What Should I Expect After Spinal Surgery?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 January 2020
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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Recovering from spinal surgery is often a process that can take up to a full calendar year. The duration of the recovery period will depend on the nature of the damage to the spine, and what type of surgical procedures were employed to repair the damage. Fortunately, the process of spinal rehabilitation is much more structured and effective than in times past, making it possible for many patients to recover in a shorter period of time and get on with life.

The process of recovery from spinal surgery begins while the patient is still in the hospital. For the most part, the first day after the back surgery is a period of resting. Therapists may help the patient get out of bed for very short periods if appropriate. It is not unusual for a patient who has undergone a procedure such as a spinal fusion to be allow to use a Personal Analgesia Pump this first day, making it possible for the patient to administer medication for back pain on an as needed basis.


Over the next several days after the spinal surgery, the drainage tubes that were put in place during the surgery are removed as the potential for inflammation subsides. The medication administered by the pump is decreased incrementally and the patient is slowly shifted to oral medication. As the patient continues to gain strength, he or she will work more with a therapist and begin to spend time sitting and walking. When deemed ready by the attending physician, the patient is discharged and allowed to go home.

During the first few weeks at home, the patient will continue to use therapy to aid in the recovery from the spinal surgery. Depending on the situation, a private therapist may work with the patient at home or the patient may be transported to a rehabilitation clinic for therapy sessions. The idea is to continue to promote the proper healing of the spine and work the muscles of the back so they are capable of supporting the spinal cord properly.

At the same time, doctors will continue to monitor the level of back pain and adjust the pain medication accordingly. The attending physician will also check for any discharge around the incisions as they continue to heal, or any signs that infection or inflammation have developed since the patient left the hospital. At first, the doctor visits may be every couple of weeks, then shift to a monthly and eventually quarterly basis. As the healing from the spinal surgery progresses, the need to see the doctor will decrease. In most cases, the more frequent visits will cease around the one-year anniversary, and the patient can go in once a year for a physical exam that will include inspection of the back.

During the first months of the spinal surgery recovery, patients will be encouraged to begin taking up normal activities slowly. Generally, the doctor and therapist will let the patient know when it is time to begin engaging in activities that involve lifting, bending or twisting. Even then, it is important to start off carefully with these activities, and make note of any pain or stiffness that may result.

As more time passes after the spinal surgery, the dosage and type of medication will also be adjusted. This is so the medication provides what the patient needs to manage any remaining pain, but not so much that it interferes with the ability of the patient to function. Generally, less pain medication is needed as the healing proceeds. It is not unusual for patients to eventually require no medication whatsoever.

The main point to remember about recovery from spinal surgery is that it is a process, not an event. In general, it is the first weeks that are the most difficult in terms of mobility and pain levels. However, by working closely with the doctors and therapists, it is possible to work through this difficult period and slowly get back into the swing of living without constant back pain.



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