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San Francisco surgeon offer tips for back recovery

Treatments for back pain can vary dramatically from bed rest to surgery, and rehab following back or neck procedures may require different strategies as well.

Scott Davenport was an avid surfer growing up in Hawaii, but recently he's been hitting the water again. This time, it's to help him recover from surgery.



"In order to swim you twist your head, and retaining my motion of being able to twist my head is very important to me," says Davenport.

San Francisco spine surgeon Dr. Kenneth Light performed a multi-level disc replacement on Davenport just weeks ago. He says regaining range of motion after a back or neck procedure or even a simple episode of back pain can require specific but very different types of rehab, beginning with classic lower back stretches.

"Lying on your back, pulling one knee up into the chest, then pulling the second knee up, then pulling both knees up to your chest. What it does is rounds out the back and causes the joints to unlock," Dr. Light explains.

In the case of surgery Light says the goal is to avoid the formation of scar tissue after the procedure. In Davenport's case, the disc replacement left him with enough neck movement to begin stretching his upper spine, and neck region.

"Usually we have them try to touch their chin to the chest, put their head back as far as they can, rotate the head in each direction as much as possible," he says.

But he says rehabbing from another common surgery, spinal fusion, can require a slower start, typically after several months of rest. That's because of the need to allow reconstructed bone to set, along with screws and other hardware used for support.

"And if you're too vigorous the plates or screws will loosen which will lead to incomplete healing or a lack of fusion," Light warns. "So some kind of isometric is good for the neck and back. Abdominal crunches are good for the neck and back -- anything that doesn't require repetitive lifting that will pull screws out of the bone."

He says the best low impact exercises are swimming, walking, and bike riding. In certain cases he recommends using elliptical trainers. Scott expects his ability to get back in the pool will speed up an already smooth recovery.

"I didn't swim a mile, I swam shorter, but I feel great I have a full range of motion," he says.

Research shows most lower back pain cases resolve themselves in the first three months with a combination of rest, and medication. But if the pain lasts for six months, the odds of spontaneous recovery go down to 50 percent, then down to 25 percent after a year.
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