How to Stop Leg Pain After Back Surgery

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You've had back surgery to repair a bad disc or a fusion to stabilize a section of your spine. Why, then, are you still having that nasty leg pain months after going under the knife? There may never be a definite answer to the "why," but it's more important to address the question of how to get relief. These methods can be tried either before or after surgery. Ask your doctor or physical therapist if the exercises are suitable for your specific situation before trying them.

Things You'll Need

  • Hot and cold compresses or wraps
  • Exercise mat
  • Empi machine or similar device
  • Low back compression brace

Use compresses or try a special heat bandage or wrap that's on the market. You've undoubtedly tried some form of this therapy in the past, but perhaps you haven't been creative enough about where to position the compresses. You may have tried hot or cold packs but haven't tried the wraps. Some people respond to cold and others to heat, so you need to try each temperature in a variety of places. The problem usually stems from a combination of an irritated nerve and what the muscle guarding your body--muscles clamp down around the injury--will do to try to protect that nerve. The dual nature of the problem may require a combination of treatments.

Use an exercise mat, or if that is too painful you can start with a firm, supportive couch. Leg lifts, however difficult they may be at first, can both firm up the support structure in your pelvic region and provide immediate relief by rearranging the soft tissues surrounding the irritated nerve. Try lying on your less painful side, slowly lifting the painful leg straight up toward the ceiling with toes pointed forward. If you can't do this reasonably comfortably with a straight leg, try it with your knee bent a bit. Lift, hold and return to the original position five or 10 times at first, gradually increasing the number of repetitions.

Some stretches to try: Still lying on your side, use a pillow under a slightly bent knee to elevate the leg just to hip level. Bend your leg as if you are marching, bringing the knee slowly toward your upper body, then return to original position. Or, lying on your back with knee slightly bent, lift foot just off the mat and slowly bring the knee up toward your pelvis. Hold it at the most bent position possible, then slowly return to original position.

It is best to try only one of these exercises and repeat that set as often as you wish each day. If you aren't experiencing any relief after four or five days, try a different exercise. If you find one that gives you immediate relief, do a set whenever you feel the pain start to return. At that point, gradually start a daily exercise regime that includes all of the exercises above for both legs and keep increasing repetitions to build a good support structure. In time you may experience less pain, needing to use the "immediate" exercises only rarely to free an irritated nerve.

Ask your doctor to recommend a compression-type brace to gently force your lower back and pelvis into proper alignment. To see if this is likely to provide relief, buy the widest stretchy bandage you can find and wrap it snugly (not tightly) around your low back and pelvis. Wear it under your clothes for a few hours as a test. If your buttocks, legs or feet feel colder than usual or get tingly, remove or loosen the wrap.

Try out an Empi machine or similar electrode-based device at your next physical therapy session. It may take several tries before the therapist finds the most helpful locations to position the electrodes. If you get relief, the therapist can have a portable version of this machine prescribed for home use. The home version uses four electrodes that pulse in a pattern to stimulate muscles and soothe nerve endings. The sensation is often uncomfortable at first, so start with a light pulse and dial the machine upward as you become accustomed to its effects. You can control the strength, rhythm and pace of each pulse, and the machine can be used just about anywhere except when you are driving.

Tips & Warnings

  • You aren't training for the Olympics but form is important to keep from straining other muscles and joints, so try to keep your upper body stable when doing leg lifts and avoid quick movements. You may need to gently assist the lifting leg with your free arm (or have your exercise partner do so) if leg pain keeps you from doing the lifts or stretches. Active hydrotherapy can be used instead of mat-based exercises. If you've tried every possible combination of these therapies without relief, you may benefit from a radio frequency (RF) nerve block procedure or medical steroid injections to reduce inflammation. Ask your doctor to give you a referral to a neurologist or neurosurgeon to track down the precise source of the pain. You may also want to try a few visits to a chiropractic clinic that also offers massage. If you aren't able to have chiropractic "adjustments" done because of a surgical alteration, most chiropractors now offer a tapping procedure that can desensitize and/or relax certain areas. In combination with massage therapy, tapping can be surprisingly effective.

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