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What to Expect When Recovering From Spinal Fusion

The moveable parts of the spine contains bony vertebrae with cushiony intervertebral discs between them. The discs are tough and fibrous, absorbing and distributing the pressure placed on the spinal column as you bend forward, backward, and side to side.

Over time, though, the discs can suffer trauma, either from wear and tear or degeneration, resulting in a great deal of pain. If the condition gets bad enough, doctors may treat it with a spinal fusion, a surgical procedure that “welds” together the vertebrae around the disc so the joint can no longer move, relieving the pressure and pain.

At Apex Spine and Neurosurgery, our expert team of neurosurgeons uses spinal fusion as a last-resort treatment, as it’s the most invasive. If you need the surgery, though, you’re in good hands. The team is skilled in the different fusion techniques and uses the latest image-guidance technologies to perform the procedure.

Just as important as the surgery is the recovery period that follows. The doctors want you to be fully informed about what you’re facing, so they’ve put together this guide to prepare you for your aftercare. Here’s what you need to know.

Spinal fusion recovery

While the success of spinal fusion surgery is high, its recovery period is a long one — it’s major surgery after all. You can expect to stay 2-4 days in the hospital following the procedure, after which you’ll be discharged home with aftercare instructions that you need to follow precisely.

Here’s a general sequence of events for what you can expect:

The first few days

Plan ahead by having ready-to-eat or microwaveable meals, and asking someone to help you with cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, and caring for your pets. In addition:

Keep your spine straight even when getting in and out of bed by doing the log-roll technique. While keeping your knees together:

Some people find sleeping in a reclining chair is more comfortable right after surgery.

One to four weeks after surgery

Surgical infections most often appear 2-4 weeks after surgery. Contact your doctor if you have:

Clean the incision site with soap and water at least once a day and pat it dry. Don’t use ointments or lotions. The doctor removes any stitches or staples about two weeks after surgery, at which point you can take baths or go swimming if the wound is completely healed.

You shouldn’t require any narcotic pain medication at this point, but over-the-counter pain relievers can manage residual pain.

Walking is the best exercise during this period. It increases muscle strength to better support the healing spine, and helps the heart, lungs, and digestive system.

One to three months after surgery

The worst pain is generally over by one month after surgery, but some patients can experience lingering pain for 3-6 months.

At this time, the fusion bone mass is growing together and strengthening. To prevent complications, don’t:

Your doctor may want you to wear a back brace for immobilization up to the three-month mark. He may also want you to:

By 4-6 weeks after surgery, most patients can return to school or to work, if it doesn’t involve physical labor. If your job is strenuous, it may take up to six months before you can go back.

Your doctor may also want you to start an outpatient physical therapy program during this time. Techniques are tailored to the individual, with more activities added as your strength grows. Key techniques are those that prevent back pain from recurring, those that strengthen the back muscles, and adjustments to the work environment to aid in transition.

Three months and after

Progress in daily activities is usually readily apparent, and physical activity now becomes a central component of the recovery process. This helps improve the loss of muscle tone and reduced range of motion following surgery.

Now, too, instead of endangering the fusion, exercising helps it become stronger. And once the surgeon confirms that the fusion is complete — generally in the 6-12 month range — you can make a full return to an active lifestyle, including bending, lifting, and twisting.

Anticipating having a spinal fusion? Learn more about the procedure and the recovery process by calling Apex Spine and Neurosurgery at any of our three Georgia offices, or by scheduling a consultation online.

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