How Long Does It Take to Recover from Back Surgery?

At GPOA in Pittsburgh, PA, we have years of experience performing back surgery to correct stenosis, herniated discs, VCFs, and arthritis of the spine. While each procedure is unique, the recovery timeline is fairly standard.

How Long Does Back Surgery Recovery Take? 

The duration of your back surgery recovery depends on several factors, including the type of back problem being corrected, the type of procedure used to correct the problem, the extent of the procedure, and how well you follow pre-op and post-op instructions.

If all or part of one of your discs was removed, your recovery will be over in about two to three weeks. This timeline also holds true if your back was widened at your spinal column where your nerve roots exited. However, if you had multiple laminae removed or two of your bones were fused together, your recovery will take between one and six months, depending on your age.

What Can I Do to Speed My Recovery? 

To speed your recovery, you must follow all pre-op and post-op instructions. During your initial evaluation, one of our spine experts will evaluate your condition and tailor a correction plan for your unique needs. Furthermore, he will also provide you with a comprehensive list of pre-op and post-op care instructions.

Pre-Op Instructions

In the six weeks leading up to your back surgery, you must not consume alcohol or tobacco products. Having any trace of these products in your bloodstream can affect the way your body reacts to general anesthesia and will complicate the procedure. Furthermore, these products elevate your blood pressure, making it harder for nutrients to circulate through your body.

In the two weeks leading up to your procedure, you must stop taking any drugs or supplements that can thin your blood, such as fish oil supplements and aspirin. In the week leading up to your procedure, drink between half a gallon and a full gallon of water daily, eat lots of lean protein and colorful vegetables, and sleep as much as you can.

Post-Op Instructions

The most important thing you can do after your back surgery is to rest. Whether you are given local anesthesia and sedation or general anesthesia, there is a good chance you will feel drowsy post-op. As anxious as you may be to get back to your daily routine, you must make resting your top priority.

Since drowsiness is a potential side effect of sedation and anesthesia, you must arrange for someone to drive you home after your procedure. We strongly recommend that this person watches you for the first 24 hours post-op. During the first 24 hours after your procedure, your priorities should be staying hydrated, resting, relaxing, and eating when you’re hungry.

Performing Range of Motion Exercises

The most important thing to note is that you should be performing exercises to improve your range of motion. Before your procedure, we will connect you with a licensed physical therapist who specializes in spine surgery recovery.

Depending on whether your procedure focused on the upper or lower part of your spine, you will be guided through range of motion exercises that focus on improving the range of motion (ROM) of your arms or legs. If your procedure affected your upper and lower spine, you will be taught both types of ROM exercises. These should be performed regularly throughout your recovery.

Walking

Walking is another incredibly important part of any post-op recovery plan. Walking strengthens your circulatory system, helping your bloodstream transport growth factors and nutrients to your spine and surrounding tissues. While it’s always important to listen to your body, don’t skip your post-op walks because you don’t feel like doing them.

As comfortable as your chair or bed may be, regular short walks during the first two weeks post-op are crucial to your recovery. If you led a highly active lifestyle before your illness or accident, you may be tempted to push yourself too hard. This should also be avoided. Don’t start increasing your distance or speed until 15 days post-op.

Sitting Carefully

Avoid the temptation of sitting in your softest chair for hours on end. While rest is important, your recovery will end sooner if you sit and walk appropriately. Sit in a sturdy chair with arms and make sure your posture is correct. This means you should be able to hang an imaginary string from the base of your skull down to your pelvis.

If you’re not sure of the posture you should be sitting in, ask your physical therapist. Shift your position every once in a while but make sure you don’t twist your spine while moving in your seat. To keep your circulatory system actively engaged, perform seated toe raises, and get up every 30 to 45 minutes to take a short stroll or nap.

Sleeping Enough

We cannot emphasize enough how important adequate sleep is to recovering from a spine correction procedure. Shoot for a minimum of nine hours of sleep per night if you are between the ages of 18 and 55. If you are over 55, try to get nine hours of sleep per night and take a 90-minute nap before lunch or dinner.

