What to Expect After Spine Surgery

 In back surgery, Recovering from Spine Surgery, Spine Surgery

If you’re exploring your options with regards to spine surgery, you should be aware of what to expect with respect to the post-operative recovery.  Some questions that you may have include: How much time will it take for me to recover from my spine surgery?  When can I go back to work?  What precautions should I take to ensure that my back heals properly?  Here are some basic answers for what to expect.

How long will it take to recover?

After microdiscectomy, recovery may be fairly quick. The pain, numbness or weakness you may feel along the nerve path that was under pressure prior to surgery often improves within a few weeks.

After laminectomy (surgery to remove the lamina, the two small bones that make up a vertebra, or to remove bone spurs in your back,) or fusion surgery, you’ll likely need at least 3 to 4 months after surgery to allow your bones to heal properly, and healing may continue up to a year.

If you had spinal fusion surgery, you’ll likely be out of work as you heal for 6 to 12 weeks if you’re young and healthy, and up to 4 to 6 months if you’re older and had extensive surgery.  The amount of time it takes to heal from spine surgery is greatly affected by the severity of your spine condition before surgery and the complexity of the surgery itself.  Your level of health and fitness and your age will also influence your recovery time.

How should you take good care of yourself?

To give your back the best chance of healing properly, and to spare yourself extra discomfort, it’s advisable to put the following self-care steps into practice:

  • Try not to sit for longer than 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Stand up, move around, and eliminate any disc pressure caused by the sitting position.
  • Avoid lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds.  So that means no lifting children, heavy pets, laundry baskets, heavy grocery bags, luggage, etc.  If you think twice about whether or not you should lift something, don’t do it.
  • Avoid lifting items above your head.
  • If you have to bend down to pick something up, bend at your knees and squat down comfortably and carefully to retrieve the item.
  • Wear a back brace or support corset if directed by your spine surgeon to do so.
  • Sleep in a comfortable position, as directed by your back surgeon who may advise against sleeping on your stomach.  A pillow placed beneath your knees may lessen pressure on your lower back.
  • For two weeks after your surgery, take only short walks at a less-than-brisk pace. After two weeks, follow your doctor’s orders about how long you can walk.
  • Take only one flight of stairs per day for the first 1 or 2 weeks after spine surgery, but stop if you experience discomfort while doing so.
  • Do not swim or return to strenuous exercise without your doctor’s clearance to do so.
  • Wait for your doctor’s approval to drive, which may be as early as two weeks after your surgery.
  • Make and keep your appointments for any physical therapy prescribed by your spine surgeon so that you can learn better ways to get into and out of bed safely, dress and undress, climb stairs, and other activities, including bending and lifting.  Flexibility exercises and strengthening exercises for your back, hips, legs, neck, and core will be added as you recover.
  • Care for your surgical locations well.  You will need to follow your spine surgeon’s or nurse’s orders for cleaning and dressing your wounds to encourage good healing and to avoid infection. Check your incisions daily and look for areas that feel warm, or are red, swollen, or draining extra fluid, which are signs of possible infection, and let your doctor know ASAP.
  • Keep your incisions dry for the first 5 to 7 days, as instructed by your doctor.  You may be given special dressings to cover your incisions while showering, and your doctor will likely advise you against taking baths or swimming.
  • Do not smoke or use tobacco products after spine surgery. This is even more important if you’ve had fusion surgery with bone graft.
  • If you need help at home, talk to your surgeon about getting some in-home care for your comfort.  This will also help your family members during your recovery at home.
  • Use your pain medicines prescribed by your physician only as directed.
  • Things to watch out for include:  fever, increasing pain, swelling in your legs,  chest pain, shortness of breath, drainage or discharge from your wounds, increasing numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, and any other symptoms provided to you by your doctor.
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