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Post Op: Recovery & Depression After Back Surgery

Published November 16, 2017
| Written By SpineNation Editorial Staff  

Surgery is scary no matter how large or small. Operations always involve risk. Here's what you need to know. 

You prepare for your back or spinal surgery. You follow your doctor and surgeon's guidelines with the help of your support system. Your back or spine surgery concludes and hopefully, it was a success. Now what?

You Recover

The recovery process can be hardest of all for the chronic back pain patient whether you're undergoing a spinal fusion, laminectomy, or another back and spine procedure. You want to feel better, maybe you do feel better, but per doctor's orders, you have to rest. This may cause a domino effect not only for you but for your support system. Resting means you cannot complete daily chores or even work, placing a little more stress on you and your loved ones.

Do not feel guilty. They love you after all and want you to recover. It's a slow process. One day at a time. You want to continue with your daily routine, but you know for the sake of a full recovery, it's wise to rest and heal.

In order to talk about recovery and how it affects everyone around you, you need to discuss depression with your caregivers too. Depression after any back or spine surgery is not abnormal. Unfortunately, it's not something that is widely spoken about. Your support team needs to not only help you get around the house but also inside your head.

Patient experiencing depression after back surgery.
Post-operative depression differs from patient to patient.

Common symptoms to look out for include:

  • Decreased energy levels
  • Fatigue
  • Shifts in moods
    • Apathy
    • Irritability
    • Feelings of hopelessness
    • Loss of interest
  • Diminished appetite

According to specialists at the Mayo Clinic, emotions such as these are classified as a 'medical illness that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.'

At the Hospital

Not all hospitals or medical centers test chronic back pain patients for depression partly because this type of post-operative depression may not begin until you physically arrive home and try to adjust back into your routine. This is why it is imperative for you to let your caregiver and doctor or surgeon know if you begin to not feel like yourself.

Bernard Vaccaro, instructor in psychiatry at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts said, “Post-operative depression, is more likely to occur well after the crisis of surgery has ended and the chronic pain patient is back at home or even at work.”

“That can make it particularly difficult for patients to cope with feelings about what they've endured and what their future is likely to be, or for family members and physicians to see and understand their feelings,” Vaccaro added. “Stigma continues to surround depression, and many patients may hide their state of mind from families and caregivers alike.”

Patient in hospital bed struggling with depression.
This type of depression stems from the result of the surgery, along with the acknowledgment of the tangible life changes such as visible scarring, inability to do normal things and the feeling of hopelessness and fear that your life will never be the same.

At Home

Your caregivers should be those who know you well and would be able to recognize basic symptoms of depression in you. Recovery is a group effort. Do not expect to travel this road alone — it's not possible. The entire weight of you recovering from surgery doesn't fall on your shoulders alone.

"Depression is a serious thing," Vaccaro explained. "Because it can impair the ability to cooperate with rehabilitation. Depressed patients have a significantly higher rate of complications. If you're not able to participate in rehabilitation, if you're not as active, the whole process of recovery just slows down."

Speaking to your surgeon or mental health specialist discussing the specifics of what to expect before, during and after can aid in the recovery process. Be sure to include your support system so everyone is on the same page.

"The more patients can be proactive and ask doctors what they're likely to experience after surgery, the more they read about it and communicate with others about it, the better chance they have of putting the experience in its proper perspective," said Theodore Stern, chief of the psychiatric consultation service at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Back surgery patient at home, experiencing symptoms of depression.

Updated: February 20, 2020

Information provided within this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Those seeking specific medical advice should consult his or her doctor or surgeon. If you need to consult with a specialist, you may be able find a health care provider in our Specialist Finder. SpineNation does not endorse treatments, procedures, products or physicians.

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