Rehab therapy is key to supporting spinal surgery recovery. You can speed up healing and regain mobility faster by combining the right approach, the latest technologies, and a determined mindset.
Finding the Right Spinal Surgery Care Team
A reputable rehab facility should provide a multidisciplinary orthopedic care team experienced in caring for spinal surgery patients. Your care team should include:
Doctors specializing in rehabilitation (physiatrists)
These professionals will collaborate and design a therapy plan that addresses your circumstances, needs, and objectives. They will monitor your recovery and fine-tune the plan as you progress.
A good therapist will form a close and trusting relationship with you and your loved ones. They will explain the best recovery and coping strategies, outline the treatment program, answer your questions, and help you avoid activities that may hamper your recovery.
Orthopedic therapy, which involves a combination of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and mental health therapies, is often used in an inpatient rehab facility to help spinal surgery patients:
- Improve treatment outcome
- Increase the quality of life
- Accelerate healing
- Overcome musculoskeletal problems caused by the surgery
- Improve range of motion in arms and legs
- Use assistive equipment like a wheelchair, leg braces, or walkers
- Reduce and manage pain
- Recover communication skills, such as speaking, writing, or typing
Let’s look at the main types of orthopedic therapy you may encounter during spinal surgery care.
Physical Therapy After Spinal Surgery
Physical therapy is a major component of any spinal surgery recovery program. It starts in the hospital and continues at an inpatient rehab center. The program will help you speed up healing, reduce complications, and recover as much mobility as possible by strengthening the muscles, bones, and joints you need to perform daily activities.
Your physiotherapist will assess your physical condition and needs by examining your ability to move, your pain level, and your medical history. They may give you a quick test to check how easily you can bend, grasp, move, reach, and walk. The results will help them design a personalized therapy plan for you.
Initial physical therapy will focus on strengthening the neck and back muscles through twisting or bending motions. Then, you will start stretching and cardiovascular exercises. Physical therapy after spinal surgery also includes pain management, using techniques like electrotherapy, massage, thermotherapy, and ultrasound to relieve discomfort.
A good physical therapist will use various techniques, games, and gadgets to make the process as interesting and motivating as possible. They will also help you practice movements that support everyday activities like:
- Getting up and out of a bed or a chair
- Standing and maintaining balance
- Walking with or without an aid
- Going up and down stairs
- Getting into or out of a car
Discuss your routine and the tasks you need to perform to support your lifestyle with your therapist. They can then identify exercises and activities to help you yield the most long-term benefits.
Physical Therapy After Spinal Cord Injuries
Immediately after a spinal cord injury, treatment is focused on protecting vital functions and preventing further spinal cord damage.
Treatment for spinal cord injuries begins with admission to the hospital, where the medical team will try to stabilize the patient’s neurological state. After the emergency treatment phase, which often involves spinal surgery, patients will require ongoing, multidisciplinary care.
Rehabilitation for spinal cord injury survivors includes physical therapy to support spine and disc rehabilitation to prevent and manage stiffness and tension in the limbs and joints. Most recovery will happen during the first 18 months of recovery.
Spinal cord rehabilitation requires a comprehensive and holistic approach. Inpatient rehabilitation, where a dedicated care team helps patients with their transition from hospital to living independently, is often the most effective option.
Occupational Therapy After Spinal Surgery
Occupational therapy is another essential component of spinal surgery care. It helps you regain the mobility to perform everyday activities by focusing on the whole person instead of a specific problem. You’ll improve fine motor control for typical daily tasks like:
- Navigating your home
- Playing games or sports
- Social interaction
Besides relearning to perform these essential activities, your occupational therapist will help you adapt if your condition limits your mobility so you can live your life with as few restrictions as possible.
Speech Therapy After Spinal Surgery
Some patients experience difficulty swallowing following spinal surgery. Most recover within a few days, but others may suffer problems for weeks or months afterward. The issue can make eating a difficult and unpleasant experience and affect breathing. You may need to work with a speech therapist if you don’t quickly regain swallowing control.
