Spinal fusion surgery connects two or more vertebrae of your spine together. The surgery is done to help stabilize your spine, reduce pain, or address spine issues, such as scoliosis.
Spinal fusion surgery is a major procedure with a lengthy recovery time.
Most people are not able to resume all their usual activities for at least 6 months, and it may be 1 year or more before some activities can be attempted.
However, spinal fusion can greatly improve the quality of life for people who have it. After recovery, people who have had successful spinal fusions are generally able to become more active than they were before.
Follow your doctor’s recommendations
All the information in this article is meant to be a general guideline for spinal fusion recovery. Your doctor will have specific guidelines for you.
Please refer to your doctor’s instructions and follow them closely. What they tell you might be slightly different than what is presented in this general guide. Your instructions are informed by your individual body and other any other conditions you may have.
Always follow the instructions and advice from your doctor.
There’s no one set path for recovery from spinal fusion surgery. Everyone’s recovery timeline can look slightly different depending on factors such as their overall health, ability to exercise, ability to heal, weight, and more.
It’s important not to get discouraged or hold yourself to standards and goals that aren’t a good fit for your circumstances.
However, there are some general milestones you can expect to hit as you recover. You can read more about these broad milestones and when they’ll occur below.
The first few days after spinal fusion
You’ll stay in the hospital for about 2 to 4 days following your spinal fusion surgery. You might need to stay longer if you’re at risk of an infection or other complications.
While you’re at the hospital, healthcare professionals will monitor you for pain and to ensure your surgery was successful. You’ll also meet with physical and occupational therapists to begin your recovery. Therapists will help you take on activities such as:
- sitting up in bed
- getting in and out of bed
- getting dressed
- walking safely without bending
- caring for your incision
Your doctor might also give you a back brace. A back brace helps limit your motion so you can heal correctly. A therapist can help you put on and manage your back brace.
1 to 4 weeks
The goal at this stage of your recovery is to allow your spine to heal, your vertebrae to fuse, and your back muscles to grow stronger. You might have physical therapy and sessions. You will still be taking medications to help manage your pain.
Depending on your job, you might be allowed to return to work during this stage. However, your activity will still be limited. You’ll be asked to avoid:
- bending from your back
- twisting at your spine
- lifting anything heavier than about 8 pounds
5 to 9 weeks
Physical therapy sessions are very important during this stage of the healing process. Your spine is fusing and growing together by this time. Physical therapy can help you start rebuilding your strength. You’ll begin with walking and other small activities. You’ll build light daily tasks, such as driving and simple daily chores.
You’ll still need to avoid bending, lifting heavy objects, and twisting motions. Your physical therapist will guide you through your recovery. They can even suggest adjustments to make activities at your home or workplace easier to manage.
10 to 24 weeks
The first 3 months of spinal fusion recovery are focused on rest and building strength. Once you make it to 10 weeks, exercise and physical activity will become the focus of your recovery.
You’ll still need to avoid bending and lifting heavy objects, but you’ll be able to stretch and engage in cardiovascular workouts.
Your physical therapist can help you devise a workout plan, and you’ll be able to exercise on your own as well.
6 months to 1 year
You’ll talk with an orthopedic specialist at around the 6-month mark. They’ll confirm your spinal fusion was a success and that your vertebrae have fused successfully.
As long as everything is healed and looks right, you’ll be cleared to return to nearly all your typical activities. This will include bending, twisting, and lifting.
Generally, it’s still best to avoid things such as extreme sports, but you can discuss limitations with your doctor once you reach this milestone.
1 to 2 years
Most people will feel that they are fully recovered by about 1 year following their spinal fusion. They’ve returned to all their usual activities and are no longer having any pain.
However, your vertebrae will continue to heal and fuse for up to 18 months. Any nerve damage to your spine will take up to 2 years to completely heal.
Your physical therapy team will help teach you recovery exercises. However, there are a few simple exercises you can take on at home that are part of nearly all spinal fusion recovery programs.
- Walking. One of the most important things you can do during your spinal fusion recovery is to take short and frequent walks. Even a walk around your living room can help promote circulation and healing.
- Stretching. Gentle stretches are another simple way to promote healing in the early days of your recovery. Moves such as flexing and pointing your feet or slowly stretching your back can make a big difference.
- Abdominal contractions. For this move, lie flat on your back and bend your knees. Rest your hands on your ribs and then contract your abdominal muscles. Hold the position for 5 seconds and repeat 10 times.
