What to Expect after Spinal Fusion Surgery
For those suffering from chronic pain due to scoliosis or other spine conditions, spinal fusion surgery can be a life-changing procedure. Success rates for spinal fusion surgery are high (70-90%), and most patients feel 99.99% satisfaction with the results.
So, most people think about how long does it take to recover from a spinal fusion surgery?
The recovery timeline varies from person to person. And, it depends on different factors like the extent of the surgery, any other previous procedures such as decompression surgery (if performed), age, and overall health prior to the operation.
So, while we’re going to go over the typical timeline for spinal fusion recovery, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s healing and recovery can happen at different rates.
The First few Days after Spinal Surgery
Immediately after spinal fusion surgery, recovery begins with a stay in the hospital for at least the first 2-4 days. Sometimes longer for those who have additional surgeries or risk factors. During this time, the surgeons and other hospital staff carefully monitor patients to manage any pain or discomfort. Also, they will closely watch you to make sure there are no complications from the surgery.
Even during this initial stage, many patients are surprised to learn that activity like walking around is a critical component of the recovery process. In fact, experts often encourage patients to get up and start moving around the morning after their surgery.
Physical and occupational therapists will work closely with patients to teach certain things. For instance, how to get in and out of bed, dress, sit, stand, and walk safely so that they don’t bend or twist, which can put stress on the back and disrupt the healing process. The therapists also make sure the patients know how to properly care for their incisions and manage any pain.
For some, doctors prescribe a back brace to limit motion. We have learned from patients that it is smart to wear a form-fitting undershirt or tank top underneath the brace for comfort. Also, they suggest this prevents the brace from rubbing and causing irritation.
1-4 weeks after Spine Surgery
During this time, the main goal is finding the balance between taking it easy and maintaining safe activity levels. This helps in promoting healing and fusion of the vertebrae, as well as strengthening the muscles of the back.
At this stage of recovery, there are several important activity restrictions that patients need to follow:
- No bending at the back. Bending at the knee and hips is fine.
- No lifting anything weighing more than about 8-10 pounds.
- Avoid even routine activities if twisting of the spine is involved.
- Driving is not allowed. As medications during this period may cause sleepiness and decreased coordination.
In some cases, doctors suggest other specific exercises besides walking. This helps patients get ready for the next phase of recovery. And, it usually involves the start of outpatient physical therapy and a moderate transition back to conducting the activities of daily living, like working and driving.
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1-3 months after Spine Surgery
This is a tough period for the healing process. As the fused sections of the spine start to grow together at this point in time.
The main activity or exercise is walking. This not only helps with healing and building strength but also provides a cardiovascular boost and benefits the digestive system. Though doctors always urge patients to start small, it’s important to keep increasing the amount of activity throughout this period.
Still, it’s important to avoid certain movements and activities mentioned before. This includes bending, lifting excessive weight, or anything that creates a twisting motion– that puts stress on the spine segments undergoing fusion.
Usually, it is around this time that many patients start outpatient physical therapy. Here, they can work closely with a therapist to tailor an activity plan to match their needs and ability. Also, the therapists can suggest adjustments to the home or workspace. This allows the patient to return to regular daily activities like light chores, driving, and even working (as long as there’s no physical activity).
3-6 Months after Spine Surgery
During the initial stages of recovery and the need to take it easy, patients should not engage in vigorous activity or exercise. While this rest period is necessary for healing, it often results in weakness and reduced muscle tone (especially in the core), along with stiffness and reduction in range of motion.
However, after three months of healing and a slow increase in physical activity, exercise needs to take the front seat in the recovery process. Patients should avoid bending, twisting, and heavy lifting, but they should ramp up cardio, stretching, and other activities.
A lot of patients are concerned about damaging the fusion. But at this point, activity is actually helpful for stimulating healing and helping the fusing bones get stronger. Working with a physical therapist or on their own, patients need to adhere to a long-term exercise program.
For those who want to return to strenuous work or recreation, specialized physical therapy (called work hardening or work conditioning programs) can help in physical therapy. And, by 6 months after the surgery, most are cleared to start these activities again.
6 months to one year
After an orthopedic specialist confirms that the spinal fusion procedure was a success and that the vertebrae have fused as intended. The patients can begin returning to their normal lifestyle again.
This includes activities that involve bending, twisting, and lifting again, and patients can normally return to almost all of the things they enjoyed before surgery – with some understandable exceptions. Generally, doctors don’t suggest high-impact activities, like full-contact sports, extreme sports, and others, at least in short term.
1 to 2 Years
Most patients are fully recovered at around 8 months after spinal fusion surgery. The best thing is that they must return to perform all daily living activities, work, school, and other occupations.
That said, the vertebrae typically need to continue healing and fusing for between 12 to 18 months. In addition, if there was any nerve damage, it may take up to 2 years for the nerve tissue to heal and return to normal.
Factors that can Slow Recovery from Spinal Fusion Surgery
As we said, in most cases, the vertebrae begin to fuse within 3 to 6 months after surgery. However, there are factors that can complicate this process and prolong recovery time in some patients, including:
- Smoking/using other nicotine products (which constricts blood vessels and slows bone growth)
- Poor nutrition
- Steroid medications
Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute Specializes in Performing Complex Spine and Revision Surgery
If you think you or a loved one might need surgery to correct scoliosis or any other kind of complex spine surgery, it’s important to contact a surgeon who is skilled in performing these kinds of complicated and specialized procedures.
Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute’s board-certified, fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Richard Hostin, Dr. Shyam Kishan, and Dr. Kathryn Wiesman, have the expertise and surgical skills necessary to diagnose and treat these cases.
In fact, they’ve performed more than 16,000 successful spine surgeries and helped more than 100,000 patients get back to living normal, pain-free life. So, if you have been told that there is no hope, call the Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute with offices in Dallas, Plano, and Frisco, Texas for an evaluation at 214-556-0555 or visit our contact page today!
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If you or your loved one is suffering from degenerative disc disease, a herniated disc, or another complex spine condition, there is hope. We can help. Call Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute at 214-556-0555 to make an appointment today.