Surgery in the Time of COVID

A year of working at home led to aches, pains and self-consciousness.

Tired Bones 

Last year, many Milwaukeeans unexpectedly left their offices for their homes. Over the proceeding months, the new hastily-planned offices started to take a toll on some workers’ bodies.

“Recently, patients are telling me their problem began when they were working at home during the pandemic,” says Dr. David Coran, a spine surgeon with Midwest Orthopedic Specialty Hospital. “I’ve had patients that developed lower back problems and neck problems related to that.”

For the most serious problems, Coran performs spine surgeries, like microdiscectomies and lumbar spine fusions. Over the past few years, the surgeries have become less invasive. New x-ray imaging technology allows for smaller incisions, meaning quicker recovery times and less pain. 

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“In the last year, we’ve seen an increase in orthopedic, neck and back pain complaints,” says Dr. Steven Grindel, a surgeon with Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network. Grindel’s team offers patients options, including physical therapy and occupational therapy, before considering surgery. “Patients who require surgery benefit from technological advancements such as the use of computer-generated models to pre-plan and walk through surgeries before we get in the operating room,” he says. 

Dr. Curtis Crimmins with Hand to Shoulder Specialists has seen a similar uptick. “If you have problems like carpal tunnel, tennis elbow or tendinitis, and you start working in a different position, you can see increased symptoms,” he says.

For less severe complaints, Crimmins has several suggestions for relieving pain. Keep your wrists flat when typing. If your table is too high to type comfortably, attach a keyboard tray under the table and use an external keyboard. In addition to taking frequent breaks, Grindel suggests at home exercises and stretches before starting your work day. Crimmins encourages patients to occasionally use their non-dominant hand on their mouse, to reduce the strain of repeated clicking with only one hand. And, for a slightly larger investment, Crimmins and Coran both suggest using a standing desk and alternating sitting and standing throughout the day. Coran also stresses the importance of a regular workout regimen.

“An exercise schedule will keep your body from losing conditioning,” Coran says. “Stretch, get a 30-minute walk in, take time to move around.” 

The View From the Webcam

Have you ever opened up a Zoom meeting and found yourself staring at your face, analyzing your look, not quite happy with what you’re seeing? You’re far from alone.

“People are now coming in and asking for help with their appearance because of how they look on Zoom calls,” says Dr. Tracy McCall, plastic surgeon and owner of Lake Country Plastic Surgery. “I never used to hear that complaint. People say they look old, they look tired. They come in and ask, ‘Is there anything you can do to help me out?’”

McCall says some common complaints are eyes appearing hooded, eyebrows looking low and jowls around the neck. She has seen these concerns ameliorated through liposuction of the neck, which removes fat and tightens the skin, brow lifts and face-fillers, which add volume to depleted areas of the face.

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“People are seeing themselves more often,” says Dr. Alex Colque, a cosmetic plastic surgeon with Skiin Anti-Aging Lounge. “The webcam, especially if you’re looking down, can make you more cognizant of the heaviness of your neck, your eyelids.”  

Colque points to another lockdown related trend in his practice – Emsculpt. The body-contouring treatment, applied through a belt device around the abdomen or rear, uses electromagnetic energy to trigger “supramaximal” contractions that improve muscle tone. With gyms shut down for three months under Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order last year, and many people still uncomfortable returning, Colque says this proved an increasingly popular way for his patients to maintain their physique.  

He adds that more people are opting for eyelid lifts and full facelifts. These larger procedures that often require more recovery time are more easily manageable now, as people working from home don’t have to take time off work to recover. And, as an unexpected consequence of widespread mask-wearing, patients can easily cover any facial bruising they might have. 

“Let’s face it,” McCall adds. “That Zoom camera is not doing anybody any favors.”

Plan Your Recovery

Returning home after a hospital stay can be a tricky business.

Almost one in five seniors on Medicare is readmitted to the hospital within 30 days after discharge, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. This is often due to a failure in “transition of care” services, meaning physical therapy, home assistance and even just a patient adequately understanding how to recover safely after a serious surgical procedure. 

“We’re notified when a member patient is going to the hospital for surgery,” says Alice Parks, director of population health management with Network Health. “We reach out within five days of discharge and go through a series of topics with the patient.”

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Network Health, a Wisconsin insurance company headquartered in Menasha and owned by Froedtert Health and Ascension Wisconsin, checks in with patients who’ve stayed overnight in the hospital, are coming home after major surgery, or who’ve had to visit the emergency room for a serious medical issue. 

“Our care managers work to help members with a safe transition home,” says Parks. “They work to ensure that the patient has a plan in place.”

Nurses and social workers will help Network Health members plan a safe recovery after they’ve returned home. Beyond that, Network Health also works with pharmacists.

“Often when members with complicated conditions are discharged, they have multiple medication changes,” says Parks. “Our pharmacists are available to review medications with them and answer any questions they may have.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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