- Straight leg raises. Lie on your back with one leg bent at the knee and the other leg straight. With your abdominal muscles squeezed, raise your leg slowly. Hold the position for 5 seconds, and repeat 10 times on each side.
- Heel slides. For a heel slide, lie flat on your back and slowly bend and straighten your knee. Repeat 10 times on each side.
You can add more advanced exercises under the supervision of your physical therapist and surgeon.
It’s important to take care of yourself after spinal fusion. Your body needs plenty of rest to heal and recover.
Your doctor and physical therapy teams will have suggestions, but we’ve also rounded up some recovery tips:
- Follow your treatment plan. Stick to any plan you have. This means taking your prescriptions, attending physical therapy, and trying not to take on too much too fast.
- Wear your brace and use other assistive devices. If you have a brace or if your physical therapist has given you assistive devices to help with recovery, don’t be afraid to use them. They’ll take pressure off your back, help stabilize your spine, and help you recover.
- Keep moving. Daily walks, light stretches, and physical therapy are all important parts of your recovery.
- Avoid smoking. Smoking slows down the healing process. It can delay your recovery, so try to quit or reduce the amount you smoke if you can.
- Eat a balanced diet. Help your body heal by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains.
- Try heat and ice. Hot showers, heating pads, and ice packs can all be useful tools during your recovery.
- Sleep comfortably. Try sleeping on your back with your upper back, shoulders, and head slightly elevated, and a blanket or pillow rolled under your knees. This position can relieve pain and help you rest.
- Get plenty of sleep. You need plenty of sleep when you’re healing, so try to stick to a sleep schedule.
Problems after a spinal fusion surgery are relatively rare. When problems do occur, one of the most common ones is that the spinal fusion fails to relieve pain.
In this case, you and your doctor might need to work out a new treatment plan. It can be difficult to determine this until significant healing has occurred.
Two other complications to watch out for include infections and blood clots. If these rare but serious complications happen, it’s usually within the first few weeks following surgery. It’s important to seek immediate medical treatment if you have symptoms of either complication.
Symptoms of a blood clot include:
- swelling in your ankles or lower legs
- pain and redness in your lower legs that might extend above your knee
- chest pain
- a cough
- shortness of breath
Symptoms of an infection include:
- severe pain
- redness and swelling and the incision site
- swelling at the incision site
- drainage or pus coming from the incision site
- a smell at the incision site
How painful is spinal fusion recovery?
You might have some pain and discomfort following spinal fusion surgery. Medications can help manage this pain for many people.
The most severe pain will be in the days immediately following surgery. It will fade as you continue to recover. Your doctor will prescribe pain medication to help manage the pain in the first week or two.
Once you recover, you should be in much less pain than before spinal fusion. This surgery is meant to improve your quality of life and relieve your pain.
If you’re having severe pain, tenderness, or swelling following your surgery, contact your surgeon immediately. This could be a sign of a complication, such as an infection.
Most people don’t have any restrictions on their activity by about 6 to 8 months after spinal fusion surgery. However, there might be permanent restrictions in certain circumstances.
For instance, some people who have had a spinal fusion in multiple places might be advised to avoid contact sports. Additionally, while you’ll be able to resume exercise, lifting, and other activities, you might be told to limit your activities to certain amounts, depending on how your spine heals.
As always, it’s important to stay in close contact with your doctor or physical therapist to know what’s right for your body and recovery.
Living with a spinal fusion
It can help to talk with other people who have had spinal fusion surgery and understand the day-to-day successes and struggles. Support groups and forums are great places to build community during your recovery.
You can check out:
- Spinal Fusion Surgery Support Group. Get online support with this support group from SpineNation.
- Spinal Surgery Support Group. You can send a message and request to join this Facebook group to share stories, resources, and support fellow spinal fusion patients.
- Spine Fusion Support Group. The Spondylitis Association of America provides this virtual support group and offers rotating topics.
Spinal fusion surgery can have a long recovery process. Your body will need to heal as your spine fuses and your muscles strengthen. During this time, it’s important to keep moving and to follow instructions from your physical therapist and your surgeon.
You’ll start your recovery with rest and gentle stretching, and you’ll slowly build to more intense exercise.
An orthopedic specialist will check on your spinal fusion after 6 months. They will clear you for most activities as long as everything is healing correctly.