While most patients report that the benefits of ACDF surgery were worth it, the recovery period can have many ups and downs. The typical recovery process for ACDF surgery involves managing pain, reduced energy and mobility, medication side effects, and more. As the stressors add up, so do the risks of developing depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges.

See ACDF Surgery Postoperative Care

Putting a plan in place before surgery, as well as having a friend or family member to help out in the weeks afterward, can go a long way toward reducing stress and dealing with the setbacks that might occur on the road to a full recovery.

Mental Health Challenges During ACDF Recovery

Everyone who has ACDF surgery experiences at least some temporary increase in stress, whether it is worrying about how the surgery will go or dealing with the inconveniences required to accomplish a full recovery. For some people, the stressors involved in a prolonged recovery process could lead to one or more of the following mental health issues:

  • Depression. Feelings of sadness that persist at least 2 weeks are typically considered depression. Some common symptoms associated with depression include lack of energy and losing interest in activities that were previously enjoyable (such as music, movies, or meeting with friends).
  • Anxiety. Having persistent worries, fears, and/or doubts that cover topics both big and small could indicate an anxiety disorder. Constant worries and doubts could lead to many additional challenges, such as trouble sleeping, fatigue, and irrational feelings of guilt or hopelessness.
  • Trouble with cognition. Concentration and decision-making abilities could be reduced, which make it harder to follow the treatment plan. Cognition problems could be related to anxiety and depression, or they might be related to a combination of problems, such as malnutrition, inadequate sleep, or drug side effects.

See 4 Tips to Help Cope With Chronic Pain and Depression

These are some of the more common mental health issues that can develop during an ACDF recovery, but other less common ones are also possible.


How to Manage Mental Health During Recovery

Here are some tips to help manage stress while recovering from ACDF surgery:

  • Set realistic expectations. It is important to remember that typically the primary goal of ACDF surgery is to regain function of the arm and/or hand, or in the case of spinal cord compression, to prevent progression of dysfunction. A successful ACDF surgery preserves nerve health and enables a return to a more active lifestyle, but it may or may not reduce the chronic neck pain. Also, the recovery is unlikely to be a perfectly smooth ride where every day gets a little bit better. More commonly, some symptoms may linger longer than expected, and some days might be tougher than the day before.
  • Keep in touch. Many ACDF patients report feeling isolated during recovery. This situation could be a combination of the patient not being able to participate in normal activities and/or friends and relatives not realizing how much a scheduled visit would mean.
  • Ask for help. Even relatively simple tasks, such as doing laundry or cooking meals, can be difficult in the days and weeks following an ACDF surgery. Developing a plan with family members and/or friends can help make things seem less overwhelming. Examples could include house chores or going to the store.
  • Follow doctor’s orders. If a patient deviates from the doctor’s instructions, such as by returning to activities too soon or not taking medications exactly as prescribed, the risks for experiencing a setback go up. If an instruction seems unreasonable or wrong, ask for clarification and perhaps the explanation will make sense or an adjustment can be made.

See Practical Advice for Recovering from Back Surgery

In addition, it can help to focus on what can be done instead of what cannot.


When to See a Doctor

Feelings of sadness or worry that become more frequent or an inability to follow the treatment plan are causes for concern that must be brought to the doctor’s attention—either by the patient or a loved one. In some cases, a patient could struggle with depression or anxiety without realizing it until diagnosed by a medical professional.

Dr. Joshua Shatsky is an orthopedic surgeon for CHI Franciscan Health, where he specializes in spine surgery for trauma and deformities. Dr. Shatsky is an active researcher on spinal pathologies and advanced treatments.