My Back Surgery Experience

Cathy B. Bridges

© Copyright 2021 by Cathy B. Bridges

Photo of a back brace.       

No one likes to be in the hospital and, like me, may avoid it if possible. I have been putting it off for several years, but the time has come for me to have lower back surgery. Maybe I should rephrase that. I need to have back surgery and will not be able to function well without it.

A long time ago, I started having trouble with pain in the back of my calves any time I tried walking on the treadmill. At the time, I was not aware of the extent of my back problem. Then later, I started having lower back pain off and on, and sometimes my hips would hurt. I would ignore it until my legs began to ache when on my feet for even a short length of time. Then my big toes started getting numb off and on, and my leg(s) would get partially numb sometimes.

Finally, a few years ago, my legs would hurt so bad I could cry. So, I started putting a heating pad under my calves when stretched out on the sofa. That was so soothing and seemed to help more than anything, but I overdid it and burned the back of my legs, so I stopped. After that, taking 800 milligrams of prescription-strength ibuprofen helped enough to get me by most days. If I did not stay on my feet too long, that is.

A good friend of mine, a retired orthopedic surgeon, recommended a neurosurgeon he had worked with and who did his back surgery. That was over two years ago, and I had no intention of having surgery anytime soon. However, I have had five lumbar epidural steroid injections in my lower spine and physical therapy at two different locations.

The first few injections helped a little bit for a short time, and the physical therapy helped, but not as I had expected. After my fifth injection did not work, the Physiatrist told me I would have to see the surgeon again and that lower back surgery was my only option left. Right before that, when brushing my teeth one morning, a sharp pain went across my lower back, almost taking me to the floor. Slipped disc!

My leg pain got so bad that my husband started grocery shopping and other things that I could not handle. Finally, depression set in, and I just started staying home in my pajamas. It got to the point that I did not want to go anywhere. It went on for approximately nine months in 2020, partly due to the covid-19 outbreak. When January 2021 rolled around, I knew that I would need to come to a decision soon.

I made an appointment to see the orthopedic neurosurgeon, who ordered X-rays and a CT scan to know the extent of the changes. The next few months, I saw him or his assistant, and they went over my results which were worse than I had expected. As a result, they informed me that I would be having two surgeries: Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion and Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion. Although I had the confidence that my surgical team was great, I still wanted to put off the surgery, but I did not have a choice anymore. Fusing the front and back provides more stability for the spine and essentially is a “welding” process to connect the painful vertebrae to help with healing into a single, solid bone.

That same day I also had to get fitted for a back brace. Those things certainly are expensive. My part alone was over 200.00. I will have to wear the brace most of the time for three months. It’s a big ugly thing with what feels like a “board” in the back and lots of Velcro in front. That is it in the picture. When I tighten it up as much as is comfortable, it feels like a girdle. The brace is quite cumbersome, but my back must have time to heal correctly.

The first surgery (Anterior) was through my belly. The surgeon removes the intervertebral disc to access the spine without moving the nerves, although the surgeon must move the organs and blood vessels to the side. Another surgeon assists the orthopedic/neurosurgeon with opening and exposing the disc space, allowing better access to the intervertebral disc. Next, a bone spacer (called a “cage”) usually containing bone graft material between the two adjoining vertebrae will be implanted. That procedure helps the bones heal faster and easier.

The surgeon performed the second surgery (Posterior) through the back and behind the spine to fuse one or more vertebrae segments in the lower spine and relieve the pain of the nerve roots, which causes Sciatica pain. (Which I had big time!) In addition, it provides much better support for the vertebrae and the surgical screws, plus other hardware.

Lumbar Radiculopathy (sciatica) is severe pain that originates in the spine and radiates down the back of the legs. (L5) Spinal Stenosis (L4, & L5) is a narrowing of the spaces within the spine which can put pressure on the nerves and Spondylolisthesis, (L4, & L5) is a condition involving spine instability that causes lower back pain when your vertebra slips out of place onto the vertebrae below and puts pressure on a nerve. These were the instigators of my pain and bane of my misery.

Finally, my surgery was scheduled for May 13th & 14th this year. (2021). I was required to go to Pre-Admission, and an RN performed a medical history. A nurse or nurse assistant did an EKG and lab work. They also got my insurance and prescription medication info. They advised which medications to stop before my surgery and what the doctor allowed me to take that morning.

I was thankful to have received both of my covid vaccines beforehand. But, unfortunately, 2020 was a terrible year, with many people dying from covid-19, and it’s not over yet! That was another reason why I put off my surgery until this year. I was afraid to be hospitalized in 2020 when there were so many sick people.

The night before and morning of my surgery, I showered with an antiseptic/antimicrobial cleanser the nurse gave me at pre-admission. We arrived at 4:30, wearing our face masks. They said to bring my back brace to the hospital with me as I could not get up and walk without it. In registration, I confirmed my insurance, paid my co-pay, and received an ID bracelet. When they came to get me for PreOp, my husband had to go to the car and wait for them to call him.

After having my blood pressure checked, changing into a hospital gown, and having my IV started (both arms), the nurses went over my chart to ensure everything else was in order. My husband was called and allowed to sit with me until I was taken back for surgery. The anesthesiologists came and introduced themselves, and I met the rest of the OR Team. The surgeon assisting with my anterior lumbar interbody fusion stopped by also.

That surgery was done on May 13th and went well. After recovery, I was taken to a room and was allowed a liquid diet that day. After midnight it was no eating or drinking. I had to get ready for the posterior lumbar interbody fusion the next day, May 14th. After surgery, I was taken to recovery and then wheeled to another room on the surgical floor, where my husband was waiting. Everything had gone well. I had a drain coming out of my back, and it was hard to get comfortable that night. I was also beginning to have some significant pain. That was a Friday; on Saturday, I had to put my brace on and walk.

Sunday, I was dismissed and sent home with prescriptions and postoperative instructions. Everything from wound care, showering, and activity restrictions to what I should expect for the first few weeks. While I’m thinking about it, let me brag on the hospital, all the doctors, and nurses. Everyone was friendly and professional. It made my stay very pleasant and much better than I had expected. I had a fantastic orthopedic neurosurgeon, and his assistant and nurses were terrific also. They are a great team.

My first week home was hard, and I did not get out of bed much for several days. It was painful to walk, get in and out of bed, or dress. I did not eat much the first few days. My body was traumatized, and it would take time. My husband was fantastic at running the household and keeping things going as smoothly as possible. I had a two-week follow-up checkup with my surgeon to remove the staples and see that everything was ok. My front incision had been taped with surgical-grade tape that I had already removed before my appointment. The doctor was pleased with the way my incisions looked.

In my third week home, I started having some new pains in my hip and upper leg. Sometimes the leg pain was hard to deal with, and I had a hard time sleeping, so the doctor recommended physical therapy. So far, I have had nine physical therapy sessions and made some improvements, so I was released today. However, now I must walk, walk, walk! My doctor told me to walk as much as possible now because this pain has kept me from walking as I should.

At my follow-up appointment, the doctor ordered x-rays again, and the assistant went over the results with me. He told me that my spine was fusing very nicely, but I needed to continue my home exercises and walk as much as possible to get my core in shape. In addition, the vertebrae on top of the fused ones are looking unstable, so I must be careful. They may give me a problem in the future.

These back surgeries have all been a significant experience for me. Let me stress the importance of walking, exercising, and watching what you eat. I plan on doing better myself. I have always been healthy and have not been in the hospital much. But I never got in the habit of exercising and being mindful of what I ate. Finally, I am having a positive attitude and trying to do what is best for me. One day soon, it will all pay off. I am blessed, and I know it.

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