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Recovery After Complex Spine Surgery

Recovering from complex spine surgery is a long and difficult process. It can take a year or more for the bone grafts in your back to completely fuse and become a solid part of your spine. At the same time, your whole body has to adjust to having a different shape and new center of gravity.

People have described the first few days after surgery as feeling like they were hit by a train—multiple times. The first few months after surgery is a painful and depressing time. Most people experience significant pain in the first two to three weeks, then a decrease in pain as they heal.

After approximately six months, most of our patients report back that the results are totally worth it.

As you heal

A pain management plan will be part of your discharge planning as you leave the hospital. Patients typically continue to take prescription medications for about two months after surgery. Relaxation techniques, walking and other activities can help ease pain and distract you from focusing on it. 

During the initial few months, it is very important not to bend, lift or twist. Physical therapy will help you learn safer ways to move.

Other things to remember:

  • It is common for your sleep to be disturbed for six to eight weeks after surgery
  • Do not drive until you are cleared to do so by your surgeon
  • Walking is the correct exercise for you. Start with short walks and gradually increase the time and distance.

You will also need to take extra care to guard against infection. Getting a common cold won’t be a problem. But any systemic infection—such as bacterial, skin, urinary tract or dental infections—can threaten the areas around the screws and rods in your back. Call your doctor if you have any signs of an infection, including redness around the incision or a fever over 101 degrees.

Staying clean is an important step in preventing infection. Take a shower (not a bath) every day, if possible, and change into clean clothes every day. Also, avoid unclean surfaces. If you have a hard time sleeping, you may be tempted to sleep on the floor. Don’t do it!

Typically, patients have follow-up visits with their surgeons at about four to six weeks, three or six months and 12 months after surgery. A full set of X-rays are taken during each visit to see how healing is progressing.

Lifestyle modifications

Because your spine will be one long, solid bone instead of a series of joints, your back will not be flexible. Depending on the extent of your surgery, bending forward or from side-to-side will be limited. This will affect some activities of daily living, such has how you get dressed. Women report, for example, that putting on pantyhose becomes a real challenge.

Some patients eventually return to activities like square dancing, or running in half-marathons. Others have to give up sports they once enjoyed. Talk to your surgeon about any questions you have about a specific activity.

In general:

  • Twisting sports—such as golf or baseball—should be avoided for at least six months.
  • Contact sports, or any activity (such as riding in roller coasters!) that can seriously jar your back should be avoided completely.
  • Your ability to travel will depend on your ability to sit for extended periods. Be sure to walk around at least every two hours. Note: The hardware in your back is made of titanium, a nonmagnetic material. It will usually not set off alarms when you go through airport security.
  • Sex after surgery may be awkward at first. Various pamphlets are available that recommend positions that can be more comfortable during sex.

Talk with your doctor about any concerns you have about your normal activities and before starting a new activity that may impact your spine. If you have questions about your recovery after complex spine surgery, call us at 206-223-7525.