Spring is coming but it isn't here yet. Let's review the things you need to avoid/stop doing entirely if you want to have a healthy, pain-free back and neck this summer!
! There are some things no back patient should ever do, but patients (and some soon-to-be patients) tend to try harmful activities every year anyway…So, how many are you guilty of?
1. Shovel snow.
This is one of the toughest activities any home-owner ever takes on, but every spring we get one last blast that blocks the walk or driveway, and - all across the Mid-West - back patients reach for that shovel. If you've had recent back surgery, or you have a bad back for any reason, this is a job to avoid! Forever!
And if you absolutely have to move some snow, do it like your feeding a chipmunk - little, tiny bites, handled gently.
Snow is light when it's falling, but it gets very heavy when it hits the ground, particularly in spring when it tends to be wetter and denser. And that snow shovel is a big clumsy spoon, designed to pick up a lot of material at once. So each full shovel-full can easily exceed 20 lbs, which you're trying to pick up at an awkward angle while you're bending over, in the cold! It will only take three or four big heaves to strain your back muscles and send you into spasm, so take little 1/3 shovels full, move them by stepping, not throwing, or better yet, get some help!
2. Drive to Florida…
Or embark on any long trip the week after back surgery or a recent back injury. Many of my patients travel a distance to have their surgery with me, and they have to get home that next week.
The trip is safe and works out fine if
I've had a patient surreptitiously plan his post-op trip so he drove the family the whole way from Cleveland to South Beach 3 days after surgery! Then called to say he was really sore, his wound was red and swollen, and he had drainage on his unchanged bandage. Obviously there's nothing your local doctor can do for you at that point except shake his/her head!
If you have to travel to get home after surgery, have a plan for someone to drive you or to accompany you on your flight. You can't be handling the luggage or running for a taxi. Even better, stay a few days in town and have a wound check before you make an extended trip by car or plane.
And just don't decide you're still going to take that golf trip/cruise/motor home excursion just five days after your back or neck operation. Plan ahead and give it a little time!
3. Try moving “that rock”…
This is the gardener’s favorite mistake. Sure….it looked like such a little rock… But that was before you started digging!!!
Every gardener knows this, but - for some reason - lots of gardeners can't stop themselves even though they know better. Every little rock is just the top of a much bigger rock!
It's probably a good idea to stay out of the garden for a couple of weeks after surgery or injury in any event, but I've had a number of patients that "just couldn't". So, if that describes you, you should at least follow a couple of rules.
If you are recovering from any kind of fusion surgery for the neck or back, you may sit in your garden and enjoy it. And that's IT!
If you've had a discectomy or decompression surgery you still need to take it easy for 3 - 6 weeks before you start doing anything very vigorous.
And, if you've had previous surgery, or you've had a back or neck injury in the past, you need to use good, common sense:
4. Walking the dog(s) before you’re ready…
Yes, you love your dogs and they LOVE you! They’re glad to have you home and can't wait to get out and go for their walk!!! But it doesn't matter if they are big or small, they’re going to try to kill you!
The big ones will bolt and drag you across the yard, which is disastrous if you've just had anything like back, shoulder or knee surgery, and the little ones will wrap that leash around your feet and trip you, which is just as bad or worse.
If you are recovering from a back or neck injury or from any kind of back, neck, or Orthopaedic surgery, be careful! Share the dog-walking chore with someone who can help you, or have someone else give them a walk ‘til you're good on your feet.
5. Hosting that big Holiday, Thanksgiving, or any kind of affair involving lots of food, decorations, and furniture arranging too soon after surgery! Like the driving to Florida thing, you need to give yourself a little time to recuperate! If you do have surgery around the time of a big important event, make sure everyone knows you are now the spectator, not the chef d'cuisine.
Whether it's a family get-together, a wedding, or some other once in a life-time event, you will be much happier and the family will be much happier if you watch - or, at most, point to stuff for younger hands to carry - than if you aggravate your back or neck and end up miserable or worse.
Remember, that turkey weighed between 20 - 30 lbs before it was stuffed, and those big crocks, pans, and kettles - they're heavy when they're full. If you're the only one that knows the recipe, that's fine, but you need to recruit good helpers any time you're trying to protect your back at the holidays.
6. Anything involving a horse, a motorcycle, or an ATV -
Let's just say any non-standard form of transportation that you have to feed, hold upright, or try not to bounce out of or off of!
If you've had a recent back or neck injury or you are less than 6 weeks out from surgery, this is a good time to groom the horse, rebuild the bike, or polish the ATV. And any attempt to cut corners and get back to riding before you are ready will result in back and neck pain and spasm, at the least.
Getting back to riding and back on the trail will be most successful if you take it in stages, build your strength up first, and then go back to activity a bit at a time. And when it comes to horses you can love them, comb them, watch them. But no riding and no chores that’re measured in buckets, bales, or bags!
I used to tell my post-op patients who were ready for normal, unrestricted activity that they could go back to "everything but rugby and rodeo!" and everyone would chuckle. Until one day when the young woman I was so happy with started to tear up and sniffle.
I had just one question - "You're a Barrel racer aren't you?". "Yes sir" she replied tearfully. So we had a nice long talk about sports rehab, and conditioning, and muscle strengthening to get ready to go back to her sport.
And I learned never to tease my patients who have horses!
7. Deciding a tall stack of books will make an excellent step-ladder. I've had a patient decide this was a sound strategy. And at the age of 80 you'd think anyone would know better. Any time you have any kind of idea like this, go sit down for a while until the impulse passes. Please!!
8. General Gardening.
Of course – no bending, lifting, or twisting for 8 weeks after surgery! “But it’s spring and those roses won’t plant themselves!” Again, find a helper, pay the gardener a little more, or enjoy last year's garden for a second season.
If you are going to be "the muscle" in your yard then remember - nothing for 3-6 weeks after surgery, no lifting over 20 lbs until 6 weeks after surgery AND permission from your surgeon, and work in short stints - 30 minutes at a time, with a little walk about and rest to make sure your back or neck isn't tightening up.
And, please, if you do over-do it - ice, anti-inflammatories and rest are the only thing for it. You won't need to call your doctor just to say you chopped wood all weekend and now your back is sore! He/she won't be able to do anything but offer sympathy...
9. Anything involving a chainsaw, engine hoist, or a bungee cord.
Does anyone actually need say this…? As with Holiday dinners, the person recovering from a recent back or neck injury, or recent back or neck surgery can watch heavy operations. You can even point to stuff for younger folks to do. You can display your wisdom and experience for all to marvel at.
But don't try to pick up, twist, or torque anything that would make someone else grunt!
10. Losing your pain medications –
Whether it's down the sink, down the toilet, off the front seat of the car – it doesn’t matter. Now-a-days you can’t just call in for a refill.
Your pharmacist likely won’t refill it no matter what your doctor says, because - by law - they have to keep track of how many prescriptions you fill in how many days. And recently, it hasn't mattered if this is your first pain prescription in decades or one of a number you've gotten over the years, your pharmacist can simply refuse to refill your refill. So take care of those pain medications the way you really ought to - very carefully.…
As always…I want my patients to be active, and get back to full fitness and recreation when they've healed up. But that always means taking care of your back and using good common sense at home and at work!
I hope you find this discussion interesting and useful. If you have other questions that I can answer for you, please leave a comment below. And feel free to like and follow my Facebook page to find more content that you and others might find helpful!
I'm Dr. Rob McLain. I've been taking care of back and neck pain patients for more than 30 years. I'm a spine surgeon. But one of my most important jobs is...