Recovery from Spinal Surgery (the Surgeon’s Version)
I went into spine 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.
Recovery from Spinal Surgery (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.
Spinal fusion recovery 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 + Recovery from Spinal Surgery
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 physical therapy 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’m still quite sure that I’m better off than I was before my spine 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.
I was operated in 2012 for spentilolistesi l4, l5, s1 with 6 screws and coffins to support, after 10 years my pains have worsened and the doctor said that the coffins must be replaced because they are slipping away. We hope well for the next surgery that I have to undergo.
Jennifer Donovan says
I definitely was not in good physical condition when I had my spinal fusion surgery, and two years after surgery, I am in worse shape than ever. My terrible nerve pain is gone, but my spine is continuing to degenerate, and I have developed difficult digestive issues, shortness of breath, chest pain and a horrible, bitter taste in my mouth that makes it almost impossible to eat. The doctors can’t figure any of it out, but it all started right after spinal fusion. I regret ever having had that surgery!
Bruce Richmond says
I am coming up on one year (Jan 25, 2021) since my PLIF L4-S1. I also had Spondi from two fractures in my L5 Vertebrae. A result of a youth playing rough hockey. My sciatica was debilitating. Yes, I was prepared for pain, but the post-op pain was worse than the pre-op pain. I refused Opioids, except T-3 with Codeine. Much less addictive, and I was done with them by two weeks post-op. Your mistake was that you did not start physical therapy right away. Even better, I trained in the gym for a year before this surgery, so that I was in the best shape I could be before the surgery. I was not allowed to do anything for two weeks (same as you). But on the 15th day, I was in the PT office and we began. I went weekly at first, and did my exercises at home. With each successive appointment, he increased the intensity of my PT exercises. Of course it hurt. You must be mentally prepared to accept, and work through the pain. At 3 months, I returned to my online gym class and the instructor modified my curriculum. At six months, my PT said that I no longer needed his help and I was to continue with my gym.
From day 15, I also went to my chiropractor/acupuncturist weekly. He ensure the rest of my spine remained at neutral. He also performed acupuncture around the surgical site, for two reasons. One – it is good for pain (i love it). Two – my L5 nerve root was so badly compressed that it got stuck and the surgeon had trouble getting it free. I suffered some minor nerve injury. The pain that I had to deal with was phantom nerve pain (neuropathy) in my feet. That was excruciating when I tried to sleep. Eventually, the right cocktail of nerve blockers dealt with the neuropathy. I was off the nerve blockers by six months.
I agree with you. My standard of living is superior post op, than it was pre-op. You have identified your mistake. You needed to train, and prepare for this surgery, and then get started on PT asap. Finally, yes, you are going to have some pain. Fight through it Cupcake! It will get better. If you want to go through this without pain – forget it. Don’t have it done. It is going to hurt… for a while. But it will get better. Much Love, Bruce
I’m 27 and today was my 7 week post op. I had an L5-S1 fusion. I have major anxiety, and ive been very nervouse about how my back is feeling. By week 4 I was feeling really good, then all of a sudden, week 5 rolls around and I feel worse. My back is very sore almost tender to the touch and I’m pretty stiff. Did anyone else feel like this? I don’t know if it’s just because I’m moving around more, but my brain thinks I did something wrong, even though my Dr. thinks I’m healing well.
I am 9 weeks post op laminectomy and fusion of L3-4-5. My sciatica was gone in the recovery room. I swam every day for 6 weeks before surgery to make sure my muscles were strong going into surgery. I started PT two weeks ago and I believe it has helped. I walk every day. Other than some post op depression (which is gone now) and really decreased energy (which is returning) I honestly feel great. So thankful I went thru with it. I did my homework and researched my back issue and found a wonderful neurosurgeon. No regrets. I will be 70 in 5 months and consider myself to be in good condition and health.
Barbara Branchetti says
I had spinal fusion 2/12/2020 on my L4, L5, and S1. I’m not having the pain of sciatica in my right leg anymore, but my balance is still weak. Walking with a cane and sometimes stiffness in my back (weather related I think) sometimes my bum feels sore when I sit soI use a pillow. All in all I feel so much better since fusion. I take Tylenol and have muscle relaxers but have not taken any. My next appointment is in May,which he will look at new X-ray to see how fusion is healing, I also wear a back brace all the time except sleeping . All I wish for is to be able to walk without a cane. I did hear him say he wants to start me on core excercises for my back , I’m ready for that. But I would recommend this to anyone who suffering with a lot of pain.
