The recovery from spinal surgery used to be a months-long commitment, fraught with pain, inactivity and even resulting immobility. All of this is in the past with the more recently developed and minimally invasive techniques now being used on a daily basis. Although recovery doesn’t happen overnight, the speed with which spinal ependymoma surgery patients can expect to get back to their normal lives has been greatly increased.
What Is a Spinal Ependymoma?
As a primary tumor, a spinal ependymoma originates from cells inside or around the spinal cord or spinal nerves. Ependymoma is almost always benign and the ideal treatment is full surgical removal without any additional treatment, however, it tends to like to stick to nervous tissue and sometimes complete removal is neither safe nor possible. In these cases, surgery is sometimes followed up with radiation. The good news is, these are slow-growing tumors that very rarely metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body. In rare cases where there is spread of the tumor to other parts of the nervous system or, even more rarely, metastatic spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy is used.
Spinal Ependymoma Recovery Times
So, just how long does it take to recover from spinal ependymoma surgery? While there is no set schedule as everyone heals differently, there are some general guidelines that have been established for what to expect and when to expect changes during the recovery process. Below is an overview of what one can typically expect during their spinal ependymoma surgery recovery.
Day of Surgery
It’s incredible that the body begins to heal itself almost immediately after it has been fixed, either through surgery or other means. This makes it particularly important to follow your doctor’s instructions for recovery exactly, beginning from the moment the spine surgeon makes the first incision.
Once you have been taken from the operating room, you will be moved to a recovery area where you will be constantly monitored. Here you’ll receive pain medications and anything else necessary to combat post-operative symptoms. Pain management is vital for a successful recovery – prolonged pain at high levels can increase cortisol release, which in turn slows down the body’s ability to repair tissues.
When you are finally awake, you’ll be taken to an intensive care unit for further observation and ensure your vitals are stable. Once you’re fully awake and you’re ready, you’ll be moved to a room. You’ll also be able to eat once the anesthesia and subsequent nausea have gone away.
Days 1-4 Post-op
This can be the most stressful time during your recovery. Depending on the complexity of your spinal ependymoma surgery and the involvement of other structures and nerves, you may be in the hospital anywhere from 2-5 days. Usually surgeons order a period of bedrest to help healing of the the membrane around your spinal cord or nerves called the dura mater. It is this tissue that holds in spinal fluid and it is important that this seal properly. In most cases, you’ll be able to be up and out of bed by the first or second day and walking around with assistance by the third or fourth day.
There is a strong possibility of needing both physical and occupational rehabilitation following your surgery, especially if your tumor is in your spinal cord. This is because patients with spinal cord ependymomas almost always have a degree of new leg numbness after surgery that takes some getting used to in order to walk properly. This can take place in an inpatient facility or your own home. During this time the physical and occupational therapists will work with you to regain strength, learn how to move within the parameters set by your current physical abilities and address any sensory changes that may have occurred.
Once you’re home it’s helpful to have someone close-at-hand for help with daily duties such as cooking, daily cleaning tasks, pet care and, depending on your capabilities, assistance with dressing and personal grooming. Home health care services are able to provide all levels of assistance, so if this is something you might need, talk to your doctor ahead of time about their expectations for your post-operative needs.
Daily tasks such as showering and personal care can usually be resumed during this time period – you’ll be advised on how to care for your surgical wound and what sort of movements are prohibited (much of this will depend on the location of the tumor).
You can expect to be tired and feel fatigued. When this happens, it’s best to allow your body to rest. As time passes your energy level will increase, but especially in the first days following surgery, you will need more sleep than usual.
Toward the end of this time, your surgeon will remove any staples or sutures that were placed in your incision.
By now you can expect to be tapering or completely off your pain medications and resume some of your normal tasks. Depending on the extent of your spinal ependymoma surgery, it’s possible you are still undergoing physical and/or occupational therapy. Even if that phase of your recovery has ended, you will still be restricted in what you are allowed to do physically — certain things such as lifting or other strenuous activities that can put any stress on the spine are discouraged.
Beyond 6 Weeks
For many people, healing will start taking place more rapidly at this point. Your energy level at this point will also have returned to nearly or completely normal.
After eight to twelve weeks, you’ll go in for a follow-up MRI to make sure everything is healing as expected and that the bulk – if not all – of the tumor was removed. Following that, an MRI can be expected at six months post-operatively and then a year. After that, yearly MRIs are recommended to monitor the original tumor site, as well as surrounding areas.
If you work in a physically demanding job, your doctor may release you to return to work on a modified work duty plan. Be sure to follow orders so you don’t injure yourself.
Within six months most people that undergo ependymoma surgery can expect to be fully recovered. In some instances where the surgery was more complicated and involved, recovery can take up to a year.
Being prepared for your surgery and the following recovery will help you plan your life accordingly. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a very small time investment when it comes to your health and well-being.