Spinal fusion is a surgical process that fuses two or more vertebrae so they heal as one solid bone. By “welding” the vertebrae together, spinal fusion eliminates motion between the bones, which is theorized to be the cause of pain. The procedure also prevents the nerves, surrounding muscles, and ligaments from stretching.
Generally, spinal fusion surgery has a high success rate. While many patients hesitate to undergo this procedure for fear of being unable to resume normal physical activities, this isn’t the case for most patients. Patients who have recovered from the surgery are able
resume their daily lives and can even play recreational sports.
Recovering After Spinal Fusion
The recovery period is especially important for patients to regain their strength and move freely. In most cases, a patient can go home from the hospital 2-4 days after surgery. They may have to wear a brace, it will take 4-6 weeks before they can return to a sedentary office job. A patient will not be allowed to resume vigorous activities until 3-6 months after surgery, as the bones will continue to solidify up to a year and a half after the operation.
The three basic concerns of spinal fusion recovery are pain management, complication prevention, and rehabilitation.
Since pain is a natural part of the healing process, doctors and nurses will work to reduce the pain and help you recover faster after surgery. Medications are prescribed to manage the pain, and these may include: opioids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or local anesthetics.
Combinations of the medications may also be prescribed to improve pain relief and lessen opioid use. Doctors may create a pain control plan for patients in order to set realistic expectations about postoperative pain and guidelines to follow when these occur. Some features of a pain control plan includes:
- Prescriptions and medication schedule
- Information on non-medication pain relief options such as relaxation techniques, modalities, and the like.
- An alert system, so the patient can coordinate with the healthcare staff ahead of a flare-up cycle
Patients can prevent complications and unnecessary trips to the emergency room by strictly following their doctor’s orders. However, a patient should still be aware of the signs so they can address a complication immediately.
The two complications most likely to occur during the first few weeks of surgery are blood clots and infections.
Warning signs of a possible blood clot include:
- Swelling in the calf, ankle, or foot
- Tenderness or redness in the knee
- Pain in the calf
Infections following spine surgery are rare, but they do happen. Some warning signs of a possible infection include:
- Redness, tenderness, or swelling around the wound edges
- Drainage from the wound
- Shaking chills
- Elevated body temperature
While the fusion process itself takes time before the bone solidifies, comfort levels often improve faster with proper rehabilitation.
The first few days after surgery are dedicated to managing pain, keeping wounds clean, and learning how to move without twisting the spine. During this healing period, the fused spine must be properly aligned, so patients are taught how to sit, stand, walk, and reposition themselves.
Light activities such as walking may be recommended by the doctor, and a physical therapist may teach light stretching exercises after a month. Physical therapy may begin 6 weeks – 3 months after surgery, depending on what the doctor deems best.
For a good recovery outcome, it is also imperative to maintain a healthy lifestyle. A healthy diet with calcium-enriched food, essential vitamins and minerals are key to helping patients improve. Smoking should also be avoided, as nicotine will interfere with the vertebrae and keep it from fusing properly.
Inquire with The Central Texas Spine Institute
At the Central Texas Spine Institute, we offer comprehensive spine care, including diagnostic services, conservative treatment modalities, and spine surgery. We pride ourselves in utilizing the latest, minimally invasive surgical techniques for our patients to have more manageable pain and a quicker recovery time.
Our staff has spent almost two decades providing world class spinal care and offering the best patient experience in Central Texas.