Regardless of your age, you should sleep without an alarm clock. As long as there are no external stimuli to wake you up, like birds tweeting or sun shining in through your window, your brain will naturally cycle through all three phases of sleep. It is during the REM phase of sleep that most of your post-op healing occurs. Don’t worry about alarms until you go back to work.

Sleeping Properly

Sleeping in the proper position is another important part of recovering from your spine correction procedure quickly. If you usually sleep on your back, place pillows beneath your knees and head to keep your spine in proper alignment. If you usually sleep on your side, place pillows between your knees and under your head.

If you tend to toss and turn in your sleep, sleep in a recliner during the first two weeks after your procedure. If you don’t have a recliner, roll bath towels up tightly and place them firmly against your sides to prevent you from rolling around in your sleep. We recommend sleeping in the appropriate position for a couple of weeks pre-op to get used to the way it feels.

Eating Nutrient-Dense Foods

Sticking to a solid nutrition plan will also speed along your recovery process. The spine procedures we perform are so non-invasive that you don’t have to focus too much on nutrition for your skin. However, you should incorporate plenty of bioavailable protein and calcium in your diet to provide essential nutrition to your bones and muscles.

Luckily, excellent sources of calcium usually also include lots of bioavailable protein. Examples of such foods and beverages include milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs. Fortified cereals are also high in calcium but are not usually high in bioavailable protein. Other sources of bioavailable protein include: 

  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Black beans
  • Peas
  • Chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Nut butters

Avoiding Unhealthy Foods

Another important thing you must do to speed along your recovery process is to avoid unhealthy foods and beverages. You already know that you must abstain from alcohol for six weeks post-op. However, you must also avoid drinking sugary drinks and eating processed foods that are dense with quick carbs.

Processed foods, especially those that contain quick carbs and trans fats, can trigger an immune system response that slows your body’s healing process drastically. Avoid the temptation of a glass of orange juice or heavily processed breakfast bar for the first 14 days after your procedure.

Meditating

You may be wondering what meditation has to do with the length of your recovery. Meditation is one of the safest, most effective methods for relieving stress. Keeping your stress to a minimum is absolutely crucial to a speedy recovery because stress slows your body’s healing process.

If you’ve never meditated before, you may be overwhelmed by the seemingly conflicting information online. We’ll try to simplify it for you. It doesn’t matter which method or methods you choose: what matters is that you regularly implement a technique that works for you. If you start to feel stressed, acknowledge your feelings. Then, meditate until you feel better.

Managing Discomfort

Discomfort stresses your body and slows your recovery process. You shouldn’t expect any pain shortly after your procedure due to the anesthetic used. However, to mitigate your risk of discomfort after your physical therapy sessions, take acetaminophen, a muscle relaxant, or a prescribed opioid 45 minutes before a PT session.

Do not take a prescription narcotic for over three months post-op, and do not take an NSAID, like ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen for three to six months post-op. If you feel the need to continue taking prescription pain medications, let us know during your post-op follow-up. We will develop a plan to ensure your continued comfort.

Hydrating

Staying hydrated is another critical post-op step you must take to speed up your recovery. If you’re even 1% dehydrated, you will extend your recovery time. To ensure that you are hydrated, check the color of your urine. If it is not translucent, it should be extremely pale. If you are taking vitamin B supplements, it may be bright, but it should not be odorous.

Remember, you should be drinking between half a gallon and a full gallon of water daily in the weeks leading up to your procedure. Continue drinking this much water, coffee, and tea in the two weeks following your procedure for the fastest possible recovery. If you have trouble drinking this much liquid, eat water-dense foods, like soups, broths, and vegetables.

Easing Into Your Daily Routine

At around six weeks post-op, you will be ready to start easing into your usual routine. For example, you can start lifting objects that are heavier than a gallon of milk, like the laundry, your pet, or your child. You can also have sex as long as you stick with positions that do not strain your back. If you have any questions about safe activities, ask your physical therapist.

Schedule Your Initial Consultation Today

On average, back surgery recovery takes 12 weeks. However, it can take up to six months for your back to fully heal, depending on the correction. To learn more about what you can do to speed up recovery, please contact us today at GPOA in Pittsburgh, PA. The greater Pittsburgh area trusts us for their orthopedic needs. Come see why you can trust us, too.

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