Amy S says
I had an L5 S1 fusion 6 weeks ago. I have pain when I sleep and stiffness during the day. On tough days I take Tylenol or muscle relaxers but not every day. I walk about 2.5 miles a day but I can’t wait to start PT. I am looking forward to toning up and getting back on track. My mom had a fusion from T10 to pelvis and it took about 2 years to recovery. If she can do that at 71, I figure I can do this.
Sharon Wilhelm says
Yes! Just keep up what you’re doing, and things should continue to improve! Stay well.
Jennifer Donovan says
I had spinal fusion surgery 2 months ago. Had a horrible withdrawal from pain meds (oxycontin) and now I am aching all over, with chills (but no fever) and a terrible taste in my mouth. No respiratory symptoms, so it’s not Corona virus. My surgeon says it shouldn’t have anything to do with the surgery, but I’m just wondering if anyone else has experienced this. It almost feels as though the narcotic withdrawal has come back. I’m miserable. Any thoughts?
Sharon Wilhelm says
Are you feeling any better? Did your surgeon recommend anything besides seeing your primary care physician? I hope you’re well…
Jennifer Donovan says
No better, but no worse. Still achy all over and chills. No fever. My primary care physician did every test in the book and did not find any infections. Slightly elevated white blood cell count and erythrocytes, which do potentially indicate that my body is fighting an infection, but nothing definitive. My surgeon insists that this has nothing to do with my fusion surgery. Someone on another blog mentioned the possibility of an infection related to the hardware that was placed in my back. Scary thought. For now, I’m just taking it day by day and assuming (for my mental health) that it’s just part of the healing process.
Shay Williams Horner says
You’re in PV? Wow, I’m laying in bed in Dallas Tx. because there are only 2 surgeons in the country who will touch my main problem. One is in Dallas… I had surgery last Weds. June 13th. I HAD severe symptomatic Tarlov Cysts in my sacrum. Very, Very rare and left me bedridden. In addition I needed an L4-L5 fusion. Since this was the least of my worries, I did NO research on it. The good news is that my super risky, scary TC surgery seems to be an amazing success! My pre op symptoms are gone! As the nerves wake up, I’m sure that I will have some issues but for NOW, my bigger issues are the fusion. I have to stay through next Tuesday because of incision issues. I’m now trying to learn about fusion recovery and I found your blog. Crazy being in Dallas and finding a PV blog. I will be home for quite a while once I get back to PV. I would love to talk or something about your fusion recovery. Maybe after I get back. I’m still really weak most of the time right now but I’m getting better every day!
Shay Williams Horner says
Oh, and I live in Ponte Vedra… lol
Hey Shay! How are you feeling? I hope things are still going well with your recovery. I’d love to talk when you get back! Maybe we can even meet for coffee once you’re up for it.
Hey, I see you are in PV, I live in South Jax Beach. My X-ray looks very similar to yours except maybe the bone removed from my hip that is still visible in three places on the 10 month X-ray. I am almost 1 year out and have more, different pain than before, so disappointed and my doc sent me to pain doc and appears to be done with me, he did the surgery and he is done. I do not know this person I have become and any advise would be appreciated. I can’t work like before, the pain clouds my thoughts and dictates my physical activity. I am open to trying anything. I know there is a great deal of hard scar tissue and I wonder if things are being constricted but they only did an X-ray and I am not in fight mode any more, I feel defeated.
Hey Kimberly – really hate to hear things didn’t go better for you. 🙁 It was similar with my surgeon. I loved him and he did a great job, but he was basically done with me after my 3 month post-op visit. I was shocked. If you want to talk some more, will you email me? mommyrunsit (at) gmail com. Maybe we can meet for coffee sometime?
What is your pain like now? What was it like before your surgery?
I will email you, thanks so much. I hate to actually say it out loud but without pain meds, my pain is worse.
I am 5 months post op from a L2 to S1 fusion. My surgeon has reduced my meds down to Robaxin 500 mg . Since I have gone off all other meds I have experienced a great deal of pain. So far I have tried ice and hot baths but they don’t really help much. I had my husband rub me down with Bio Freeze the last 2 nights and it really helped. I am not sure if you are familiar with the product but it is similar to icy hot and can be found at most stores. Thought you might want to try it. It takes the edge off. I was very stiff and sore before I used it today and it hurt to move. After I used it I was able to get some work done around the house and was still comfortable enough to lay down.