Question: I’m exhausted! Is it normal to feel this tired while recovering from my spinal fusion?
Answer: Yes! It’s quite common to feel completely exhausted in the weeks and months following your spinal fusion.
I was reminded of this question when I happened to glance at list of Google searches that lead people to this site. The query was, “why am I exhausted 4 months after lumbar fusion.” It caught my attention because I went searching for answers to this exact question at 4 month post-op. At the time, I was reassured by my online support community that my experience was normal, so I want to do the same for you.
The first time I noticed my extreme exhaustion was probably around 2 weeks post-op. I’d spent the first 11 or 12 days mostly in bed, and while I did sleep a lot, I assumed it was because of the pain meds. Up to that point, I’d “exercised” by shuffling around my bedroom and lumbering up and down the stairs in my house. But by about 2 weeks, I was ready to get outside and get some real exercise. My husband and I went for a very short walk, up and down a portion of my street. It was maybe about .10 mile. Afterwards, I went straight upstairs, collapsed on my bed, and slept for 2 hours. I’m a young(ish), active, marathon runner, and yet I was utterly depleted after barely more than a walk to my mailbox.
As the weeks went on, I began feeling progressively stronger and healthier; yet, my energy never really returned. At 4 months post-op, I began to worry about my extreme and almost constant exhaustion. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It wasn’t like the foggy-headed deliriousness you get when you’re awake for days with a newborn. And it wasn’t the disoriented malaise you get with jet lag. The best way I can describe it is an all-over, full-body exhaustion. Every part of me was tired, from my eyelids to my toenails. It felt physically crushing, almost. I literally couldn’t make it through the day without a nap. And not just a 30 minute power nap – these were 2+ hour naps. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good nap. But I was concerned and a little embarrassed by my seemingly insatiable need for sleep.
I’ve since learned that it’s very normal to feel excessively tired after a spinal fusion (or any major surgery). One blogger explained it like this: “After four or five hours of surgery, your body has been through [the equivalent of] a major car wreck. Your body feels that shock.”
Many factors may contribute to extreme fatigue in the weeks and months following your spinal fusion, including:
- Lingering effects of your body’s stress response to surgery and trauma
- Continued use and/or cessation of opiate pain medications
- Use of other medications that may cause fatigue
- Disruption of your normal sleep pattern
- Anemia related to blood loss during surgery
- Poor physical conditioning prior to surgery because of your back injury
- Depression and/or anxiety
But the one factor that makes the most sense to me is this: your body is very busy 1) recovering from a traumatic surgery, and 2) growing (fusing) new bones! Right now, your body’s resources are being used to heal your incision, repair your damaged nerves, adapt to the new foreign objects (hardware) in your back, and begin bone growth. That’s a lot of work! It’s not at all surprising that you would feel depleted. Also remember that your body heals most effectively when you’re sleeping, so those extra naps are actually beneficial.
It’s also extra important to pay attention to your post-op nutrition. Simply put, your body needs extra calories, especially from protein:
Although the ability of a patient to form an adequate spinal fusion is based on many factors, few are as important as adequate nutrition. In order for the bone to grow into a solid fusion, it requires protein. The fusion gets the protein from 2 possible sources: food and drinks, or from the breakdown of muscles into protein-forming building blocks. If you do not provide the fusion with adequate protein, in the form of food and drinks, it will rob your muscles of the protein it needs to function, and your fatigue will increase. Therefore, you must increase your protein intake during the first several months after the surgery.
In most cases, excessive exhaustion after a spinal fusion diminishes over time. I would say that my energy started to return at around 6 months post-op, although I still continued to need daily naps throughout most of that first year. I’m 3+ years post-op now, and I no longer struggle with constant fatigue. My energy level is back to about where it was a few years ago, before my surgery and the back pain that led to it.
Listen to your body. Sleep when you’re tired. Maintain a healthy diet. Don’t overdo it. And be patient. In time, this too shall (hopefully) pass.
If you’d like to share your experience with post-op exhaustion, please leave it in the comments! Your input is so helpful to the people who visit this page.
For more commonly asked questions, visit my Spinal Fusion FAQ page.