Pain after surgery to fuse discs anywhere in the spine is almost universal. Your muscles take a major hit, and you have to adjust to a new range of motion and a variety of hardware in your neck or back. Adding to problems, sometimes fusion fails, so joints in the spine degenerate, and sometimes hardware breaks. However, people are usually better off after the surgery than before.
It's impossible to recover from this kind of procedure without ongoing medical care and physical therapy. However, there are things you can do to reduce pain:
- Be especially careful to follow doctor's orders when you are discharged from the hospital after surgery. Wear your brace exactly as prescribed. If you have trouble with it, let your doctor's office know right away. If your doctor tells you not to do certain kinds of physical activities, don't do them.
- Epidural injections sometimes completely relieve pain for a few weeks, even a few months. The problem may arise when you become too active too fast because you are not feeling pain and you injure a muscle or your spine. Sometimes epidurals are only effective for a few weeks even when patients comply with doctor's orders.
- Massage therapy can be helpful, but you need to see a trained and licensed massage therapist.
- Avoid shampoos in which your hairdresser lowers your head into the sink. You'll need to wash your hair sitting or standing up.
- It's usually best to avoid chiropractors unless they are in practice with orthopedic surgeons. What your surgeon (correctly) sees as a temporary problem is often something that your chiropractor will see as a problem requiring multiple treatments. It's not that your chiropractor is dishonest, but that the underlying theory of chiropractic is incompatible with a lot medicine. There are, however, even chiropractors who are part of the surgical team in hospitals. If your chiropractor is recommended by your surgeon, then he or she is probably a safe bet. Not all chiropractors necessarily believe all chiropractic theory.
- Get a variety of cold packs and keep spares in your freezer. The important thing to remember about "ice" (very few people use actual ice any more, most people prefer reusable freezable products) is that it is for relieving inflammation. It's the sort of thing you use to treat pain after surgery. It's not the sort of thing you use for an overworked muscle. Don't use so many cold packs that you begin to shiver. Your brain can interpret this as danger and increase pain so you stop using the cold packs, leaving you with the surgical pain. Ice isn't something you should ever use for vague neck or back pain you can't trace to a recent surgery or injury. For pain during your recovery, it's usually better to use a heating pad.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, also known as TENS, is also a common way to reduce pain after neck surgery. A TENS machine is about the size of a candy bar. You place two electrodes on your skin at the site of injury, and turn on the electricity. The electrical signals from the machine "scramble" pain signals from your spine so that they do not reach your brain. Not everyone benefits from TENS, and the pain relief is not usually 100 percent, but it is free of side effects if used according to directions, and is not addictive.
- Gabapentin, which is sold under the trade name Neurontin, is a remedy for nerve pain. It may make sense if you have had a nerve injury in your neck, or if you have numbness, tingling, burning, or "pins and needles" sensations in your arms. Most of the time it's not something you would use after disc fusion.
- Lyrica, which is now also sold under its generic name pregabalin, is also a treatment for nerve pain, not for inflammation after surgery. It's appropriate for fibromyalgia, but not for pain caused by defects in the spine.
- Herbal remedies for pain may work, but they are not always appropriate. Capsaicin cream, for instance, works by "distracting" the brain from your spinal pain with inflammatory pain. However, you'll get a lot of inflammatory pain if you put capsaicin on skin recovering from surgery. Birch leaf, wintergreen, and willow bark contain Aspirin-like compounds; if you use them, avoid Aspirin. These herbs offer both the benefits and some of the side effects of Aspirin. Ginger, turmeric, and holy basil (tulsi) are OK in compresses, although the turmeric will stain clothing and bed linens, but don't take them internally if you are on blood thinners. Bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapple, may help reduce formation of scar tissue, but it's also not something you should take if your doctor has you on an anticoagulant drug.
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