Spinal Fusion: Recovery

Woman talking to receptionist in doctor's office.If you’ve had neck surgery, recovery takes about 3 months. For lower back surgery, recovery takes about 6 months to a year. To help protect your healing spine during this time, follow the guidelines below and any other directions you’ve been given.

Recovering in the hospital

After the surgery, you’ll go to the PACU (postanesthesia care unit). After you are fully awake and stable, you’ll go to your room:

  • When you first wake up from surgery, you may feel groggy, thirsty, or cold.

  • You may have tubes in your body to drain fluid from your incision. You may also have a tube called a catheter to drain your bladder. These tubes are usually removed before you leave the hospital.

  • You’ll be encouraged to get up and walk.

  • Your intravenous (IV) gives you fluids and nutrition until you can eat on your own, usually within a 1 to 2 days.

  • You may wear special stockings or boots to prevent blood clots in your legs.

  • You may be given a neck collar or back brace.

  • You will be given medicines to control the pain.

Recovering at home

Once you return home, here is what you can do:

  • Visits after surgery let your surgeon keep track of your healing. Be sure to keep your follow-up appointments.

  • Take a few short walks each day. Increase your walking time as you heal, as directed. 

  • If you feel more pain than usual after an activity, you may have overdone it. Take it a little easier for a few hours.

  • Ask your surgeon what activities to avoid. Also ask when you can return to work, driving, and sex.

  • You may see a physical therapist who will teach you how to move after surgery.

Managing your pain

In the hospital, your nurse may give you your pain medicine. Or you may have a PCA (patient-controlled analgesia) pump. This allows you to control your own pain medicine. If your pain makes you very uncomfortable, tell your nurse.

At home, take your prescribed pain medicine as directed and on time. Don’t wait for the pain to get bad before you take your pain medicine. You may need this medicine for 1 to 3 weeks or longer. Ask your doctor about the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) for pain control. There is some controversy as to whether they slow the healing of spinal fusion. If you are diabetic, you will be encouraged to control your blood sugar. Nicotine blocks new bone formation so your doctor will ask you not to smoke or use any nicotine products for 6 to 12 months.