4 Things I Wish I Knew Before My 9 Surgeries
As a former athlete who has had plenty of surgeries, people frequently ask me about surgery — how I had them, what I did, how I recovered. I’m often the first person people call for advice when they get an injury.
I’ve had terrible surgeries and amazing ones. I have had surgery that has ruined my body and created life-long complications. I’ve had surgery that has saved my career. The difference depends on a few key things.
Especially now, with the end of the year coming, you may be considering having surgery before your deductible resets in the new year.
Whether you or someone you love are considering or scheduled for surgery, here are four things that I found made a huge difference in improving my outcome and speeding up my recovery. (This article does not constitute medical advice of course — this is just what worked for me.)
1. Find a Doctor with Surgery-specific Experience
When I was with the Philadelphia Eagles, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc and needed surgery. Assuming I would be back that year, I took my injury to our sports medicine trainer Rick Burkholder (currently with the Kansas City Chiefs). When it came time to talk about surgery, I just wanted to get it done so I could start my rehab as quickly as possible. But he told me to wait.
I’d had two previous back surgeries. One went okay. In the second surgery, however, the surgeon actually ruined my back, taking out too much bone and causing multiple ongoing issues. Little did I know, the doc I was waiting for was Dr. Vaccaro, the top spine surgeon in the entire world. He was in Brazil, giving a speech on spine surgery.
I was frustrated and couldn’t understand why they wanted me to wait. But Rick said, “I’m telling you, if you were my son, I would ask you to wait. This doctor is that good.”
The number-one thing when it comes to your surgery is your doctor. Specifically, their surgical experience and skills. How great is your doctor at the kind of surgery you need, especially if it’s major? Find a doctor that specializes in what you need done.
Friends of mine have gotten knee surgeries from general orthopedic surgeons, meaning the docs know enough to do the surgery but they do not specialize in it. Other friends, with what should be career-ending knee injuries, have seen a specialist who does 30 knees a week, and they’ve gotten back to their career and their old way of life.
Distinguishing between a doctor who can do your surgery and a doctor who does do it is very important. Always find a specialist for the surgery you need. A hand specialist, a neck specialist, a knee specialist, a back specialist. In my experience, waiting paid off, in terms of less pain and greater success.
I waited for Dr. Vaccaro one long week. After the surgery, he told me, “Your back was a mess. I had to clean up so much scar tissue. I should have fused your back, but I cleaned it up as much as I could so you could keep playing.”
And I did—I continued to play for another five years. Your surgeon matters. Seek a specialist.
2. Add Nutrition to Speed Repair
Another big factor is your nutrition. For my first back surgery, I just was a college kid and didn’t know what I was doing. Same with my second back surgery. For my third, however, I really got into the nutrition of healing. What kind of micronutrients would help heal my body?
At the time, my mother, God bless her, was big into juicing vegetables. I started juicing too: kale, beets, broccoli — vegetables that helped repair not only skin, but the cells and tissues reforming my back.
At rehab, my physical therapist thought I was on steroids because of how fast I was healing. He said, “Man, what are you taking?” It wasn’t just that I was ahead of schedule in my recovery. He was amazed because of how well my tissues were responding, how my muscles were healing, how the layers of scar tissue were forming and still able to be broken apart.
After your surgery, your nutrition matters. Green leafy vegetables and lots of water did it for me. You want to get skin, cell and tissue-rebuilding nutrients in your body. It pays dividends. It helps cut down your recovery time and that means less pain. Eventually, it helps you lead a better life.
3. Go Long on the Recovery
I was talking recently to a tech CEO here in Denver who is a long-time skier and recently had to have knee surgery. He said, “Hey, I’m just going to keep doing my rehab.” I told him, “Good plan, because oftentimes, insurance doesn’t give you enough.”
In the NFL or any high-level sport, even when you recover enough to play, or when you get back ahead of schedule, you’ll continue with physical therapy (PT) for the remainder of the year. Your whole year is dedicated to time in that training room.
Whatever your physical therapy is, go beyond just the allotment from your insurance company. Go long. Go longer than you think.
One surgeon told me there is a 70% noncompliance rate when it comes to rehab after surgeries. That is, after surgery, people for whatever reason stop doing their PT, massage and follow-up appointments. Pretty soon, they need another knee surgery, or another back surgery, and they can’t live their life like they want to. It often comes down to the rehab or PT. Go longer than you were prescribed for physical therapy.
It takes a long time for the body to heal. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve had nine surgeries. I can tell you from experience that going extra long, taking some extra time to heal your injury and take care of the adhesions that form around it — makes a big difference. One that makes you feel and function better.
4. Massage the Scar Tissue
Before my first back surgery, you could pick up the scar tissue on my back like a brick. You could grab it and move it around, and I would lose feeling in different parts of my legs based on where that brick of scar tissue went.
The fourth big help to my recovery from surgery has been massage. Specifically — and you might not have heard of this — you’ve got to massage your scar tissue. Not right away, of course. Wait for the stitches to fall out and definitely check with your doctor. But as soon as you can after that, start massaging.
Whatever your surgery, or your loved one’s surgery, massage that scar tissue. Rub it, break it up and make sure that it doesn’t form adhesions that can necessitate later surgeries or restrict movement. Scar massage should actually minimize scarring and help the tissue put itself back together again the right way. It should create greater flexibility and function in the healed tissue.
Following my third back surgery, I have invested in multiple years of massage on that scar tissue. I still do it, because adhesions will form when I get twisted up, like when picking up my kids or getting out of a car. I need to continue to have that scar tissue worked on so it stays limber and flexible.
By seeking out a specialist, paying attention to nutrition (especially that first two weeks after surgery), going longer than required for physical therapy and massaging your scar tissue, you will help ensure the success of whatever surgery you or your loved ones need to have.
Successful surgeries mean you get to live your life your way and never look back.