What to Expect After Spinal Fusion Surgery

surgeon performing spinal fusion

Spinal fusion surgery is a life-changing procedure for those in chronic pain from scoliosis, arthritis, an accident, a herniated disk, or some serious back injuries. Spinal fusion uses techniques that mimic the body’s healing process when you’ve broken a bone. By fusing two or more vertebrae together, you gain spinal stability and strength.

The recovery time following a spinal fusion depends on the person, the extent of the surgery, previous major surgeries, your age, your lifestyle, and your overall health. Read on to learn what to expect at each stage of the recovery process after spinal fusion surgery.

Immediately After Surgery

You will remain in the hospital for around 2-5 days following your surgery while doctors and nurses monitor your healing. They may extend a hospital stay depending on the location and the extent of the surgery, as well as other recent surgeries you’ve gone through. High-risk patients typically remain in the hospital for a few days more.

Doctors prescribe opioid painkillers to ease pain and discomfort. Ice packs and heat wraps can assist with pain management and are applied for 15 minutes, followed by a 2-hour rest period.

Many patients are surprised to hear that not only are they able to walk soon after surgery, but they are encouraged to do so. Walking and gentle movement are important parts of the recovery process. You will work with physical and occupational therapists to learn how to move safely following your surgery.

They teach you modified ways to do the following:

  • Get in and out of bed
  • Stand up from a seated position
  • Sit down
  • Walk

At this stage, any bending or twisting of the spine can disrupt the healing process. Because of this, as well as the effect that opioids have on coordination and drowsiness, there is absolutely no driving allowed after your surgery. Ask a friend or family member to drive you home, and limit car rides to protect your spine from accidental twisting.

Back braces provide mechanical stabilization of the spine, helping to limit motion and avoid any bending or twisting. For some patients, this stabilization is essential to ensure proper healing. If your doctor thinks you would benefit from wearing a back brace, you can wear a form-fitting shirt underneath the brace to minimize discomfort and irritation from the brace rubbing against the skin.

1-4 Weeks Post-Surgery

Once you’ve returned home after surgery, you start to find a balance between moving and resting. Gentle movement promotes healing of the vertebrae and strengthens the back muscles that support your spine. Frequent walking is a great way to incorporate movement into your day without putting your spine’s healing at risk.

Use the modified movements that were taught to you by the physical or occupational therapist to avoid any bending or twisting of your back. If you need to bend down, keep your spine in a neutral position while you hinge at the hips or bend at your knees. For now, lift nothing heavier than 8-10 pounds.

Most patients find that sleeping in a reclined position is the most comfortable way to rest. Try different pillow heights and firmness to see what’s most comfortable for you. To prevent rolling around or turning in your sleep, place a pillow on either side of your head.

Ask a friend or family member to assist you with cooking, grocery shopping, daily chores, and other typical activities. This stage of healing can be uncomfortable and frustrating, but it is an essential part of rebuilding your spine’s strength. Perform any exercises your physical therapist or doctor gave you to prepare your spine for the next stage of recovery.

Your doctor will have prescribed pain medication for you to manage pain and discomfort. Talk to them about how you should diminish your daily dose, as it is difficult to renew opioid prescriptions. You should aim to be off your pain medication at 4 weeks post-surgery.

1-3 Months Post-Surgery

The next portion of your recovery process is when the fused sections of your spine begin to grow together. You still need to avoid bending at the back, twisting your spine, and lifting heavy objects because these activities put strain on the segments of your spine before they’ve fully fused together.

You should walk every day to assist with healing and build up your strength. The benefits of walking give you a cardiovascular boost and aid your digestive system. At this stage, you will also begin outpatient physical therapy to restore regular movement. Your physical therapist creates a unique training plan to match your needs and ability, your available training space, and your work requirements.

As you regain strength and mobility through training, you can slowly start returning to your regular activities, such as driving, light chores, and work (as long as it isn’t physically demanding).

3-6 Months Post-Surgery

The 3 months of rest after your surgery are essential, but they result in a loss of muscle tone, muscle strength, and range of motion. The next 3 months are all about reducing overall stiffness and gaining back your strength.

After 3 months of rest, exercise is now the primary focus of your healing and recovery process. Mindful exercise now aids the fusion process happening at your spine, as movement stimulates healing and helps your bones to fuse.

You still need to avoid bending, twisting, and lifting, but should be able to resume cardio and stretching your stiff muscles. Work with a physical therapist to find a long-term exercise program to stick to. These exercises will help you regain muscle tone, strength, fitness, as well as flexibility and mobility.

If you have a physically strenuous job, your physical therapist can tailor your exercise program to include work conditioning. This prepares your body for your regular work and teaches you to perform work tasks safely.

6-12 Months Post-Surgery

Most patients fully recover around 8 months post-surgery. At this stage, you will visit your orthopedic specialist to confirm the surgery was successful and that your vertebrae have fused as expected.

Once you’ve got the go-ahead from your orthopedic specialist, you can start returning to normal life, including bending, twisting, and lifting! For now, it’s recommended that you still avoid high-impact activities, such as contact sports and extreme sports. These things are often possible long-term, but put too much impact on your spine at this stage of healing.

1-2 Years Post-Surgery

Once a year has passed, you can likely return to all your usual activities.

The vertebrae in your spine continue to heal and fuse up for up to 18 months post-surgery. If you sustained nerve damage before or during the surgery, the timeline can extend to 2 full years of healing time.

Some factors can slow your healing and result in a longer recovery time. These include:

  • Smoking, along with other nicotine products (nicotine constricts blood vessels and slows bone growth)
  • Obesity
  • Osteoporosis
  • Diabetes
  • Poor nutrition
  • Steroid medications

Prepare for Your Spinal Fusion Surgery with New York City Spine

Knowing what to expect after a spinal fusion is the best way to prepare yourself for the months ahead. Although the recovery process can be frustrating, a successful surgery is so worth the result!

If you have questions about your upcoming spinal fusion surgery, be sure to reach out to our team at (212) 506-0232, so we can put your mind at ease.

You can also check out other posts on our Healthy Spine Blog to learn more about spinal health.

At New York City Spine Surgery, our standard for excellent care means treating you as a whole person, and not just another spine disorder on a chart.

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