The help and support of family members and friends is very important to someone undergoing back surgery. Their involvement at every stage will make things much easier and can lead to a faster, more complete recovery.
Many patients and their families are surprised at how challenging recovery from major back surgery can be. Even if the person having the operation is in good health, extra help and support is usually needed in the first few weeks.
A family meeting may be helpful. Figure out what kind of assistance will be needed and how to organize it so no one feels overburdened. Here are some ways that you as a spouse, partner, daughter, son, grandchild or friend can help:
In the weeks before surgery
- Talk to the patient about whether help will be needed, especially if he or she will be recovering at home. Making these plans now means there will be less to worry about later on.
- If necessary, re-arranging the furniture and other items. For example, make sure there are comfortable, supportive chairs. Make sure the person’s bed isn’t too high or too low.
- Remove scatter rugs and mats. Consider taping down the edges of larger area carpets to prevent tripping or catching a foot on them.
- Make sure important items are within easy reach so that the person having surgery doesn’t have to reach or bend down for them.
- Be there to accompany the person to the pre-operative visit. Bring along a list of questions and a notebook so you can take notes.
- Learn about any special items of clothing and assistive devices that will be needed in the hospital or after the person is discharged.
- As the date of surgery approaches, offer to help by cooking and freezing meals for later use.
- You can also help ensure that bills are paid on time and do laundry. Arrange to take out the trash for a little while and help out with any necessary gardening or yard work.
- Encourage the patient to remain as active as possible.
The week of surgery
- Family and friends should make a careful note of the surgery date so they will be available to help.
- The surgeon has already given the patient instructions about medications. You can remind the person of the importance of following directions: for example, stop taking aspirin and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) seven to 14 days before the date of the operation since these sorts of drugs are known to cause bleeding.
- Many herbal supplements may decrease the effectiveness of anaesthetics or cause complications, such as bleeding or high blood pressure. Remind the person to tell the doctor about any herbs or other “natural” products they’ve been taking or plan to take after surgery.
- Make sure that whoever will be driving the patient from home to the hospital knows what time to be there for pick-up.
- This is a good time to go over the list of What to bring to the hospital (see What to Expect Before, During and After Back Surgery) and to make sure the patient has everything needed for the hospital stay. This includes all the current medications.
- Keep the surgical care team informed. They should have up-to-date phone numbers for family members and friends, and also the phone number of the patient’s family doctor.
- If the patient gets a cold or a fever during the week before surgery, or if his or her health changes in any way, it’s important to tell the surgeon right away.
- Encourage the patient to eat a light meal the evening before surgery to provide energy. But unless the doctor has given permission, no food or drinks should be consumed after midnight.
- The surgeon will see the patient following surgery but may have the family doctor assess the incision in the immediate post-operative period. It is a good idea to book this appointment ahead of time.
The day of surgery
- Make sure the patient leaves all valuables (jewellery, important papers, cash) at home or in a safe place.
- Arrange for someone to be at the hospital during and right after the surgery. It’s always good to see a friendly face when you wake up!
- If you will be waiting at the hospital, pack a book or some activity to help pass the time. The wait can be long and unpredictable.
- If the person is being admitted for a hospital stay, a relative or friend should be around during the first day or two to help the adjustment. Being a patient can be challenging.
The week after surgery
- While your family member or friend is in hospital, you can help just by being there.
Encourage the person to follow the prescribed routines and do the exercises.
- If you’re spending time with the patient after surgery, you should know what kind of movements and activities are recommended. It is almost always better for a post-operative patient to be more active. Try to be encouraging. If the patient is in pain, he or she should be encouraged to ask for medication. Research shows that patients who ask for and receive pain medication actually do better during their rehabilitation. It is better to stay ahead of the pain (while in hospital and at home) and remain as mobile as possible.
- Once the care team decides they are ready for discharge, most patients who have had an uncomplicated back procedure are sent home, with a list of instructions,. That is often on the same day as surgery or the first thing next morning. Arrange for a family member, friend or other companion to drive the person home on the day of discharge.
Long-term recovery from back surgery
- If there are no problems during the early stages of recovery, the patient will be given a follow-up appointment a week or two after surgery. It’s a good idea for a friend or family member to come along to lend support and take notes. Prepare a list of questions to bring to this appointment.
- Most patients feel drained of energy after back surgery. Encourage the person to set realistic goals. This means conserving energy to get through the important tasks of daily living and rehabilitation. Help them set priorities.
- Complications can happen and if there are problems after surgery, family members and close friends should be there to offer comfort and support.
- Encourage the person to take part in some kind of regular exercise program to maintain overall fitness, to control weight, and to strengthen the back. Help the person follow the advice from the surgeon and other members of the care team.