My daughter Natalie had scoliosis surgery in 2013, when she was 14 years old. We spent a lot of time preparing her for the surgery (which you can read about here). I credit this prep work we did to her speedy recovery. However, I wasn’t just about to sit back and relax after the scoliosis surgery was over! We also did a lot of things to help her recover faster and manage the pain.
This article is part of a series on treating scoliosis. In this article about scoliosis surgery recovery, we will talk about:
- Bone healing
- Scar repair
- Pain management
- Getting back to normal life
- Living with a scar
I also want to say that I am very proud of my daughter for bravely sharing her scoliosis surgery pictures. Hopefully, they can help others who are going through the same experience understand what to expect and that they aren’t alone.
It would be an understatement to say that scoliosis surgery is a big deal. It is a HUGE deal and your body is going to go through a major trauma which it will have to recover from.
On a positive note, our bodies are really amazing and have incredible healing abilities. But that doesn’t mean you should just leave it all up to your body. You can speed up bone healing (and muscle and tissue healing) by optimizing nutrition.
I find it ironic that hospital food is so notoriously bad, because hospitals are places where nutrition really matters most. After a major surgery like scoliosis spinal fusion, your body needs nutrients to heal itself. Hospital food just isn’t going to cut it! Dump the hospital food and smuggle in good food. I also asked for kosher meals instead of the regular meals because I realized they were better quality, albeit low in fat (I had friends bring us avocados and a bottle of high quality olive oil to make up for it).
You won’t be able to eat much/hold down food easily for the few days after scoliosis surgery. So, a liquid diet is best. I smuggled in jugs of bone broth to give Natalie to help her recovery go faster and put collagen in her herbal tea. As soon as Natalie was able to eat, I had her eating lots of gelatin gummies and organ meat. My goal was to maximize the nutrition in every bite.
Bone broth is made by boiling down the bones and connective tissues of animals (read how to make bone broth here). The nutrients from the bones get into the liquid. It is a fantastic source of the amino acids glycine and proline, cartilage, bone marrow, and minerals like calcium and magnesium.
It shouldn’t be surprising that something made from bones will be good for your bones. This is what you need after scoliosis surgery! The more, the better. There are also numerous other benefits of drinking bone broth after surgery:
- Reduce inflammation (which will in turn reduce pain)
- Inhibits infection
- Promotes healthy digestion
- Helps heal muscles and connective tissues as well as bones
Real gelatin is just cooked collagen. When you make bone broth, it will contain gelatin. If you don’t want to make your own bone broth (it is easy, I promise!) or are worried that your kid won’t drink it, then you can buy high quality bone broth or supplement with gelatin instead.
Don’t buy those packets of gelatin in the store. They are chemically made and won’t provide any benefits. But you can buy real gelatin powders and use it to make your own gummy treats (here is a recipe) or just mix a spoonful into a smoothie. I like this brand of gelatin.
*I’m such a big fan of gelatin that I even wrote a book about it (which was partly inspired by our experience with scoliosis surgery). It is called The Gelatin Secret, and you can get it here.
In the Western world, most of us eat just the muscle meat and throw away all the organ meat. By doing that, we’re tossing some key nutrients in the process. Organ meat is the healthiest part of an animal as far as nutrient density goes. Your child is definitely going to need these nutrients after scoliosis surgery to help get energy back and recover faster.
I have a couple recipes for kids who might not be so keen about the idea of eating organ meat. I’ve not the biggest fan of the taste of liver so it’s not just the kids I have to sneak it in for. 🙂
- Hidden liver burgers
- Chicken liver Bolognese sauce
If you’re feeling brave, try my friend Liz’s raw liver shot (recipe here). I couldn’t quite handle it as a shot alone but, when you add it to a smoothie, it goes unnoticeable – I promise!
One of the things that Natalie was worried about with her scoliosis surgery is that she’d have a big noticeable scar on her back for the rest of her life. Yes, she does have a scar – but it isn’t as noticeable as it could have been and the doctor and his team did an amazing job. We took steps to help repair the surgery incision so the scar would heal up faster and better.
Here are some of the things you can do:
- No sun for 6 months: When the skin is healing, it is VERY sensitive to the sun. If healing skin is exposed to sunlight, it can easily get burned and become a much darker color. The sun will also make the scar thicker so it is more conspicuous. It is really important that the scar remains covered for at least 6 months after the surgery to minimize it. (Source)
- Keep the scar hydrated: If the wound gets dried out, it might shrivel up and not have any tissue to hang on to, so it will fall off prematurely. You must keep the scar hydrated! You can use your favorite natural moisturizer like jojoba oil.
