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.
[Click to read a detailed account of my personal spinal fusion recovery timeline.]
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.
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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.
Kristopher Jones says
I am so happy to have found your website tonight! I ordered a TENS/EMS unit today and was searching about use and benefits post lumbar fusion and stumbled here.
I am about a week shy of 3 years post L5-S1 fusion. I was 55, now going on 58. I’ve always been active, fit and healthy. I started PT about 6 weeks post-op. My back responded immediately with the worst spasms I’ve ever had. Felt like I was being tased. It took the better part of two months, and two 10-day tapers of steroids to calm things down. I started PT again just a few weeks before COVID put an end to that.
My recovery was prolonged by spasms and circumstances. About a year later I hit the wall. Absolutely, completely, utterly exhausted. Bone tired. Sleeping 2-3 hours every day and another 8-10 at night. It still wasn’t enough. Went to several docs and was tested for everything you could imagine… blood, sleep, cardiology, brain scan… every test came back 100% fine.
I slowly emerged from that period but it never occurred to me that my fusion and this exhaustion were related… it had been over a year! Thanks to you, maybe I understand that differently.
I’m now almost three years on. We’ve had some adventures but a bad old right knee and a recently torn left meniscus (which has been successfully repaired) have slowed my full recovery. Ironically, it was the PT for my left knee surgery that re-aggravated my back again.
I’m not done yet! Many more adventures ahead! Hoping that this TENS/EMS unit will help. For me it’s been a long road but my new normal WILL be better than it has been.
Thank you for sharing your experience and giving us “fusion warriors” a place to share ours. Much love. K
Thank you for sharing so much of your journey. I am looking at a spinal fusion in 12 days. The reality is sinking in and I am getting nervous. I think I just wonder also what kind of procedure you had, and any of the others visiting this site. I know there is also a big difference between open back surgery, Minimally invasive surgery, even which way they went in. There is TLIF, ALIF, PLIF etc…. there is also the use of the ultrasound tool that cuts bones but won’t damage nerves, the difference between a laminectomy where they have to take a piece of your spine out in order to visualize disk and foramen. I know that MISS ( minimally invasive), is less painful than full open back for example. Then lastly, in comparison to how you were before the surgery, is even the recovery ( past the initial horribleness) better that the pain before the surgery?
JoAnn Howes says
I had a t10 to sacrum1 fusion surgery 4 1/2 months ago. They corrected a scoliosis s curve that was around 40 degrees and did osteotomies on all my lumbar vertebrae to correct for a flat back. There was an awful lot wrong with my back and the pain was worsening considerably. I’m 59 years old. I want to tell you something that might help. The 1st 2 weeks are filled w ridiculous amounts of pain and discomfort. I was getting 80 mgs of Percocet a day and that helped A LOT. Don’t even think of scaling back your pain meds until your doc tells you. Here’s the thing: you start to feel discernibly better after the first month. And your progress picks up speed. I’m a very impatient person in general. My husband reminds me of how far I’ve come and that helps me calm down. So, basically this really sucks. But my experience of getting 2 rods and 20 screws implanted in my spine is that you start feeling human around 3 months and get better every day. Good luck!
I had my T1-T5 fused (10 screws, 10 bolts, 10 rods) with open back surgery after a failed kyphoplasty 4 months before ( the first spine doctor misdiagnosed the severity of my T3 burst fracture) then released me with no restrictions. I was not improving and in insane amounts of pain, I went for a second option to find out the kyphoplasty failed and I was still broken. I’m still in incredible amounts of pain and am 8 weeks post surgery. The post surgical pain is worse then the broken vertebrae (which is really saying something – before the surgery I couldn’t stand more then 5-10 minutes without crying). My recommendation would be getting multiple options to make sure your getting the right surgery the first time and get it as quickly as possible. The longer you wait the more mentally you get broken down from living in pain and your body is getting weaker. I can feel my hardware and it creeps me out and I get major muscle spasms around it 24/7 – I will have to get it removed once everything is fused properly. The surgery left me feeling worse then better (I hope that is not the case for you) but the more strength you have the better. I’m 34 and was extremely active. The broken vertebrae pain is gone so the fusion did stabilize the break so hopefully I might see some more improvement until they are able to remove the hardware.
Matt Noah says
I have had 4 back surgeries and 6 leg surgeries. I’ve had 4 spinal cord stimulator (SCS) trials and failed each, i.e. Medtronic, Boston Scientific, Abbott Burst and Nevro. I now have 3 peripheral nerve stimulator (PNS) implants; all Bioness StimRouters.
