I am 42-years old and in relatively good health going in for my first surgery ever: spinal fusion. I’m just having one level done in the low back area. I think they said something like L4. The nurse read me the list of possible complications. Sounds like her biggest concern is a wound infection, which could mean more surgery. And it doesn’t sound like there’s anything I can do to keep this from happening myself — is there?

Your preoperative care of yourself is one thing you can do to aid in a faster recovery with fewer complications. Good nutrition, adequate sleep at night, and staying hydrated (drinking fluids until they tell you to stop) are all good ways to go into surgery in the best health and able to resist “bugs” (bacteria) that cause infection.

The longer your preoperative hospital stay, the greater your chances for infection because you will be exposed to more bacteria during that time. Patients who have hardware put in (metal plates, wires, pins or screws) are at increased risk for infection. And patients who have diabetes or who are obese are also at increased risk for postoperative infections.

The surgeon and his or her staff are also aware that if you develop a wound infection, your risk of continued infection (despite antibiotic and surgical treatment) is increased due to six additional factors. These include: 1) location of infection in the spine, 2) patient’s health (presence of other diseases like diabetes, pneumonia, or heart disease), 3) type of infection, 4) presence of infection elsewhere in the body, 5) use of hardware in the spine such as metal plates and screws, and 6) the need for bone graft for the initial spinal surgery.

Your surgical and postoperative team will do everything they can to reduce your risks and help prevent infection. Likewise, they will do what is necessary to decrease the need for surgery. When antibiotics do not clear up the problem, a procedure called irrigation and debridement to clean the wound area may be needed (sometimes more than once if the infection persists).

Follow any instructions you are given before and after surgery. Report any unusual or developing symptoms that might suggest a new infection (e.g., fatigue, scratchy throat, fever, nausea). Early diagnosis and intervention for any infection is ideal and will give you the best results should it happen.