- Kombucha scoby: Kombucha is a fermented drink that I absolutely love. You can read all about it here. Real kombucha is made with a culture called a scoby. When applied directly to the skin, the scoby can also help skin and tissue rebuild faster and more effectively. I just blended a scoby and let it sit on the scar and wiped it off. I wouldn’t do this on a fresh wound as it will likely sting. (Source 1, 2)
If there was ever a time for hardcore pain medicine, it’s when you’ve been sliced open and your bones have been purposely broken apart and put back together. But pain medicines (even the Over The Counter ones) have their own potential risks and side effects that you need to consider.
Hardcore Pain Medicines:
The doctors had Natalie taking Percocet immediately after the scoliosis surgery and she was sent home with both Percocet and Oxycodone. In the hospital she was receiving pain relief via her I.V. and was able to control it (to an extent) by pressing a button. The pain was often severe and it took a bit of trial and error during our hospital stay to figure out what combination and timing worked best for Natalie. What we learned was that it was best to stay slightly ahead of the pain, as opposed to “chasing it”. In other words administering the pain relief when her pain was at a 6 instead of waiting for a 9 since it also takes a little while to kick in. At a certain point, however, it’s time to start weaning off and reducing the dose and spacing it as well. This was not easy and we did so while consulting the doc every step of the way.
Advil vs. Tylenol:
NSAID stands for “Non Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drug” and represents a class of drugs which work by stopping inflammation. Common NSAIDs include Advil (ibuprofen) and aspirin.
NSAIDs are great at reducing pain and are not addictive, but there are some concerns about them regarding scoliosis surgery. Evidence shows that NSAIDs might interfere with bone healing. (Source) Some surgeons even recommend avoiding NSAIDs for 3 months after surgery. (Source)
Tylenol (acetaminophen) is another option for reducing pain. It isn’t an NSAID, so shouldn’t interfere with bone healing.
I ran these concerns by our doctor. He wasn’t worried as much about the NSAIDs, but he was worried about the Tylenol (Acetaminophen) being overdosed and the problems that could cause. After much discussion with the doc, we decided to go with both (under his supervision) with the goal to wean Natalie off all pain management as soon as possible.
IMPORTANT NOTE: please consult your doctor before deciding on a pain relief plan. Also note that Percocet CONTAINS acetaminophen so that needs to be taken into account to avoid overdosing.
By the way, our doctor was Dr. Bernstein of Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and I absolutely love him and highly recommend him in the unfortunate case that your loved one needs scoliosis surgery.
Natural Pain Relievers
Pain is caused by inflammation, so anything you can do to reduce inflammation is going to help reduce pain. This is why NSAID medicines work (they don’t actually block pain signals like hardcore meds do, which is why they aren’t addictive).
The flip side of using NSAIDs is that it can slow down recovery since that acute inflammation is the body’s way of treating the injury. Our approach was to ride that line between managing unbearable pain and not over-medicating to the point where the body couldn’t do its job.
There are also plenty of natural anti-inflammatory agents. Some of the ones we used were:
- Turmeric: you can add it to smoothies and sauces like this one
- Cloves: You can make tea out of them or just add to food
- Ginger: Also helps digestion
- Epsom salt baths (as soon as she was able to be submerged in water she enjoyed them)
Living with a Scar
Even with all the effort we put into reducing Natalie’s scar, she still does have a scar (not surprising considering she had her back completely cut open!). Natalie’s handled this like a champ and hasn’t let it negatively affect her body image. At least not too much.
Most people don’t even notice she has a scar, even when at the beach or other places where her back is revealed. Every once in a while she gets asked about it.
As far as fashion goes, Natalie (now 17 years old) does avoid those low-back shirts which are in style now. Her advice: Instead of showing back, just show some leg instead 😉
Getting Back to Your Normal Life
Natalie was able to recover from her scoliosis surgery with remarkable speed. She even shocked the doctors at how quickly she was able to pull herself out of bed (I attribute this to the fact she had abs of steel from doing Crossfit prior to surgery as well as her pre and pos-op diet, particularly her consumption of gelatin).
Even if you are in incredible shape before the surgery, it is still going to take some time before your life gets back to normal. Be Patient! You won’t heal overnight, but you will heal.
Scoliosis Surgery Recovery Timeline
Here’s what you can expect (as per doctor’s recommendations):
- 1-2 days after surgery: Patient can get out of bed and walk with assistance
- 2-3 days after surgery: Patient can start eating more foods without feeling ill
- 1 week after surgery: Patient can take a shower (only sponge baths before this, in order to keep water off the scar and prevent infection)
- 3-6 weeks after surgery: Patient can return to school; consider starting with half days and then gradually building up to full days
- 1-3 months after surgery: Certain movements such as bending, twisting and lifting will be prohibited
- 3 months after surgery: This is the minimum amount of time required before the patient can return to sports
Remember to have your child listen to their body, go slowly and ask for help as needed. Don’t let them jump right back into activities. Their body needs to rest to heal.
Natalie really enjoyed having her friends come and visit and hang out at home (in the hospital too!). Just having some distraction from the pain was great.
Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you or a loved one had scoliosis surgery? What tips would you add for recovery? Please comment below!