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Question: Do You Have Any Spinal Fusion Surgery Recovery Tips?
I am 14 days away from mine and scared out of my mind. I’m wondering about how to prepare for the post-op/recovery at home. Do you have any spinal fusion recovery tips or hints? Are there any devices or things that made life easier for you?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions, and for good reason – spinal fusion surgery recovery is tough, and anything that can possibly make it easier is worth a shot.
The following is a list of tips, suggestions, and devices that may make your recovery a bit more comfortable. Each one is either something I’ve tried personally, or a suggestion from someone who’s had a spinal fusion. When possible, I’ve included a link to a specific product. (These may be affiliate links, which means that if you use the link to make a purchase, I get a very small commission, which I use to keep this site running. Feel free to search for the product directly without using my link.)
Spinal Fusion Recovery Tips
Shower Chair: This is probably my #1 recommendation. After surgery, you won’t be able to submerge your incision for at least 2 weeks – so even if you were able to get in & out of the bathtub (you probably won’t be), baths are not an option. I was allowed to take showers right away, but I wasn’t able to stand without assistance. My shower chair allowed me to shower independently. We borrowed the chair, but if you start looking early you might be able to buy one secondhand. I saw one today on Craigslist for only $10:
Some shower chairs are like little stools, but I’d definitely suggest something like the one pictured above. You’ll need the back to help support your weight, and you almost certainly won’t have the strength to sit unsupported on a stool early on. If you have to purchase a new one, I’d recommend something like this shower chair from Amazon.
Reacher/Grabber: Like the name suggests, this will help you grab things that aren’t within easy reach. You will be on BLT (bend, lift, twist) restrictions for the first few weeks of your recovery. And even after that, it may be a while before you can pick things up from the floor. Early on when I spend the majority of time in bed, I used my grabber to reach things like books and snacks. Later on, I used it to help with laundry and other chores. (Side note: I still use it now because #shortpeopleproblems.) I purchased my grabber on Amazon for about $15.
TENS Unit: As I’ve shared before, my TENS unit was an absolute lifesaver. I don’t know much about TENS – I just know that it relieved the worst of my pain post-op when nothing else could. There are lots of affordable models to choose from, but I just happened to already have this TENS unit. You should also consider purchasing some extra pads to have on hand, as they tend to lose their stickiness after lots of use.
Ice Therapy Machine: These are pricey but so worth it. My hospital sent me home with one, and my health insurance paid for it, and I hope yours will do the same. I used it so much that I wore out the pump.
Heating Pad/Ice Packs: Initially I was instructed to ice my back after surgery. But after my two week follow-up appointment, my surgeon said that I could use either heat or ice – whichever worked better for me. While I didn’t use the heating pad on my back right away, I did use it to alleviate the nerve pain in my leg. I’d recommend keeping both a heating pad and ice packs handy.
Satin Sheets: This suggestion comes from a reader (thanks Rebecka!), and it’s a great one! Turning over in bed can be one of the most painful things you do after a spinal fusion. Satin sheets will help eliminate some of the friction from your movement. I’ve read that garbage bags can do the same thing, although I don’t know anyone personally who’s tried this. (Let me know if you have and whether it worked!)
Non-Skid Socks: You definitely want to avoid falling, and non-skid socks will help. I wore the socks that the hospital gave me, but you can buy them inexpensively at Walmart or Target. (Side note: putting on my own socks was one of my biggest early post-op challenges.)
Non-Skid, Slip-On Shoes: If putting on socks was difficult, you can imagine what it was like putting on my shoes! Slip-on shoes are great, especially if you’ll be on your own for a significant portion of your recovery. Or you can do as I did and just deal with the indignity of having someone else tie your shoes.
Non-Slip Rugs: Again, you want to eliminate potential fall risks. Non-slip rugs are essential, especially in your bathroom.
Medication Organization System: One piece of advice you’ll hear a lot is to “stay on top (or ahead) of the pain.” Pain medication can take a while to kick in, so if you wait until you’re in pain to take it, you’re not going to get immediate relief. And on the flip side, you don’t want to accidentally take too much pain medication either. So the key is to take your meds on a schedule. There are a number of ways to do this – you’ll have to find what works best for you. For me, this was keeping a notebook beside my bed and writing down the time and amount of each dose. I know other people who keep track with an app or a pill organizer. And others put a family member or caregiver in charge of their meds. You can even use something like this Talking Alarm Clock to give you reminders.