Spinal surgery may also cause changes in your voice. The symptoms should clear up for most people within a few days. You may require speech therapy if you experience a weak or hoarse voice or lose it completely for a prolonged period.
Mental Health Therapies After Spinal Surgery
While most people associate spinal surgery care with physical problems and treatments, many overlook the mental health aspect of spinal surgery recovery.
A spinal injury can be a traumatic experience, and the surgery and rehabilitation process can be tough. Some patients may face mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and even cognitive problems.
A comprehensive inpatient orthopedic rehab program should provide psychological counseling to support you throughout your recovery. It may use mental health solutions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, and counseling to prevent conditions like depression from developing. It should also arm you with techniques to handle stress, pain, reduced mobility, and altered life circumstances.
Understanding the different types of physical therapy for back surgery recovery can help you find the appropriate support to aid recovery from back surgery. Learn about the most common types of physical therapy after back surgery and how they can support your healing process:
Exercise is the most common type of therapy for back surgery recovery. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends that patients start exercising for 10 to 30 minutes one to three times daily to build up their strength.
Your physical therapist will guide you to perform various exercises to regain mobility and reduce pain. These include core and hip strengthening, cardiovascular, flexibility, and posture control routines.
Bodyweight exercises are ideal for strengthening muscles while minimizing the risks of re-injury. Equipment such as body balls and resistance bands can help you build strength and increase range of motion at your own pace.
Aerobic exercises can increase blood flow to the spine, transporting nutrients to accelerate healing. Your therapist may also use biofeedback machines to help you achieve proper alignment and range of motion to prevent future injuries.
Messages can loosen back muscles and increase blood flow to the spinal area. A scar tissue mobilization massage can help relieve tightness around the incision site. Your therapist may show you how to perform massage at home regularly by yourself or with help to reduce tissue scarring. If regular massage therapy isn't accessible, you can achieve some of the benefits with stretching and flexibility exercises.
Painkillers are often prescribed during the initial phase of recovery, but getting off these medications can be challenging for some. Physical therapy can ease the way by reducing inflammation that may exacerbate pain.
Heat therapy helps relax muscles, while cryotherapy (or cold therapy) can reduce swelling and tenderness around the incision site. Some therapists may perform electrotherapy and ultrasound to facilitate pain relief. Your therapist should complement an exercise program with the appropriate pain management techniques to achieve long-term results and proper recovery.
Remember, our body signals through pain that something needs attention. If pain persists, seek advice from your orthopedic surgeon to ensure your healing process is on track.
Physical therapy after back surgery is critical for preventing future injuries and issues. Your physical therapist can show you what movements to avoid and how to perform specific tasks safely. They’ll also guide you to continue your regular exercise routine and maintain proper posture.
If your job involves physical movements or exertion, your therapist can show you how to perform these functions safely. They can also show you how to set up your home environment to lower the risks of straining your muscles or reinjuring yourself as you recover.
When to Start Physical Therapy After Back Surgery
While most people can start physical therapy four to six weeks post-op, some may need to wait longer if they suffer from complications. Your physical therapist will assess your readiness before beginning your program.
First, the physical therapist will take your medical history to understand your healing progress. They will assess your posture, range of motion, and strength, with a focus on the back, abdominal, hip, and thigh muscles.
They will also examine your scar tissues to ensure they aren't restricting your movements. They may test your reflexes through neurological screening and evaluate the flexibility of various muscle groups, including hamstrings, quadriceps, and calf muscles.
Lastly, your therapist will conduct functional assessments and determine your physical therapy goal. For example, would it be realistic to expect that you can work, drive, and engage in everyday activities after your sessions? What would a full recovery look like to you?
Based on the insights from the assessments, your therapist will design a plan and identify where you'd receive the treatment—e.g., at home, the hospital, a rehab center, or an inpatient post-surgical rehab program.
Once you understand the role of therapy in spinal surgery rehab, it’s time to examine the key components of a solid program.
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