine from the front.
Then, there is a bone graft used, which may be from your own bone. If the bone graft comes from your bone, it’s typically taken from your pelvic bone. Spinal fusion is one of the most expensive back surgeries, so that’s something to think about too.
How Should You Prepare for the Surgery?
Before any surgery, you want to try and be as healthy as you can, and your doctor may have particular recommendations for you. For example, if you can stop smoking before your surgery, that can improve your outcomes. Also, even though back pain can be challenging to live with, you should try to be as physically active as you can before any surgery. You might gain weight during your recovery, so you want to do as much as you can to head that off during the surgery itself.
If you’re a healthy weight, it can help you recover faster, and it can reduce the likelihood of complications such as blood clots. Your doctor will likely tell you this, but you should stop taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as far in advance of your surgery as possible, but at least a week before. NSAIDs can thin your blood, increasing the potential for complications during surgery. There are other medications and even nutritional supplements that can thin your blood, too, so talk to your doctor about anything you take.
What Happens Right After Surgery?
In most spinal fusion situations, you’ll stay in the hospital for two or three days to recover after the surgery. Most pain can be managed with medications. When you go home, you should watch for any signs of infection such as redness or tenderness, or shaking and chills. You might wear a brace for weeks or months after the surgery to help bones fuse as they heal and to align your spine properly.
You may also participate in physical therapy sessions to help you move and sit in a way that keeps your spine aligned the right way. With most back surgeries, the full healing process can be lengthy and may last for six months or a year. As well as the potential for infection to occur, there are other possible complications that your doctor will go over with you in-depth, like nerve damage. Also rare but possible is loss of strength to the legs or loss of bladder control. During your recovery, you have to realize that it’s not a sprint—it’s a marathon. You have to look at your health holistically, following surgery.
Eventually, when your doctor gives you the all-clear you’ll probably need to start exercising and building or maintaining your core strength. You will need your family and loved ones to help you during your recovery too, so prepare them for this.
Get a Second Opinion
Some medical professionals do feel that people get back surgery more often than actually needed. It’s important before any big surgery and in particular, a back surgery that you get a second opinion, particularly if you feel uncomfortable with the advice of your doctor. Sometimes, back surgeries can turn into a cascading effect where one leads to another, and so on.
Of course, that doesn’t have to be the case as long as you work with a doctor that you trust and who is doing the surgery for the right reasons. If you’re in an accident or have back pain for any reason, you need to make sure you consult with a doctor who’s highly experienced. It’s important to target the underlying issue of the pain before making any treatment decisions, and especially one as major as spinal fusion surgery.
Spinal fusion surgery can help relieve certain symptoms, but it doesn’t mean you won’t experience pain in the future, which is one more reason to ensure you’re clear on all the details going into the surgery.