Fiber: I’ve got 3 words for you – Opiate Induced Constipation. The meds they give you after surgery are very likely to cause constipation. And to add insult to injury, the muscles that you use to “go” will be weak and ineffective. Do your best to prepare for this ahead of time – stock your home with fresh and/or dried fruit, prune juice, stool softeners, etc. And be sure to drink plenty of water. I would probably avoid laxatives unless absolutely necessary, because getting to & from the bathroom in a hurry is not going to happen, and you don’t want to find yourself in an urgent situation.
Entertainment: It’s important to keep your spirits up during the healing process. This means doing things that make you feel happy or connected – as long as you can do them from your bed, of course. We don’t usually have a TV in our bedroom, but we moved one in temporarily while I was recovering. The girls would lay in bed with me and watch TV. And every night Vic and I would eat dinner in bed and watch House of Cards. I also did a lot of crossword puzzles (my favorite!) and coloring. I’d suggest keeping a variety of things nearby – books, puzzles, a tablet, knitting, spiritual items. And keep your phone (and charger) handy too, as it may be your only connection to the outside world. I had a handful of friends and family members that were amazing about checking in on me and keeping me company.
Storage Box: You’ll want to keep your necessities within reaching distance. I did this by keeping a mini-crate next to my bed – it held my entertainment stuff, my medication, a notebook & pens, snacks, extra socks, chapstick, and whatever else I needed for the day. You’ll definitely want to keep water and snacks nearby. Even if you have someone at home taking care of you full-time, you’ll need the ability to do somethings independently too. I say this from experience – about a week or so into my recovery, my husband left me home alone for a few hours to run some errands and pick up my medication at the pharmacy. No big deal – except both of us forgot that I’d need to eat at some point! I was still unable to get downstairs and had no way to eat for most of the day. No fun.
Spinal Fusion Surgery Recovery: Final Thoughts
I think the main idea here is to make yourself: 1) as comfortable as possible, and 2) as independent as possible. While there’s obviously no way that you can predict everything you’ll need, I hope this list is a good start. I also found this comprehensive list of Post-Op Must-Haves – there’s some really great stuff on there, so check it out while you’re making your preparations.
I also want to point you toward another great read: 6 Tips to Recover From Back Surgery Successfully by Bart Astor. I stumbled across this article while doing research for this post, and it’s spot on – definitely worth a read.
I’m 55 yrs old. I am 1 week and 3 days post op. This has been harder than I expected. The pain of sitting down, standing, walking, and turning over in bed is rough. I did wake up from surgery without the sciatic pain. This is a new kind of pain. I did not realize the seriousness of the surgery because it is such a common surgery. I am alone. I don’t have anyone with me most of the time. One thing I can add to everyone else’s advice is to prepare some dump and go freezer meals. I prepared about 14 meals before I had surgery. One entree can last 2 or 3 meals for me. I put a meal in the crockpot everyday or every other day. I have my son put things waist high for me when he is around. My grabber broke a couple of days ago so I recommend getting 2. For women, I recommend gowns. My pj bottoms and underwear hurt my incision. I wish I had bought more of those than vice versa. I hope this helps someone.
Michael M Gasser says
This is going to sound dumb, but in a conversation with a surgeon at a party, he told me to get in shape for the surgery and that it reduces recovery time and improves outcomes. So I tried to ride 10-15 miles, 3-4 times a week with mile to several mile walks, for 3 months pre surgery. I had L4-L5 fusion with cyst penetrating 3/4 way into spinal column. Had a dura tear since cyst and dura shared/attached to same wall. Post 5 weeks, little pain, mostly stiff, love my Tylenol. Doing exercises 1-2 times a day along with PT. I am walking 1-2 miles, and back riding 2-3 times a week, although I am resting in a couple places. I attribute the bounce back and lack of pain due to being in better shape. Now something for the fatigue and sleeping would be nice.
michelle Gardner franco says
Thank you all so very much for your wonderful ideas. I wish I had found this a few weeks back.
I bought a bidet that attached to the toilet, no warm water but it was great to have when you can’t bend or twist.
I also would recommend a shower chair with arms as it offered a bit more stability that the ones without,
My friend bought removable shower handles that she said were amazing once she able to stand in the shower.
Good morning, I just stumbled on your blog.
My doctor wants to decompress my spine and fuse discs L4&L5.