I started with a simple L4/L5 microdiscectomy which helped my lumbar pain but increased my right leg pain. The second surgery started out as a laminectomy but ended up being an L4/L5 fusion. That was a disaster and 11 months later that hardware was removed and I had an L3/L4/L5 fusion. That increased my lumbar pain, increased my right leg pain 3-5 times and, for the first time, had introduced lower left leg pain. My last back surgery was an L5/S1 fusion which did no further damage. So, I am fused L3/S1.
The left leg pain was the result of improper surgical table placement. It is purely avoidable. I am looking into a lawsuit.
I got some relief from a common peroneal nerve decompression surgery. Two superficial peroneal nerve surgeries and 1 deep peroneal nerve surgery failed to improve my left foot and ankle pain.
I am now permanently disabled and drawing social security disability payments and, thankfully, supplemental payments from a private life and disability insurance policy my wife and I purchased 20 years ago.
I’m the father of seven children, 3 of whom are still at home.
Don’t let anyone operate on your back unless they are extremely proficient. Do your homework. My most recent surgeries have been at Stanford University neurosurgery and pain clinics. My surgeons act as a team, talk about my case and move forward in unison. Anand Veeravagu is my back surgeon. Thomas Wilson is my peripheral nerve surgeon. Einar Ottestad is my pain physician and, I believe, is the top pain physician in the world.
My next step is a pain pump trial.
Matt Tobias says
Today was my surgery day. L4-L5 fusion. As I sit and read this blog, I feel great. I have been out of bed three times already. The last one was for a whole lap around the floor. So far I haven’t needed pain meds but feel that time will come. I’m ready to start the healing journey and appreciate everyone’s posts
Chandra Bowerman says
How are you doing about a month out. I’m due for fusion on the 23rd and I’m petrified.
Tasha Becker says
I am a 46 year old female runner with degenerative disc disease. I was hospitalized for 7 days when I had L4-5 fusion Oct 17 2016 and complications warranted a second discectomy surgery 5 days later for impingement of L4 nerve root at the exit of spinal column, causing permanent nerve damage to my left leg. My recovery was long and torturous, to the point I almost considered suicide a viable option. I walked with a cane until September 2018 and did not return to work for 9 mos post surgery. I am a table games dealer in Las Vegas and feared I might not be able to return at all. In Oct 2018 I opted for a Boston scientific spinal cord stimulator device to be implanted in order to suppress the unrelenting nerve pain from destroying my life because pain meds make me severely ill. I started walking my neighhood in March 2019 and slowly built up stamina… literally learning to walk again without a cane or walker. I am running 25-30 miles a week again today. I NEVER imagined in those early mos of rehab and physical therapy and sleepless nights of treacherous nerve pain that this could have been possible… I wouldn’t have taken that bet in a million years. BUT I’m proof it’s possible! I’m coming up on 4 yrs post op and also in the last 2 years I had both my shoulders repaired from 26 yrs of being a casino dealer. So life has taken a long journey sideways to get back to “normal”, but I want to tell anyone out there that’s wondering what NORMAL looks like… it’s not really definable because I believe it’s an ongoing process for us all. Stay strong and don’t give up hope.
Barbara Amendola says
Hi John, I’m on 2 1/2 years postop from an L4 L5 fusion. And it is so true everybody’s recovery is very different. I still do my physical therapy exercises today, I can say I am 95% healed and can do almost anything I did prior to my surgery. They were times I was discouraged because it was very very slow, but persistency prevailed. I had a really good Physical therapist who really helped me with increasing my exercise in changing them as needed. I’d say be kind to yourself, and really listen to your body.
A. John Derrig says
I am 12.5 wks post-op from min invasive L4-L5 fusion. I am 65 and went into surgery in good or v good physical condition. I was surprised to learn that I could not do much physical exertion other than walk and self care. Every time I tried, I paid the price with recurring pain, so I got the message and relaxed. My walking program has been a challenge. I feel mildly fatigued after a 1 or 2 mile walk. My posture is/was immediately better after surgery but I experienced some pain in hip muscles which I attribute to improved posture geometry. I have felt that I am not benefiting much from training effect but after reviewing content on your web page I guess that my day to day experiences are normal or to be expected. Last year(s) i was logging 4,000 to 10,000 steps per day with stair climbing as an aerospace engineer so I expected less fatigue. I must say my care team did not offer much coaching on this topic, PT, but now I feel better after seeing your site.
