Life After Spinal Surgery: Can You Return to Normal?

Hearing you may be a candidate for spinal fusion surgery can be overwhelming for many people. It’s important to have all of the information and to understand why you may need it, what is involved, the timeline for recovery and how you will feel once you heal. Orthofix is here to help you come to a decision on surgery and provide you with additional information to help you feel confident in your decision.

What is spinal/back surgery?

Spinal fusion surgery is surgery that connects two or more bones in the spine to make it more stable, correct a problem or reduce pain. The goal is to stop movement between the two bones that are causing the discomfort. Once the bones are fused, they no longer move like they used to. This keeps you from stretching nearby nerves, ligaments and muscles that may have been causing discomfort. While this surgery does take away some spinal flexibility, many spinal fusions involve only small segments of the spine and do not limit motion very much. Spinal surgery is usually offered to patients whose pain has not been alleviated with conservative methods such as pain medication, physical therapy, massage therapy and rest.

How is spinal/back surgery performed?

A surgeon performs spinal surgery while the patient is under general anesthesia. The technique used depends on where the bones to be fused are on the spine, the reason for the spinal fusion, and possibly, the general health and body shape of the patient.

You and your physician will discuss beforehand the approach that will be used during your surgery. Your surgeon may access your spine from the front with an incision in the lower abdomen. This is called an anterior approach. A posterior approach is done from the back where an incision is made down the middle of the back over the vertebrae to be fused. There is also a lateral approach where your surgeon will approach from the side.

During your surgery, once an incision is made, your surgeon will dilate your back muscles and push them out of the way. The intervertebral disc between your affected vertebrae will be removed and material such as bone or synthetic bone-like material will be inserted. Special screws or a similar material will anchor your bones in place. When complete, the layers of skin around the incision will be surgically closed.

While this gives a brief overview of what to expect surgically, your physician will go over everything with you in detail before the actual procedure. Be sure to ask any questions and voice any concerns you may have. It is important you feel you have all of the information and feel confident in your decision.

Recovering from spinal fusion surgery

Following your surgery, you may remain in the hospital for several days. How long you stay can depend on many things such as your general fitness and other medical conditions. Depending on the location and extent of the surgery, you may experience some pain or discomfort, but this can be controlled with medications.

Following surgery, driving may be resumed in a couple of weeks as long as you are off opioid medications. It typically takes four to six weeks to return to an office or sedentary job, but it can take three months or longer to return to activities that are more physical.

As you recover from your recent surgery, it will be important to follow your physician’s instructions and work toward getting your mobility back.

– Walking is the ideal form of exercise during this period. Not only does it increase your muscle strength to better support your healing spine, it also helps the heart, lungs and digestive system. Gradually increasing the amount of walking and stopping when pain flares up is the best approach.

– Physical therapy is usually started six weeks to three months after surgery on an outpatient basis. Techniques are tailored to each individual patient and more and more activity is added as strength increases. Physical therapists will help you become aware of how you walk, sit, stand and lie down to help prevent you from injuring your back. Safe ways to lift, pull and push will also be covered.

While it typically takes three to six months for adjacent vertebrae to fuse into one solid bone after surgery, the healing and fusion process may take longer in some patients due to the following:

– Smoking and other nicotine products can hamper bone growth

– Obesity

– Osteoporosis

– Chronic illnesses such as diabetes

– Malnutrition

– Long standing use of opioids before surgery

– Prednisone medication

Following your surgery, the bone continues to mature and solidify over the 12 to 18 months after surgery. Many people are able to return to all activities, even vigorous ones, approximately six months after surgery.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and following your doctor’s instructions will greatly increase your chances for a successful outcome.

Risks of spinal surgery

Most people do very well with spinal surgery, but as with any surgery, there are some risks involved. Possible complications of spinal fusion surgery include:

– Infection

– Bleeding

– Lack of solid bone fusion

– Nerve damage

– Blood clots

– Decreased spine flexibility

There is also a possibility that your surgery will not effectively get rid of your pain or that the surgery may cause a different type of consistent pain.

Your own risks for complications may vary according to your age, the surgical approach being used, the anatomy of your back problem and other medical conditions you may have. As with any surgical procedure, it is important to discuss all possible risks and outcomes with your physician before deciding on surgery.

Hear from other spinal surgery patients

Hearing from other patients regarding their surgeries and recoveries can give additional insight into what to expect.

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