I have a number of issues in the back
Spinal stenosis, sphondylolisthesis,degenerative discs and scoliosis.
So my question is. Has anyone done this and does it help with the pain?
The pain gets so bad that I don’t enjoy life anymore..
Just trying to figure out if this will help…
Thank you Leslie
Krish Krishnamurthy says
I had two (sphondylolisthis and degenerative disk) of the four you mentioned at L5&S1. I had ALIF (anterior fusion and posterior pedicle screws) done a couple of months back (10 weeks ago, exactly). The pain level before my surgery was unbearable (moreover I had to wait for surgery schedule for 4 months due to COVID-19 situation in the hospital). I am significantly improved since surgery. I won’t call myself pain-free yet (but it is night and day compared to before the surgery). It is a long haul and every indication is that it will be significantly better very soon.
I wish you best of luck. This blog space is my go to place for getting tips and answers.
Mary Hines says
I just had a spinal fusion 7 days ago. All your suggestions are spot on. My only additional “add” to your list would be an adjustable bed which obviously is a huge expense. We purchased ours after my second micro discectomy. Worth its weight in gold especially for this recovery in particular. You see I am 40 and injured my back 3 years ago pulling my then 3 year old out of the tub. I had two unsuccessful micro discectomys and finally last Monday a spinal fusion. I am following doctors orders and I pray this is the end of my back troubles.
I highly agree with the following items:
*stool softeners & laxatives such as miralax
*raised toilet seat but I did okay without it
*icepacks have been very helpful
*meal train and someone to look after you and make meals and bring things for at least the first week if not two weeks.
Hi Sharon! This is my first time even reading a blog. I am 49, do what I can to stay healthy and have been on the fence about having spinal fusion for the last several years. One day “Oh, I can deal with this pain.” The next day “Sign me up today!” as the pain fluctuates from day to day. I know I should just do it but the thought of it chokes me up. I have had surgeries before, but the spine…oh man it seems so scary. I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog and all of this amazing advice. I will share it with my husband, too. It is July now, and I think I will wait until the end of summer to have the surgery. Even though today is one of those “sign me up today” days. I feel like I am a mess of thoughts, emotions and doubt but you and your readers really did make me feel better about all of it. Besides the back and hip pain, one of the main reasons I feel I need to have this surgery is for a better future with hopes to be able to move more freely with less pain than I can right now and to be able to do more things as I get older. We’ll see how it goes. Thank you so much!
Bonnie Joranko says
I recommend buying remote light bulbs or switches that you can buy online so you can turn lights on or off with a remote to eliminate the need to get up or move around.
Bev Walsh says
I had a Spinal Fusion of the L3-5 discs and 2 nerve decompressions just under 4 weeks ago at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. I’m 4 months shy of 70.
I stopped all pain meds not quite 2 weeks post op. The first week the pain was unreal so meds were needed so I could walk but the effect on the bowels was not worth it. I do gentle rehab exercises before I get out of bed and am briskly walking 3 miles per day in three intervals in my house. I keep track with a iPhone app. I’m still getting bouts of sciatica and regular shin burning in both shins. At least my hip and right leg pain seems to have gone which is partly why I went through this. My sister is in hospital having undergone lung cancer surgery and is not doing well so I feel I can’t complain.
Up Run for Life Healthy Lifestyle Blog says
If your having a spinal fusion, be prepared to sleep more than usual. The pain meds are to blame but your body does it’s healing while you are sleeping.
The first two weeks was the worst part, then it slowly improves.
My Dr said to get up and walk as much as possible. It helps prevent blood clots butit also speeds up recovery. I walked laps around the house as much as I could stand it.
Get a raised toilet seat, it makes life a little bit easier in the restroom.
Move slowly so that you don’t over do it or hurt yourself.
Plan a meal train if possible. Our church was a huge help with getting us dinner for a while.
Don’t over do the chores. Ask for help.
Also, have someone to stay at home with you for the first two weeks. Or a week if time is an issue for your spouse or significant other.