Mary Jo Cunningham says
Just wondering how you’re doing because it’s been that same year I had the same surgery? Recovery for me is still hard my one year-old be in May 15,
Thanks Mary Jo
Susan Hedged says
I am 9 months out from a L2-3-4-5-S1 fusion. 10 years ago I had the more common L-5/S-1. A few months ago I noticed but ignored a hard bump next to the L2-3, or the top . Now the hard bump is more noticeable and I have pain on the right side, but left side is finally good. 2 days ago X-rays showed that the hardware was sticking out on the right side and is the hard bump. It has moved from the original position. A callous has formed because it catches/rubs when I sit on a wooden chair.
What should I do? “ Wait and see how much more it shifts?” Get a second opinion? I was told I’m a slender lady and don’t have the tissue to soften the hardness of the bump. Would a plastic surgeon help? Would it be better to remove that hardware?
Thanks for responding! I’m kind of upset. The surgeon’s assistant said very little. I go back in 3 months for the annual…
Sharon Wilhelm says
After everything you had to go through, to have your hardware sticking out…ughhh. If I was in your position, I think I’d look into having the hardware removed? I don’t know much about hardware removal, but I do remember my surgeon telling me that it was a much easier procedure than the fusion itself…although of course it still involves surgery, so that stinks. I’ll see if I can dig up any more info about hardware removal…
It has been so beneficial to me to be able to read your blog and compare notes on our spinal surgeries. This is my second spinal fusion. My first was about 13 years ago having my L5-S1 fused. This time my L3-L5. My first surgery years ago was a huge success. Of course I was younger then, I’m now 52. I always have and still lead a very active life. I am a rancher/cowgirl. I spend hours and hours a day horse back. Of course all my work is very labor intensive, which is probably the cause of needing this second fusion. The wear and tear on the above vertebra finally took it’s toll on me. I had severe spinal stenosis along with degenerative discs and torn ligaments even some bony fragments near my spinal cord. I hadn’t had a fall, or not a fall that specifically injured my back in the 13 years. I did, however, get bucked off a few years ago, I suppose that could have been a contributing factor. Any how, they say if you’ve had a fusion the chances of repeat fusions are quite likely. (sorry to give you that news, if you hadn’t already heard it.)
I am now at 3 and a half months post-op. I am feeling good and moving well. I follow your blog at each stage of recovery, especially if I have a unique problem or feeling that something may not be right. It’s always the fear of, “did I do too much? Have I damaged something? etc..”. I just had my 3 month check up and the X-rays look good. I feel so much better than before the surgery. I was in a lot of pain and had numbness in my legs. Walking was even difficult. Now I am walking 3 to 4 miles a day. I start pool exercises tomorrow. I have been doing some stretching, but may have over stretched somewhat, as my left hip hurts. Not the nerve pain that I occasionally have, but like a tendon, which isn’t uncommon in my history of aches and pains. I am hoping when I can get to Physical therapy it will help resolve the issue.
I know it is a long long road of recovery. The last time I was not allowed to ride a horse for 18 months. I am at the point now of trying to regain some abdominal strength, without over doing it. I believe that’s a fine line. Any ideas on specific exercises or stretches would be helpful. My dr’s office isn’t great on giving me the specifics. You know, just another number, a statistic if you will. That’s why we need to stick together. I am glad to hear that your surgery was a success. I think most are. But if you look up blogs, fb pages etc of people who have had a spinal fusion, it seems they are mostly people who have had trouble. Those people I feel very badly for. So finding your blog was a God send. You’ve had some ups and downs, and still gaining ground. Stay strong and positive. I believe a positive attitude is a huge part of a full recovery.
Sorry to be so long winded. Just know I appreciate you.
Sharon Wilhelm says
Hi Tana! Thanks for your message. I hope you’ve continued to see improvement over the last few weeks. Have you come across https://fitness4backpain.com/ yet? He’s been a great resource for me and other people recovering from spinal fusions.
Chris Pisarcik says
Hello Stephanie, I’ve looked at your u tube videos a few times and thought I would contact you. I am 9 months post L4/5 and S1 Spinal fusion. I wasn’t sure I could relate to you because I’m so much older. I started PT at 3 months, minimal movements and back brace for 3 months were Dr orders. Walking only and that was super hard even in the driveway at 8 weeks. I wonder if like me, you have scoured the internet for success stories?
I became obsessed at month 3 and 4 because I just wanted to see more improvements. It wasn’t the pain, it was the lack of comfort if that makes sense. PT was great and very simple movements. Prior to surgery I was a 4 day a week swimmer, 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile. 7 years of back pain and doing everything but take narcotics, wasn’t going there. I had to stop swimming because of the pain.
I feel my surgery was a success. This was the first holiday in 5 years I could stand in my kitchen and make a big dinner for my family.
Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day, I need a heating pad and my bed. I know I will never be 100%.
