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Ask The Expert: How Important Is The Recovery Time After My Spinal Fusion?

Authored by Dr. Christopher Good, MD, FACS. February 1, 2016

At this point in your treatment journey, you’ve likely consulted with your doctor, completed preoperative requirements, and perhaps already undergone a spinal fusion surgery — now what? One aspect of surgery many doctors fail to emphasize is the postoperative recovery process. Taking care of your fusion during the recovery period is just as important as the surgery itself.

Spinal fusions require time for the bones to completely weld together, similar to a broken bone healing in a cast. Aggressive movements including moving, bending, and twisting during this critical time can prevent the spinal fusion from healing, thereby decreasing the chances of a successful surgery. Unfortunately, many of the patients I see who have had failure after a spinal fusion were not properly warned about the healing precautions or refused to follow the precautions.

The x-ray on the left shows a healthy patient who had a failed spinal fusion causing years of pain. She was never told how to care for her spine while her fusion healed and she went back to weightlifitng right away. Multiple surgeries trying to fuse the spine have failed and her screws are broken {red arrows}, indicating movement through the fusion. The x-ray on the right is nine months after successful revision fusion. The patient was appropriately counseled on how to take care of her spine, and stronger implants were used with more effective bone grafting. Her pain is greatly improved and she is back to full activity. 
If you have already committed to making a positive change in your life by undergoing a spinal fusion, it is critical that you “take care” during the recovery phase so it has the highest chance of healing well. Some small adjustments you can make to regain independence, while being mindful of your back, is to take short walks while gradually increasing other activities, ask for help when lifting or bending {i.e. making dinner, unloading the dishwasher, etc.}, and avoid long periods of sitting, standing, or lying down. Your doctor should provide additional information regarding your recovery process and the things you can and cannot do. On average, spinal fusions in the low back take approximately three months to become strong enough for people to return to heavy physical activities.

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Dr. Christopher Good, MD, FACS

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