Interviewer: So you or a loved one have opted to have endoscopic spinal surgery rather than one of the more traditional methods. What can you expect on the day of the procedure and afterwards?
We're here with Dr. Mark Mahan. He's an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Utah Health. Now, Dr. Mahan, when it comes to endoscopic spinal surgery, what can someone expect, you know, leading up to the procedure, the day after? Where do they start? And what should they be expecting?
Dr. Mahan: The wonderful thing about endoscopic spine surgery is that in, I would say, 99% of the cases, it's outpatient surgery. So that is a little bit of a reframing of what an individual will be expecting, because it's not a traditional come to the hospital, stay there for several days, eat wonderful hospital food, stay in wonderful hospital beds. This is something that you would anticipate going to one of our outpatient locations. A patient would expect to arrive that day. Typical requirements are for, you know, for any surgery are, you know, no eating from the night before, coming in, unfortunately, you know, sort of extra early because we all like to end our days early, and so we try to get started early.
And then you would expect that you're going to be meeting a whole host of new individuals that are going to come in and take care of you. And meaning that we're going to have nurses and others that will come in and check-in and make sure that you're ready. We'll go through a surgical consent. That's an important part for me personally because I want to make sure that everybody understands, ahead of time, both what the surgery entails, what the risks are, what your expectations will be both in recovery as well as long term. And so that we all can meet in a common understanding about what our goals are and what you'd be facing. And then through also about, you know, how to best optimize your recovery long term.
And then after surgery, obviously, these are generally performed under general anesthesia, which is the type of anesthesia where you would have a breathing tube. And so waking up, coming around is usually a time when most people don't remember, fortunately, and then just recovery, make sure that you've, you know, that you're ready to go, you're steady on your feet, that you're eating, you're feeling well, and then we get you back to your car and you can go home.
Interviewer: So how long are you actually in the operating room for a procedure like this?
Dr. Mahan: Typically, it really depends on what the problem is we're seeking to treat. Some of the disc surgeries go really, really quick, like on the order of about half an hour.
Interviewer: Oh, wow.
Dr. Mahan: Now some of the more complex narrowing can be two hours. It really truly depends on what the work that needs to be done.
Interviewer: Now, after the patient is home, what can they expect? We're dealing with pain control, recovery. How long until they're back on their feet, etc.?
Dr. Mahan: Yeah, now, pain control is a particular focus of mine because I really want every individual to really have that smooth glide path because, you know, even though that the endoscopic technique is meant to minimize tissue trauma, it is still a spine surgery. It is still the goal of removing something from your spine. I don't want to make that sound scary, but I don't want to make other people feel like, oh, it's a magical procedure, right? It's not. There's a reality here that we're removing something that's pressing on the nerves and causing pain and discomfort.
And so that you would expect to have some irritation or some discomfort from having something removed from your spine. And so what I do is I do everything I can to possibly minimize it. Number one, endoscopic techniques, minimal incisions, minimal approaches. Number two, often using a lot of numbing medication can really make the recovery much more straightforward. So we'll use a long-acting anesthetic into the muscles of the spine to make them comfortable and relaxed even before we even start doing surgery.
So the first step, block the muscles. Make it comfortable. It also leads to some numbness of the skin where the skin incision is so that that is not too much discomfort. But the block will wear off. So the things that we do is try to, obviously, avoid a lot of powerful pain medications because powerful pain medications can have their side effects and consequences. So we're using things like ice, heat, anti-inflammatories, and then we talk about milder pain medications so that you don't get into the complications associated with strong pain medications.
Interviewer: Now other than the pain management that happens afterwards, when they go home, are they up for a day or two? Are they on their back for a day or two? On their belly? Like, what are you having a patient do to heal up from a procedure like this?
Dr. Mahan: In the majority of the cases, you're doing exactly what you want to do.
Interviewer: Oh wow.
Dr. Mahan: Yeah, the limitations really come down to if somebody has had a disc herniation, we want to minimize the risk of re-herniation, meaning that another part of the disc fractures out and presses against the nerve roots, which can occur. Other than the disc herniations, I want the individual doing as much as they feel comfortable doing. Oftentimes that sometimes means tempering people. I had one patient the day after surgery he asked if he could go on a snow bike up the mountain. And I was like, it was one of those moments where you have that sort of, you know, common sense questions, like, well, just tell me what would happen if you got halfway up there and you had a back spasm? You had difficulty coming back?
Dr. Mahan: And, you know, he's like, well, maybe that's not the greatest thing to do today. And you're, like, yeah, the day after surgery may not be the greatest day to go nuts. But people will be walking more. People will be doing more activities. And we want that. We want them to go back to the way that they will choose to live their life.
Interviewer: Now, it's impressive that they are kind of up the next day, or a day or two after their procedure. Maybe a little bit tempered from what they were normally doing. But, you know, not going back up and doing crazy mountain biking, or that snowmobile trip, like you mentioned. But how long until a patient is, you know, all the way healed and sees the most benefit from the procedure, and they're back to normal?
Dr. Mahan: That is an excellent question. And it really is patient-specific. So if somebody had a more profound nerve pressure or nerve injury, and it's been there for a long period of time, meaning that it's going to take longer for their recovery, right? So if you've had a problem that is minor in nature, and it's a short duration, your recovery is going to be quick. If you have a very profound problem that is of long duration, you know, there may be a new normal, even with spine surgery. We can't always erase everything that occurs in time, but you know, we're going to try.
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