Sometimes the only solution to spinal problems such as damaged discs, scoliosis, or severe spinal arthritis, is spinal fusion surgery. It can also be used to address fractures due to injury or instability caused by tumors or infection. How does the procedure work and what can you expect in terms of your recovery timeline and post-surgery outlook? How the Procedure Works Before any surgery is performed on you, you’ll likely undergo imaging such as x-rays, CT scans, or MRIs depending on the exact reason you’re undergoing spinal fusion surgery. You’ll also get a general medical evaluation including a look at your medical history in order to make sure that you’re a good candidate for surgery. This includes taking a look at any medications you’re currently taking. The surgeon may choose to access your spine through the back (posterior fusion) or through your belly (anterior fusion). After accessing your spine, the surgeon may use screws, plates, rods, or bone grafts (or a combination) to hold the vertebrae in question together. If you have leg pain or arm pain in addition to back pain, your surgeon may also perform a decompression (laminectomy) by removing bone and/or diseased tissue that is putting pressure on spinal nerves. You will be admitted to the hospital for a few days following your procedure to monitor your condition and start your recovery process, though you will likely be encouraged to start walking the same day as your surgery. Precautions Prior to Surgery Another component of preparing for the surgery is preparing for life after the procedure. For the first few weeks after the surgery you may need assistance with everyday living activities, as well as arranging for transportation as your doctor may instruct you not to drive for the first few weeks after your surgery. Getting help with things like grocery shopping should also be considered, to avoid putting too much strain on your back from carrying heavy grocery bags. You should arrange your house so that commonly used items are not in locations that would require you to bend or twist your back to reach them. You’ll also want to remove anything that can pose a falling hazard such as loose cords, rugs, or other objects on your floors. A fall after your surgery could cause severe harm and even result in the need to undergo surgery again.
What Post-Op Recovery Looks Like You’ll be encouraged to walk soon after surgery with a physical therapist, in part to help prevent blood clots, which are a temporary risk after the surgery. You’ll be taught how to “log roll” when getting out of bed, which involves rolling your entire body all at once, which avoids twisting your spine. Avoidance of twisting or bending your spine will be important during the early stages of your recovery. Your surgeon may suggest wearing a back brace to help keep your spine aligned during your recovery. Long Term Recovery, Physical Therapy, and Long Term Outlook Part of your long term recovery plan is gradually increasing the amount of physical activity you do in order to increase your mobility, and slowly resuming household activities. Working with a physical therapist can help you with specific mobility and strengthening exercises to aid in your recovery, including:
Seated & Supine hamstring stretches
Straight leg raises
Lumbar stabilization exercises
Your physical therapist will guide you through implementing these exercises based on your specific needs and recovery timeline. These exercises, plus more advanced ones as you get stronger, can help you achieve a more complete recovery so that you can resume normal activity. Some pain is to be expected when doing exercise during your recovery period, but anything excessive may be a sign you’re pushing yourself too hard. Follow the advice of your physical therapist to get the best short term and long term results!
After your recovery is complete you will be able to resume normal activity. You may have a weight-lifting restriction placed upon you in the long term in order to avoid putting too much strain on the vertebrae that have been fused together. You may notice a small loss of flexibility in your back because two or more of your vertebrae have been fused together, but this loss of flexibility shouldn’t be severe. If you had back pain before your surgery, it may still persist afterward depending on the exact cause of the pain, but you should experience an overall improvement and more importantly be at less risk for further deterioration.
If you or a loved one are dealing with back pain, we are happy to help enhance their performance.