Spinal surgery guide for caregivers

A caregiver has an important role assisting in the recovery of a spinal surgery patient. The purpose of this guide is to help caregivers better understand what their loved ones are experiencing, as well as provide tips in preparing for surgery and the care required afterward.


This information is not meant to replace any personal conversations that the caregiver or patient might wish to have with the physician or healthcare team. Not all information here will apply to the patient’s individual treatment or its outcome.

Before surgery

If you are able to attend the surgeon consultation, your presence may provide comfort to your loved one. It is helpful to prepare questions with him/her prior to the appointment. Bring a notebook to record the doctor’s responses.These appointments may be emotional experiences, so this simple process can help to alleviate stress, as well as assist the patient in remembering details.

Consider asking the surgeon the questions below:

Are there any medications, vitamins, foods or beverages the patient should discontinue ingesting prior to surgery?

What is the name of the procedure? Can you please explain it in detail?

What are the potential benefits, risks and complications?

How long will the surgery take?

How long will the patient be in the hospital afterward?

What kind of pain might the patient expect? How will it be managed?

Will any postoperative medication cause serious constipation and how can that be treated?

What is the proper way to care for the incision(s)? What type of scarring might result?

In what position should the patient sleep postoperatively?

What are the lifting or other exercise restrictions and how long will they likely be in place?

Will the patient need any medical equipment for the home and if so, how should it be used? (i.e., back brace, cane, shower chair, etc.)

What can the patient expect regarding physical therapy?

When will the patient be able to drive and return to work?

Prepare the home

Following surgery, patients should return home to a safe environment that minimizes the risk of tripping and excessive movement.

Below are some ways to prepare prior to surgery.

  • Clear walkways by removing rugs and cords
  • Move commonly used items – including clothing – to easy-to-reach places
  • Prepare and freeze a week worth of meals.
  • Set up a place on the first floor for the patient to sleep.
  • Secure stair railings.
  • Place skid-resistant strips in the bathtub and large beach towels nearby for patient use after showering.
  • Assemble any medical equipment the surgeon recommended.

Manage offers of help

It is normal for patients to feel anxious and overwhelmed. One practical way to ease worry is to manage offers of help prior to surgery. Create a checklist of tasks that will need to be completed while the patient is recovering and assign items to those who have offered assistance. This can provide patients with peace of mind that chores will be covered, and you will not be overburdened.

This checklist may include the tasks below:

  • Washing the dishes
  • Cleaning the bathroom
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Grocery shopping
  • Doing a load of laundry
  • Changing the sheets
  • Pet care
  • Meal delivery

Pack the hospital bag

Another way you can help your loved one is by assisting them in packing a bag for the hospital. Many items will be provided for the patient, but he/she can bring comforts from home.

Personal items

  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Robe
  • Slip on shoes
  • Eyeglasses
  • Hairbrush
  • Lip balm
  • Socks
  • Loose-fitting clothes
  • Phone charger


  • Driver’s license
  • Medication list
  • Advance directive
  • Insurance card
  • Family phone numbers

After surgery

If your loved one is required to stay in the hospital following the operation, this can be a difficult time for him/her. The patient is adjusting to the pain and medication, becoming familiar with new nurses each shift, and most likely finding it difficult to get quality rest. Things like eating and using the restroom can be a large task. Your support and patience will go a long way.

Expect to help your loved one for at least one to two weeks post-surgery and gently encourage him/her to accept your assistance. It is important the patient is aware of his/her limitations and follows the surgeon’s recovery instructions.

Confirm recovery instructions

Before leaving the hospital, confirm with the surgeon or medical staff that you understand the recovery instructions, including incision care, use of medical equipment, home exercises and pain medication. Write this information down to reference later as you will likely need to assist the patient in these areas.

Determine abnormal symptoms

Ask the surgeon for his/her contact information, and clarify any symptoms the patient may experience that would warrant contacting him/her before a follow-up appointment. This may include a fever over 101.5°F, abnormal incision drainage and irritation, and swelling in the legs that does not decrease with elevation.