Recovery after back surgery depends on several factors. The type of surgery you have is one significant factor. The severity of your condition, your age, fitness level, and overall health also play a role in the recovery timeframe.
Some types of back surgeries are less invasive and may only take a few weeks for recovery. Others are more invasive and require a longer recovery timeframe.
Beyond the type of surgery you have, other factors such as your overall health, the complexity of your back pain symptoms and conditions, and your ability to stick to postsurgery recovery plans may determine how quickly you recover from back surgery.
Learn more about recovery times after back surgery and what you can do to avoid setbacks in the expected timelines.
You may stay in the hospital for 1–3 days after back surgery, which allows you time to heal while doctors watch you for possible surgery-related risks. You may also work with a physical or occupational therapist while in the hospital. The therapist can help you learn how to move and do everyday tasks safely.
Longer hospital stays may be necessary for more complex surgeries. A stay in a rehabilitation hospital is also a possibility. At this type of facility, you’ll work with physical therapists and other healthcare professionals to become mobile again and regain functionality.
Types of back surgery
Most back surgeries have a timeframe for a partial and full recovery. Doctors can’t predict precisely how long you’ll need to recover, but these estimates help them decide what the postsurgery period will be like.
- Discectomy: A discectomy, which involves the removal of a herniated disk, requires a shorter timeframe for recovery. Most people will:
- resume limited activities within 2–3 weeks
- resume a full range of activities in up to 6–8 weeks
- Spinal laminectomy or spinal decompression: During a spinal laminectomy or spinal decompression procedure, a surgeon removes tissue or a bone spur on a disk. If you have a laminectomy and a discectomy at the same time, the timeframe may change, but for each separate procedure most people will:
- have partial function in 4–6 weeks
- completely recover in up to 12 weeks
- Kyphoplasty and vertebroplasty: During this procedure, a cement-like product is injected into fractures in the spine’s vertebrae to reinforce them. This procedure usually involves a shorter recovery time. Most people will:
- have a good amount of functionality within 2–3 weeks
- make a full recovery in up to 4–6 weeks
- Nucleoplasty: During a nucleoplasty, which is a minimally-invasive procedure, a surgeon will remove tissue from a herniated disk. You may:
- regain full function within 2–3 weeks
- make a complete recovery in up to 12 weeks
- Spinal fusion: Some spinal disks can’t be salvaged and need to be removed. A surgeon can remove the disk and replace it with a metal device or a bone graft. This surgery requires a longer recovery time than most other back surgeries. It may:
- take 6–8 weeks to regain some functionality for daily activities
- take 6 months before you’re able to do all your activities without pain
- Artificial disk replacement: When a disk is damaged, the disk can be replaced. With this procedure, a surgeon will insert a synthetic disk in the spine to replace the disk that’s removed during surgery. This procedure takes several weeks for recovery. Recovery may:
- last 12 weeks or longer
- take 6 months or more for full healing
Besides the type of back surgery you have, other factors can also affect your recovery timeframe. These include:
- Severity of condition and symptoms: Severe symptoms or multiple back or spine issues may slow recovery and extend the timeframe for a return to normal activities.
- Age: Older adults usually have a longer timeframe for recovery after back surgery, and they may be more likely to stay in a rehabilitation facility following surgery.
- Body weight: Additional weight can make rehabilitation more difficult.
- Presurgery fitness level: If you were active before surgery, you may have an easier time returning to typical functions, but you shouldn’t expect to bounce back to presurgery fitness activities immediately.
- Medications: The pain medications you required before surgery may affect your recovery.
- Other health conditions: Issues such as arthritis in other joints, muscle strain, or inflammatory conditions, such as ankylosing spondylitis, may prolong recovery.
A surgery team will discuss information with you before your surgery. Part of that discussion will be focused on what you can do before and after surgery to help your recovery.
There are also some steps you can take before having back surgery that may help your recovery, such as:
- quitting smoking, if you smoke
- limiting or avoiding alcohol
- maintaining a moderate weight
- getting your heart, lung, and vascular health checked by a primary care doctor
What not to do after back surgery
- Don’t sit for too long: Rest is important after back surgery, but sitting or lying down for too long can be problematic. Even taking just a few steps every hour will help boost your flexibility and mobility.
- Avoid lifting heavy objects: Until you’re cleared by a doctor, avoid lifting anything heavier than a milk container. You could strain your back and delay recovery.
- Avoid driving: Driving a vehicle often requires twisting, turning, and sudden movements. It usually takes several weeks before you’re cleared to drive.
- Limit your time in a car: Avoid being in a car for more than 30 minutes at a time in the weeks immediately after back surgery. If you must travel in a car, get out every 30 minutes and walk for a couple of minutes.
What to do after back surgery
- Rest, but don’t become inactive: Take it easy, and don’t attempt to do too many things at once. Expect that you’ll be at a lower activity capacity for 8 weeks or more. Make sure you don’t lie in bed or sit for too long, though, as complete inactivity can reduce blood flow and weaken your muscles.
- Walk: Movement is important for recovery after back surgery. Movement increases blood flow, helps prevent surgery-related risks, and also helps reduce muscle soreness and build endurance.
- Attend therapy sessions: Physical and occupational therapy can help improve your strength and flexibility. The techniques you’ll learn can also help you adapt to changes in your functionality in the initial weeks after surgery.
It’s common to experience a high level of pain after back surgery. A doctor will prescribe pain medications for you to take after you leave the hospital.
Within a few weeks, the pain should be significantly reduced. If the pain isn’t better or has gotten worse, make an appointment to see a doctor. Get immediate medical attention if you experience new symptoms such as:
- numbness or loss of sensation in your back, hips, or legs
- loss of strength in one or both legs
- loss of bladder or bowel function
- symptoms of infection, such as a fever or swelling and redness around the incision
Recovery from back surgery can take several weeks or months. The type of surgery you have will largely determine how long you can expect to be in recovery. Other factors, such as your age, fitness level, and overall health, can also affect your recovery time.
Before your surgery, talk with your doctor about your specific condition and the type of surgery you need. They may be able to give you a better understanding of your recovery timeframe. After the procedure, make sure you follow your doctor’s recommendations for ideal recovery.