Recovery FAQ

Not surprisingly, different patients heal at different rates.  Younger, healthier people might heal more quickly than older individuals, or those with medical problems.

Activity, especially walking, seems to help the healing process more rapidly and with better strength.  Unless specifically directed by your surgeon, bed rest after surgery is not recommended.  Get up and around, using pain as your guide.  If needed, time spent in a rehab facility with occupational therapists can direct a quicker recovery.

How much pain should you expect?

Expect to have some pain after surgery, but you should be reasonably comfortable by using your pain medications and good body mechanics.  Pain medications will not eliminate your pain.  Occasionally, pain can be very upsetting but does not mean there is a problem with the surgery.  In general, as you heal, the pain will improve.  As you become more physically active, however, your pain may increase.  Increase your activities in small increments, and the increased pain should subside with rest and recovery.

Talk with your physician about what to expect in your specific case.

Limitations and Restrictions

  • Sit in a straight chair 4-6 times per day for short periods of time – 5-15 minutes.  Always maintaining a neutral spine, increase your tolerance gradually.

  • Once home, short walks for ten minutes in your house every few hours is advised.  As you tolerate these short walks, take longer walks outside.  You should recover from any increased pain overnight.

  • If you are experiencing a new pain or new weakness

  • If you have a fever

  • If you experience severe headache

  • If you lose control of your bowel or bladder function

  • If you experience new or increased redness, swelling, or draining from your incision.

When can you return to work?

Depending on the individual, some patients return to light work in about two weeks with a gradual increase as tolerated.  Those with more strenuous jobs (including prolonged sitting) may require more time.

How long will it take to heal from surgery involving removal of a herniated disc?

The incision and muscles heal quickly, with the incision usually closed by 2 weeks and healed by 4 weeks.  The muscles may be swollen, stiff and painful for 6-8 weeks.  The disc will be gradually strengthened over 2-6 months.

How long will it take for a fusion to heal?

Low back fusions take an average of 6-12 months to become solid. Neck fusions are usually healed by 3-6 months. Continue the process in small increasing increments.

  • Do not resume your exercise regimen (other than walking) until you have had your follow-up visit with your surgeon for further instruction.

  • Pain medications are the leading cause of constipation after surgery, so treat constipation aggressively, and reduce your pain medications as quickly as possible.

  • Avoid car travel for 2-4 weeks after surgery unless it is essential (travel from the hospital or to a doctor’s appointment).

What about sleeping?

  • Use the log-rolling technique to turn in and get out of bed.  The goal is to avoid twisting the spine – move your body as one unit.

  • Most people have a preferred position in which they spend most of the night. Set up your bed to provide maximum support for this position.

    • If you sleep primarily on your back, place a cylinder roll or pillow under your neck and a flat pillow under your head so the overall alignment of the neck and spine is neutral.

    • If you sleep on your side, place a larger pillow under your neck and a smaller pillow under your head so the overall neck alignment is straight rather than curved.

  • A water pillow usually provides the best spine alignment.

When is it time to call your physician?

  • If you have marked increase in your pain for more than two days