Spinal Fusion: What to Expect During the Recovery Process

Spinal fusion is a “surgical procedure used to correct problems with the small bones in the spine (vertebrae). It is essentially a ‘welding’ process.” But what happens when your body goes through a spinal fusion? Read below to learn about the recovery from spinal fusion surgery. 

Pain Control After Spinal Fusion

The level of pain you will experience after surgery depends on the location of the spinal fusion. The rating of pain can run from none to discomfort to more pain. However, most people experience very little pain after their fusion, and describe the skin incision as the most uncomfortable part of the procedure. Many patients wake up to find relief from their pain issue whether radiating down legs for lumbar (low back) fusion, or arms with cervical (neck) fusion. If you find that you are having heavy pain, it is important to alert your doctor.

Your surgeon can provide you with many strategies for managing your post-surgical pain. These approaches may include:

  • IV pain medication while in the hospital
  • Oral pain medications prescribed to take after you get home
  • Pain “ball” or pump: a disposable device that is worn on the outside of the body. It slowly infuses pain medication to the surgery site using a flexible plastic line that enters the body through the incision.

Incision Care After Spinal Fusion Surgery

Depending on the type of surgery you had, your incision may be large or tiny. To care for your incision after spinal fusion, follow your surgeon’s directions. Typically, to care for an incision after surgery, your doctor may tell you to:

  • Allow any Steri-Strips (small adhesive tapes across the incision) to fall off on their own or remove them after 10 days. It is important to be incredibly careful here.
  • Avoid soaking in water.
  • Gently clean the incision as directed.
  • Watch for signs of infection.

If you follow your written post-op instructions, your incision likely will heal well. Please do not take any measures without speaking to your doctor directly.

Prepare for Post-Fusion Bracing

Whether you have spinal fusion surgery in the neck or the lower back, you will likely be fitted with a brace that restricts your movement. These braces, in many cases, especially with neck procedures, must be worn 24 hours a day, including during sleep and showering. It is important to go over the bracing instructions with the nurse or surgeon. Never remove the brace, unless you are instructed to, under any circumstances.

Activity Restrictions After Spinal Fusion Surgery

Your post-operative instructions given to you by your surgeon and medical team should detail which activities you can and cannot engage in. These activity restrictions will vary depending on the location of the surgery. Some general things your doctor may advise you on:

  • Avoid bending or twisting motions at the level of the surgery for several weeks
  • Avoid lifting and carrying objects that exceed the weight limitation issued by your surgeon.
  • Avoid sexual activity until cleared by your doctor.
  • Avoid stairs until cleared by your doctor.
  • Avoid strenuous activities of any kind (golfing, tennis, home improvement tasks, etc.).
  • Walk frequently, to the limit prescribed by your surgeon.
  • Wear your brace as instructed.

If you follow all your surgeon’s instructions, you can, in all liklihood, expect a smooth spinal fusion recovery. It should relieve your back pain and any previous numbness or tingling, as well as save you from any future nerve damage. Many people find that this surgery improves their quality of life and gives them another chance to live life to it’s fullest!

Learn More About Spinal Fusion

At the National Spine Health Foundation, we know that having spinal surgery can be scary, but it is important to us that you have all the information you need. Take the journey to overcome your pain today.