I still have some numbness and nerve pain. The good news finally is it’s better after a night sleep.
I totally screwed up after Thanksgiving, got in the pool, felt so exhilarating that I swam a slow 36 laps. Set me back for 10: days. Pain was not fun.
I wonder if you can suggest how to get back….. it’s the New year…I am moving around well but want to get back to swimming . PT says start with 10 laps, not 36….I was a pretty fit 63 year old, ow I feel like a couch potato and it’s all fear of set backs.
What do you recommend?
My surgeons say go ahead but be careful. Bones can still be fusing at 18 months. Do you think a Yoga is out of the question?
I admire you
How are you these days? I really admire you for putting yourself out there. Are you feeling better?
BARBARA AMENDOLA says
Hi Stephanie, although I am only a few weeks away from my two year post op mark. I can vividly remember what the first two months of my recovery was like after my back surgery (a fusion of my L4 and L5).
Between weeks four and six I was still having help putting my shoes on and getting dressed. Going for a walk was slow, frustrating at times, and often painful. Sleeping was pretty miserable because I couldn’t get comfortable and changing positions was a lot of work. I continued to take my pain medicines for the first two months, because my doctor recommended that because he said I might go backwards if pain starts to keep me couch bound. Well I hated taking the medicine it was the only way I could go for my daily walks.
Every case is extremely different, but it is good that we can all share our experiences, As long as we realize our path may be different.
That being said, I was in pain for the first six months, but after the three months mark I was able to exercise and stretch more which helped lessen my pain. I still go to physical therapy once a week, because I am committed to getting back to the full flexibility I had before my surgery, and my physical therapist is so amazing she’s committed to helping achieve this goal.
I wish you the best, and for a speedy recovery.
Stephanie Cobb says
I’m just at 5 weeks post – op and still have pain. Like you – I have the most pain in my left hip, buttock and calf. And like you preoperatively – my pain was right sided. I am not using my walker unless the pain is bad. I don’t rest in bed because I am not as comfortable in bed. Sitting is not fun either but I shift my position frequently. I do have lower back pain – but feel that is just normal surgical pain and so far completely bearable. I’m still taking my pain meds on a regular basis – just so I can move. And it’s totally for my left leg pain which I assume is nerve pain. I do walk outside but not as much as I’d like.
It was very appreciated to read about your recovery in weekly increments. Made me feel not alone. Thankyou
Ashley Williams says
For me, I recovered from the surgery itself quickly over the first 4-6 weeks. After a couple weeks, I was doing basic tasks around the house, much more than expected. I believe I started working from home after the first month, but waited until 2 months before returning to driving to and sitting at the office. I feel like I was rapidly and steadily improving a lot for the first few months, but definitely plateaued after that which was a bit discouraging. The improvement from this point was definitely gradual, but absolutely there.
I decided, after probably 6 months, that the surgery was worthwhile and that I was stronger and in less pain than I was before it. Around 7 months, I traveled to France and did awesome – in fact, the extra walking even helped me feel at my best! Once I hit the one year mark, it’s been harder to see the improvements. I have “good weeks” where I’m hardly noticing the pain and “bad weeks” where it is a lot more front of mind. But overall, it effects my life so much less, and those that don’t know what I went through would never be able to tell by my strength and abilities.
I’m now at 1.5 years and definitely feeling a continual frustration of hoping that it isn’t as good as it is going to get. I know I’m much stronger and I feel as “recovered” as I may ever, but some pain is still there. I still take a light pain pill most days, and haven’t reached the point of feeling ready to get pregnant and have small kids. I’m praying that I continue to improve and definitely needing to be more diligent about physical therapy!
Barbara Amendola says
Sharon, as I’m sitting on the couch this morning Feeling so exhausted and tired of doing exercises every day to strengthen my back. It helped me when I read your latest blog. Especially this section, “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.”
I’m almost at one year post up and I’ve been thinking to myself why am I so tired lately and why do I just not have motivation to do these exercises every day. Yet when I go to every other day or every third day doing my exercises, I have setbacks and my muscles tighten up, especially my legs and lower back. It was comforting to know that you are still have setback, makes me stop thinking- what is wrong with you…suck it up, but I’ve never had exhaustion in my life as I have had since my back surgery. The doctor did tell me he could really take up to a few years to fully recover, especially because I had complications with my surgery. Sometimes it’s just exhausting to fit the exercising into your life. However, as you mentioned, it’s very important to exercise to keep our back’s healthy.
I’ve given myself a little siesta this week, and next week I’ll pick it back up again. Thank you for always encouraging me and others who have had back surgery.