Sharon Wilhelm says
These are awesome. I’ll never forget how you reached out to me after my surgery. I was so scared and in so much pain, and you helped me more than you probably realized. I will always be grateful for that! <3
Amanda Williams says
Everything is spot on! I will be 2 months post op on 08/18. I was not fully prepared. You will need a walker, a cane, a grabber, a shower chair, a commode or like side rails for the toliet depending on how high yours is. I found that it was easier to just use my toilet with support to get up and down, my toilet sits high. Going to the bathroom in the beginning is also hard if you can’t wipe yourself. There are devices You can get. I used a back scratcher we had laying around. I wrapped the paper around it. You will find that You get very creative during this time LOL. Where to find items, You may have what is called “A lending tree or closet” at your township or through a senior center, you can rent items there. Eventually you will want to have a 4wheel walker with a seat so you can walk further, and sit if needed. The most important thing you need to do is take care of your mental health! I have had complete breakdowns here and there. It is very tough mentally. Do not feel bad for having crying fits or anger, it’s normal. However, if it gets bad talk to a doctor. I too had the PT issue. They sent me home with one coming to the house. No no. You are supposed to just heal at first. My doc. Said walking around is good enough and the leg exercise such as ankle pumps and knee/thigh squeeze to avoid clots.
Sharon Wilhelm says
Hey Amanda! These are awesome! That’s a great idea about the lending tree. I think I still have my walker in the garage – I should see if I can find a senior center to donate it to. Happy two month spineaversary – stay strong! xo
Up Run for Life Healthy Lifestyle Blog says
I still have mine because my surgery caused more problems. I now have severe hip pain and it hurts to walk frequently. I keep contemplating to pull it out and use it.
I have been reading your blog during my recovery from L5/S1 fusion this past December. Thank you for sharing your recovery story with us! My recovery has been going well overall and I was released from wearing my back brace 2 days ago at my 4 month post op!
My question is: has any of my fellow recovery hereos had lower body sweating after their spinal fusion? I’ve been having this sweating issue shortly after I had surgery. My surgeon said he’s never heard of this happening to one of his patients. I’m following up with my endricrinologist next week ( I also suffer from Thyroid issues) just in case it’s a hormonal issue.
I’m curious if anyone reading your blog has had this. My physical therapist believes it is related to my para sympathetic nervous system and said it could be tied to something that occurred during surgery.
Barbara Amendola says
Hi there, congratulations on your post op 4 months!!! I cannot say I had lower back sweating. Good thing you’re going to check with your doctor, always best. Sorry I couldn’t be of much help.
Hi Barbara. Thank you for responding. I’ve found a few posts about the sweating phenomenon on other medical sites but I really just wanted to see if any other people on the blog have had this. The lower body sweating truly seems connected to my spinal fusion as I’ve never had any of this before surgery. Just six months before my lumbar fusion I went through having double cervical artificial disc replacement after C 5-6 and C6-7 Discs herniated into my spinal cord. That surgery was much easier for me and I didn’t have any “sweating” issues. It’s very strange and does not seem to be related to any other issues. I’m fortunate to be in good shape I walk a ton 4-8 miles a day- both before surgery and after I was just given the approval to get on the elliptical and stationary bike at the gym for brief periods of time. I’m so excited to go to the gym! Walking really is key to getting better and I’ve been fortunate to be able to walk
I hope your recovery is going well ❤️
Barbara Amendola says
You’re probably right, as I really do believe we know our bodies best.
I’m 5 months post op and am doing well.I’m still having problems with my upper hamstring and quad muscles on my left hand side of my body. Which the doctor told me it would take some time for everything in that area to heal because they really had to stretch my muscles and tendons and stuff to get to my spine. There are days it can be frustrating to still have pain after having back surgery. I cannot get upset because this is a process and every day it’s changing and getting better. Thanks for asking.
Up Run for Life Healthy Lifestyle Blog says
Keep track of your hip pain. I’m 2.5 years out and didn’t have pain in my hip and down the front of my thigh. I’m still trying to figure out the culprit. Dr thinks it might be scar tissue. I had l5-s1 fused.
Yes it is normal to have tight muscles but pt should help with that. However, if you have pain seek answers.
I have yearly MRIs to track changes in my spine since I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 4 months post op.
Sweating is a norm for me. I get hot very easily. It might be side effects from cymbalta. But remember your body just went through manor trauma. Your Dr cut nerves, muscles, tissue, etc to do the fusion. That alone could be the cause if your Dr rules out thyroid issues.
Kellee Konieczny says
I am 3 months out from L5/S1 fusion and I have had the sweating situation in my lower bottom area as well since this surgery. I was told by the surgeon he has never heard of it but my obgyn suggested that is was from the parasynthetic nerve possibly being damaged. I spoke to my back surgeon and he said no. I never had this issue before the surgery and it’s very frustrating everyday to deal with.
