People say that recovering from a spinal fusion takes a “long” time. But what does that even mean?
Spinal Fusion Recovery (the Surgeon’s Version)
I went into surgery knowing basically nothing about what my recovery would be like. I knew that the first two weeks would be “hard,” but I had no idea what that actually meant.
My husband and I disagree a bit on this point. He feels that my surgeon was clear about what to expect – that the days following my surgery would hurt like hell, that it would take 6-12 months for my bones to fully fuse, and that I would make a full recovery, minus the limitations inherent to having a fused spine (certain yoga poses, backbends, etc).
He also recalls hearing that I wouldn’t be cleared for certain activities (running, in particular) until it was confirmed that my bones had successfully fused.
Funny, isn’t it, how two people can be in the same room and hear two completely different things?
In my case, I suspect it was primarily a matter of hearing only what I wanted to hear. My brain needed to make it less scary for me.
So here’s what I heard about my spinal fusion recovery: that the first two weeks would be hard, that I was expected to make a complete recovery (and would be able to run & practice yoga), and that recovery would take about six weeks.
Excuse me while I snort-laugh.
This is what I looked like at about 6 weeks post-op
Sure, I was up and about. But look at me – I couldn’t even stand up straight at that point.
Ignorance Is Not Bliss (Or Smart)
While planning for surgery, I did very little research about my procedure. This was intentional – I knew that the more I read, the more likely I was to freak myself out, perhaps to the point of backing out of the surgery. (I would NOT recommend doing this – obviously you need all the info you can get in order to make informed medical choices.)
I did read through a couple of blogs where people journaled about their spinal fusion experience. But to be honest, I glossed over posts about their early recovery and instead focused on the parts where they talked about feeling good and life being back to normal.
So in May 2016, when they wheeled me off to the OR, I knew next to nothing about what to expect.
It didn’t take me long to realize what a mistake this had been. I was completely unprepared for the pain, for the limitations that I would face in early recovery, and for how much care my husband would have to provide (it took me weeks before I could put on my own socks).
I didn’t know anything about the medications that are commonly prescribed in the US (this varies widely in different countries & health care systems) after a fusion. I didn’t know that pain management, both in & out of the hospital, would largely be my responsibility – I learned the hard way that no one would give me more meds unless I asked for them.
I learned a lot the hard way those first few days.
And then I did what I’d avoided so diligently before surgery – I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I read articles. I scoured forums. I searched for hashtags. And at first, I did exactly what I’d been afraid of – I scared myself to death. There was just SO MUCH that I didn’t know.
Spinal Fusion Recovery (the Patient’s Version)
Eventually I scaled back my widespread panic. I educated myself. I found a few sources that I could trust. I learned to differentiate between the norm and anecdotal horror stories.
And what I learned is that it does NOT take just six weeks to recover from a spinal fusion. “Six weeks” is often cited as the length of time post-op when people start feeling like themselves again. But it most certainly does not mark the end of the recovery period. Not even close.
Recovery from a spinal fusion takes months, not weeks. It may, in fact, take a year for your bones to fully fuse.
Did you hear that, you guys? A YEAR. This surgery is no joke.
I also didn’t know that there was a pretty decent chance that I’d still have back pain after surgery.
If you had chronic back pain before surgery, you will likely still have some pain afterward. Spinal fusion is unlikely to take away all your pain and other symptoms…Future spine problems are possible after spine surgery. After spinal fusion, the area that was fused together can no longer move. Therefore, the spinal column above and below the fusion are more likely to be stressed when the spine moves, and may have problems later on. source
This is really important. A spinal fusion might not take away your back pain. If, as in my case, you have spondylolisthesis, a fusion may be necessary to stabilize your spine. It will hopefully reduce your pain, especially pain related to nerve compression and/or impingement. But you should not expect it to completely eliminate your back pain. And unfortunately, you need to be prepared for new pain in the joints adjacent to your fusion.
This certainly isn’t the case for everyone. It seems to correlate with multi-level fusions – the longer the fusion, the more likely you are to experience pain in your adjacent joints.
I had a two-level fusion – L4-L5 and L5-S1. And since about 7 months post-op, I’ve been experiencing episodic pain in my adjacent joints. I’m almost positive that my flare-up back in December & January was related to inflammation in L3. That cleared up, but now I have inflammation in my SI (sacroiliac) joint, which is causing pain in my left lower back.
Physical Therapy + Spinal Fusion Recovery
I finally caved and started physical therapy two weeks ago. My sessions consist of TENS therapy, Sacroiliac Joint Manipulation, and a series of exercises (any exercise that causes me pain is taken out of the rotation, which doesn’t leave a lot of options). I’m also following instructions and doing my PT exercises at home.
I’ve had 3 sessions so far, and unfortunately my PT and I haven’t seen any improvement. If my pain remains the same or worsens by my fourth appointment (next week), I’m going to have to see my doctor again to discuss my other treatment options.
I’m not sure what the next step will be. But I am quite sure that I’m better off than I was before my surgery. Even with this ridiculously long recovery period and ongoing back pain, I’d still do it again. And as of right now, I still consider my spinal fusion to be a success.
Thanks for reading – I’ll keep you all posted.