Question: What is the Average Spinal Fusion Recovery Time?
Answer: It varies widely, but you can expect the early stages of healing to last at least 6-8 weeks. However, it can take anywhere from 6 months to a year (or longer) for your bones to completely fuse.
Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find a broad range of answers to this question. Some sources say that you could be fully recovered (with fused bones and everything!) as early as 3 months. Others say it can take a year – or worse, that you should expect to never fully recover from a spinal fusion.
Talk to 100 people who’ve had a spinal fusion, and you’ll get 100 different answers about how long recovery takes. So many factors are involved: How many levels did you have fused? What was the severity of your condition before your fusion? Do you have chronic and/or coexisting conditions?
Then factor in your adherence to doctor’s orders. Your pain tolerance. Your willingness to withstand inactivity (i.e., to just REST), and the amount of help you have from caregivers. Personally, I was pretty comfortable with resting and taking the healing process slowly. But, say, if my husband had been the one to have the fusion, I can almost guarantee that he’d have been up & exercising within days. Even if we’d had the exact same procedure, his recovery experience might have been vastly different than mine.
But here’s what I can tell you. I consider myself a pretty average lumbar fusion patient. I had a two-level fusion (L4-S1) with no complications at age 41. And it took me about a year to recover. Scans from around one year post-op show that my bones have in fact fused.
I’ve written a pretty detailed description of my first 5 months of recovery, if you’re interested. But the short version is that around 6 weeks post-op, I started feeling human again. I was up and about. I could do most of my activities of daily living without assistance. I’d stopped taking daytime pain meds, so I was alert and thinking clearly. I could drive and do the laundry.
But at the same time, look at this photo of me at 8 weeks post-op. See how I’m sort of bent over? That’s because 8 weeks after my lumbar fusion, I still wasn’t strong enough to stand up straight for extended periods of time. I was improving every day, but recovered? Nah. I’m pretty sure the definition of complete recovery would at least include standing up straight.
The key thing to remember is that spinal fusion recovery isn’t linear. I improved steadily for the first 6 months or so, but then I had some setbacks. It took me a couple of months to get back on track. I finally started to feel recovered and adjusted to my new normal around the one year mark.
But I also want to mention that in some ways, I still feel like I’m “recovering” at 2+ years post-op. I’ll notice little improvements, like that it’s gotten a bit easier to shave my legs, or that I’ll bounce back more quickly after a bad back day. And yes, I also notice little setbacks along the way too. For example, right now I seem to tire more easily than a few months ago. It’s not the type of exhaustion that I experienced early on in my recovery, but there’s a marked difference in my energy level. I don’t know if it’s related to my fusion, but it’s definitely impacting my motivation to exercise and stay active, which is an important part of keeping my spine healthy.
If you’ve already had a spinal fusion, how long did it take you to feel recovered? Was your experience similar to mine? Let me know in the comments.