Back surgery is no laughing matter. It’s a lengthy ordeal that requires weeks if not months for patients to fully recover. It’s also one that’s met with trepidation—both before and after the procedure—since many patients don’t know what to expect. Moreover, simple things that patients used to take for granted are all at once a cause of major apprehension or dread. And questions abound about everything from how long it will take to recover, to when they can sit or lie down.
That’s why we wrote this post—a definitive guide to what you expect while recovering from back surgery, and, more importantly, how you can recover—fully, successfully, and with as little pain as possible.
The honest answer: it depends. Back surgery encompasses a wide range of procedures, and how long it takes for you might vary depending on your specific procedure, your physical condition, and your age. On average, procedures typically take between 2-6 weeks, but it varies by procedure.
Use the following guide for more specific guidance:
Time in hospital: 0-1 days
Recovery time: 4-6 weeks
Time in hospital: 1 day
Recovery time: 2-4 weeks
Time in hospital: 1-5 days
Recovery time: 1-6 months, depending on the scope of surgery
Time in hospital: 1-3 days
Recovery time: 4-6 weeks
Time in hospital: a few hours
Recovery time: 0-14 days
*Numbers based on averages.
It’s common to experience pain in and around the surgical area after back surgery. Surgery is hard on the body after all. You’ll also likely feel swelling around the wound and around the nerves (often a sign of natural inflammation). You should feel noticeable pain relief after about a month or two.
Constipation is common after back surgery. Fortunately, you can avoid this by avoiding certain foods—particularly those that cause distress in your gut—like dairy products, processed foods, and those with added sugar (i.e. sweets).
Many back surgery patients express frustration with being unable to perform basic activities of normal living, such as driving, sitting or bending over comfortably, or performing other physical activities. Some patients also tend to worry that they’ll never fully heal, or that things will never go back to normal.
If you’re experiencing the ‘post-op blues,’ it’s important to remember that it takes time to recover from any major surgery. If you do what it takes to rest and take care of yourself now, you will inevitably feel better and recover in the long-term.
Again, it depends on you, your specific procedure, and the range of daily activities that make up what “normal living” means for you. That said, sitting and showering may take days if not weeks, while other activities such as driving, exercise, or going back to work might take significant time.
Use these estimates to gauge when you can begin trying the following activities following your back surgery:
You can usually begin sitting immediately after surgery, however sitting down too far might cause discomfort. For this reason, it can often be helpful to sit in a higher chair with a firm back (or perhaps, a dining room chair with a pillow). Recliners and couches are best to be avoided.
Usually, the hospital will give you specific instructions regarding when and how to shower after back surgery. Generally, you clean this incision with soapy water. Just don’t soak it in water until at least 3-weeks after surgery.
Bending over might be difficult—you may not be able to bend with your knees straight for some time. If you need to bend over, try kneeling on one knee so one hip remains straight while you bend.
Most patients recovering from back surgery can begin riding in a car relatively soon, however, it may take considerable time to ride for long periods. That said, patients should avoid driving for 6 to 8 weeks following surgery, just to be safe.
Returning to work will largely depend on the extent of our surgery and the nature of your work. If it’s a day job at the office, it might take as long as 6-8 weeks. If it’s something more strenuous, or one that requires heavy lifting, it will likely take even longer—perhaps even up to a year.
Regardless of the specific procedure you had, and no matter how “controlled” your pain is, it’s always best to avoid bending, twisting, and lifting anything more than a few pounds. Bending from your waist or twisting from your torso can put pressure on your spine—possibly causing injury. It’s also best practice to avoid bending down or squatting initially following back surgery, as this can cause undue stress and possible injury as well. If you need to reach something on the floor, bend with one knee so that one hip remains parallel with the floor to keep your back straight.
It’s also important to not sit or lie down for too long, as this might also cause distress. Contrary to what many people believe, it’s better to keep your joints moving and to adjust your position; the longer you lie in bed or on the couch, the stiffer your body becomes.
Finally, never apply creams or cleansers to the incision. This can irritate your incision, causing more distress, not less. If your incision is sensitive or your clothing is rubbing against it, apply a clean, dry gauze to cover the wound, instead.
There are many things you can do to ensure an expedient and successful recovery following back surgery. Wearing your lumbar brace or cervical collar, if deemed necessary by your doctor, is chief among them. Braces and collars can limit movement, support the head and back, and take pressure off sensitive areas. As one might expect, this can help them heal faster and provide relief from pain. If instructed to do so, try to wear your brace or collar for as long as possible, for as long as your physician has recommended.
Another helpful way to recover from back surgery is to incorporate gentle aerobic exercise—such as walking or swimming—or other exercises that incorporate a full range of motion. Speak with your doctor first to decide on the best time to begin being active, and to get specific recommendations about what activities or stretches are best for you.
Lastly, changing your diet can also help improve your rate of recovery. In fact, by eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet—one that’s free of processed foods or added sugars—you can reduce constipation, and lessen inflammation, guaranteeing a faster (less stressful) recovery.
Not all things are considered normal when it comes to recovering from back surgery. If your pain significantly worsens or you notice any significant swelling, redness, drainage, or a fever, contact your doctor immediately!
If you have any questions or concerns regarding what to expect or how to recover from your back surgery, check out our post op care page or give us a call today. We’d love to answer all your questions and to address all your concerns. Contact the Comprehensive Spine Center of Dallas now.