Any suggestions would help to get any ideas what physician to seek out about this . I’ve done some of my own research and I’ve read about the vagus nerve being a problem. Not sure who to speak to but I never had experienced this before my fusion. I also had ALIF done.
Post-Op Recovery – Month 5, Fusion L4-5 : My pain level was super high the first several weeks and finding relief – moving around without pain was my main focus. I should have been better prepared when I got home :/, and wasn’t . The primary must have – Having someone with you when you get home for at least one week. Initial post-op alone is impossible
Top on my need list was the following (other than the obvious items like phones, pillows, meds, etc)
#1. Heating Pad/Ice Packs
#2. Non-Skid Socks | slippers
#3. Shower shoes (used pool shoes)
#4. Shower Chair or Walker _ I am still using a walker to hang onto in the shower for balance, and plan to continue longer than needed
#5. Storage Box: Instead, I used a small grocery store SHOPPING CART- for the first several month, kept it by the bed and wheeled it around all day with all my stuff
#6. Sounds silly but – Flexible and long straws, the first month was a necessity
#7. “Turning sheet”| Instead, I attached (securely) a 4-prong walker to the bed-side table and reached for |grabbed the secure handle as I turned over, worked great
#8. Pull on pants – make them a size larger so they don’t bother your incision(s); check elastic so it’s not too tight.
#9. Bedpan in the first weeks, definitely necessary -I used a regular kitchen sauce pan (threw it away, after)
And the what got me through a lot of painful-back spasm days and nights was our ‘gas fireplace’! Yep, pulled a small chair close to the front of the fireplace and let the heat radiate all over my back. Relaxed all the contracting muscles and hardware. I had many 3:00 AM visits to my chair in front of the wonderful fireplace
The first several months are the worst and recovery seems endless. But, it does get better, the back spams become less, the pain level decreases, mobility returns, and the ‘sunshine’ returns again. The most important advise I have to offer is _ Don’t over do and put your recovery on fast forward! Each recovery phase takes time and can’t be rushed. And take control of your recovery, Doctors tend to loss interest on post-op patients.
Carol, these are SO GOOD! I seriously love the shopping cart idea. Fantastic. And yes, straws. I had to quit drinking coffee for a while because I couldn’t get a mug (regular or travel) to my mouth without spilling it all over myself! Thank you so much for your suggestions. I’m so glad to hear that you’re doing well. I know you’ll help many people with this comment. <3
Sharon .. Nov, 2017, Fusion L4-5 .. My question —> I have an itchy, rash-like bumps around my waist area .. that suddendly appeared ‘after’ my Back fusion surgery .. has anyone experienced anything like this? Drives me crazy , Carol
Carol, I had an allergic reaction to the Steri-Strips that they used to close my incision. But nothing since then. Did it appear right after surgery or just recently?
Amendola Barbara says
In addition to all the physical items that were listed. Here’s few tips that help me to survive mentally while recovering from my spinal fusion.
1. Set realistic and small goals for yourself. This help so you don’t set yourself up for failure and disappointment. For example my first small goal was to walk up and down my street once a day. After I done this for three days, I bumped it up to walking up and down my street twice a day. Small goals met are big victories!
2. When in doubt call your doctor. Before my surgery happened my doctor told me that I wouldn’t start PT exercises until 2 months post op. Well when I was sent home from the hospital they send me home with PT exercises and arranged to have a physical therapist come to the house. I was in excruciating pain every time the therapist had me do the exercises. Finally after a week of crying through therapy my husband suggested that I call my doctor to make sure that I was supposed to be doing the exercises. As it turns out I was not supposed to and it was an error that the hospital sent me home with these exercises. This set me back a little bit.
3. Eat as healthy as you can so your body has the nutrients it will need to recover.
Barbara, You’re right on the money here. That’s kind of crazy about your PT situation! I absolutely HATE making phone calls, but I broke down after a few days at home to ask about my pain. My surgeon prescribed a different dose of medication and it made a big difference. If I hadn’t made the call, I would’ve suffered so much more than necessary. We are our own best advocates. Thanks for your support here – I so appreciate it!
That happened to me too. My general practitioner doctor (or hospital staff) ordered home PT/OT. When my orthopedic surgeon found out, it stopped. The therapist seemed puzzled because she followed the no BLT (bending lifting twisting) restrictions. Most everything there was a waste of their time except perhaps the way she set up my shower handle.