Do’s and Don’ts for a Successful Back Surgery Recovery

Look to the post-surgery future and follow these tips for a successful recovery.

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If you have questions about what to expect during your back surgery recovery, you’re not alone. As back pain affects more Americans every year, people are increasingly turning to surgery for relief. From 2000 to 2007 the number of adults in the United States experiencing chronic back pain increased by 64 percent.

RehabRocking your rehab is essential to a successful recovery from spine surgery.

Meanwhile, between 1998 and 2008, the number of annual hospital discharges for lumbar fusions increased by 170.9 percent while the rate of laminectomies increased by 11.3 percent. While back surgery is on the rise, the foundation for a successful rehab remains the same.

Recovery Time

Back surgery recovery time varies depending on the procedure. Recovery after a discectomy generally takes six to eight weeks, according to Theresa Marko, a New York City doctor of physical therapy with board certification in orthopaedic physical therapy.

Bouncing back from laminectomy or fusion surgery, however, takes longer. These procedures are “more involved,” explains Marko, and your body may take up to 12 weeks to fully heal. In some cases, healing can continue for at least a year.

If you had a spinal fusion, you will probably be off work for four to six weeks if you are young and healthy and your job is not very strenuous. It may take four to six months for older people with more extensive surgery to get back to work.

Your back surgery recovery time doesn’t just depend on what type of procedure you’re having. The severity of your condition, your pre-surgery fitness level, and your age also factor in. Marko explains, “Healing times also increase the older we are, as the body heals slower than when we were younger.”

Activity Precautions 

No matter what type of back surgery you’re undergoing, and no matter how well controlled your pain is, it’s vital that you avoid bending, lifting, and twisting. Bending from the waist, lifting more than 10 pounds, and twisting your torso all put undue pressure on your vulnerable spine.

Avoiding bending, lifting, and twisting requires slowing down and being mindful, as these are movements we typically do all day long without thinking about them. Instead of bending down from the waist to reach something on the floor, squat down.

If squatting is impossible due to limited joint flexibility or pain, consider using a reacher; the device is essentially a claw at the end of a long handle that you can use to grab lightweight items such as a magazine, phone, or remote control, while keeping your spine in a neutral position. Also consider having a pair of sturdy slip-shoes or slippers you can wear during your recovery. This way, you can easily avoid the challenge of avoiding bending to put on socks and shoes.

GrabberA grabber can be useful as you recover from spine surgery.

Instead of twisting your torso, remember to move your entire body while keeping your hips and shoulders in alignment. This is especially important when you’re getting in and out of bed and getting in and out of the car. When getting into bed:

  • First, sit on the side of the bed
  • Second, lower your upper body down onto one elbow
  • Finally, raise your legs up onto the bed

If you are very weak, you may need assistance with your legs. Once you are side-lying on the bed, use a “log roll” technique to roll onto your back while keeping your shoulders and hips in alignment. Consider wearing silky pajamas to make it easier to move around in bed.

Similarly, when you get into a car, first sit perpendicular to the passenger seat with your feet on the pavement. Then, rotate your body all at once so that your feet are on the floor and you’re facing the windshield.

Marko says it’s important to use your arms to support you as you move around and perform basic activities of daily living. “Even just leaning over to brush your teeth at the bathroom sink, which is typically very low, can be difficult after spine surgery,” she explains. “One needs to use their arms to brace themselves by putting their hand on the sink to help give the spine some added support.”

When it comes to lifting, remember that heavy grocery bags, children, and even laundry baskets are off-limits. So is lifting overhead.

Do’s and Dont’s of Back Surgery Recovery

Are you getting ready for back surgery? Look to the postop future and follow these tips for a successful recovery.

  • Don’t Get Too Comfortable on the Couch: While you do need to be careful with your activity during your recovery, you don’t need to stop moving. On the contrary, says Marko, one of the biggest mistakes people make after back surgery is spending too much time lying down. The longer you stay in bed or on the couch, the weaker and stiffer your body becomes.

    “We need to keep those joints moving, as they have fluid inside them that works like gravy when heated up,” she explains. “The more heated up the fluid is, the more it lubricates your joints and makes you feel better.” Also, strength and stamina decline sharply after just a few days of inactivity. Put simply, “motion is lotion” says Marko. 
  • Prioritize Your Prehab: Optimizing your pre-surgery fitness maximizes your chance of a quicker, easier recovery. Marko suggests consulting with a physical therapist before your procedure. “Yes, you might be in pain and some things might be difficult to do, but a physical therapist is highly skilled at figuring out what you can do and helping the joints around the problem area get stronger, so ultimately, you have a better outcome.”

    When searching for the right clinician, Marko recommends seeking one with the designation OCS, which stands for Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist, and indicates advanced training in this specialty.
  • Rock Your Rehab: Rehab is an important piece of the puzzle and one that you should start thinking about well before your surgery. If you wait to schedule an appointment until after your surgery, there’s a chance you’ll end up on a waiting list, says Marko. A delayed start to physical therapy can interfere with progress down the road.

Even if you’re not sure what your post-op schedule will be, Marko says you should at least get some appointments on the books, knowing that you can change them if need be. Knowing you already have a spot is “one less headache to deal with after you have surgery, are groggy, and dealing with that healing phase.”

As you prepare for back surgery, know that recovery is a matter of both time and effort. While you do have to be patient and wait for your body to heal, you can facilitate the process by being getting in shape before surgery, staying active following surgery, adhering to your activity precautions, and by working with a physical therapist throughout.


Updated on: 05/12/20
Mark R. McLaughlin, MD