WHAT TO EXPECT AFTER SPINAL FUSION SURGERY
For those suffering from chronic pain and discomfort 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 are highly satisfied with the results.
So, the number one thing most people have is: How does long it take to recover from a spinal fusion surgery?
The recovery timeline varies from person to person and depends on a number of factors like the extent of the surgery, whether any other procedures were performed (such as decompression surgery), as well as things like 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 surgery
Immediately after spinal fusion surgery, recovery begins with a stay in the hospital for at least the first two to four 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 other discomfort and make sure there are no complications from the surgery.
Many patients are surprised to learn that even during this initial stage, activity – particularly walking around – is a critical component of the recovery process. In fact, patients are often encouraged to get up and start moving around the morning after their surgery.
Physical and occupational therapists will work closely with patients to teach them 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, a back brace may be prescribed to limit motion. Patients are advised to wear a form-fitting undershirt or tank top underneath for comfort and to prevent the brace from rubbing and causing irritation.
1-4 weeks after surgery
During this time, the main goal is finding the balance between taking it easy and maintaining safe activity levels to promote healing and fusion of the vertebrae, as well as strengthen the muscles of the back.
At this stage of recovery, there are several important activity restrictions that need to be followed, including:
- 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 they involve twisting of the spine.
- Because medications during this period may cause drowsiness and reduce coordination, driving is not allowed.
In some cases, other specific exercises besides walking may be recommended to help patients get ready for the next phase of recovery – which usually involves the start of outpatient physical therapy and a gradual transition back to doing the activities of daily living, like working and driving.
1-3 months after surgery
This is a critical period for the healing process, as it’s during this time that the fused sections of the spine start to grow together.
The primary activity or exercise is walking, which not only helps with healing and building strength, it also provides a cardiovascular boost and benefits the digestive system. Though patients are always advised 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 – like bending, lifting excessive weight, or anything that creates a twisting motion – that put stress on the spine segments that are supposed to be fusing.
It’s usually 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. Therapists can also recommend adjustments to the home or workspace to allow the patient to return to regular daily activities like light chores, driving, and even working (as long as there’s no physical labor).
During the initial stages of recovery, due to the trauma of the surgery and the need to take it easy, patients are cautioned not to 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, it’s during this time that exercise needs to take the front seat in the recovery process. Bending, twisting, and heavy lifting still need to be avoided, but cardio, stretching, and other activities should be ramped up.
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 be a helpful component of physical therapy, and by six 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, 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. Things like high-impact activities, like full-contact sports, extreme sports, and others, are not usually advised, at least in short term.
1 to 2 Years
Most patients are fully recovered at around 8 months after spinal fusion surgery. By this time, they should be able to return to doing all activities of daily living, as well as returning to 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 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 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 than6,000 successful spine surgeries and helped more than 30,000 patients get back to living a normal, pain-free life.
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 Institute at 214-556-0555 to make an appointment today.