Recovery After Spine Surgery: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Sarah Lewis, PharmD on August 31, 2020
  • spine, back, as
    Learn how to plan for your spine surgery recovery and rehabilitation.
    Some spine surgeries are short and only require a night in the hospital. Others last for hours and require days to weeks in the hospital and rehabilitation facility. Likewise, spine surgery recovery varies and depends on the specific surgery. Knowing what to expect in advance helps you concentrate on the healing process after spine surgery.
  • smiling-man-speaking-with-doctor-holding-tablet
    Your symptoms and spine function will improve slowly after spine surgery.
    Your goal during spine surgery recovery is to manage your symptoms and regain spine function. This can take a long time and be quite a challenge depending on the type of spine surgery. In fact, symptoms and function may continue to improve for a couple of years after spine surgery. Sometimes, back pain improves, but never fully resolves. Talk with your doctor from the very beginning about the best strategies to reach these goals and what you can expect.
  • Pain Medication
    It will be easier to recover after spine surgery if you control your pain.
    Pain is common for several days after spine surgery. Pain tends to resolve more quickly following minimally invasive procedures. For some spine surgeries, pain may persist for a few months. Controlling pain is vital because it helps you complete rehabilitation and increase your activities. So you will likely go home on a narcotic pain reliever. Ask your doctor before taking other pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). These drugs can slow down bone fusion.
  • Physical Therapy on Back
    There are different stages of rehabilitation throughout your spine surgery recovery.
    Some form of rehabilitation is common after most spine surgeries. The type of rehabilitation and how long it takes depends on the specific type of spine surgery. Initially, it will focus on walking and learning body mechanics to protect your spine. Eventually, physical therapy will include stretching, strengthening exercises, and conditioning exercises. These activities can be painful at first. Talk with your doctor or therapist about managing the pain so you can reach your spine surgery recovery goals.
  • Brace for Back
    Your doctor and rehab provider will help you increase activities safely.
    Returning to normal activities can take several days to months, depending on your type of spine surgery. In most cases, doctors encourage walking for short periods during the first two weeks. Gradually, you’ll add activities and intensity. Follow all instructions for wearing your brace, sitting, sleeping, rolling over, and lifting things. Doing too much too fast can cause problems. Ask your doctor when it’s safe to return to daily activities, driving, work, sex, and sports or other leisure activities.
  • Patient after back surgery
    Your wound will heal in about two weeks.
    Follow all instructions for covering and dressing the wound, keeping it dry, and showering. At the end of two weeks, you may need your doctor to remove your stitches or staples. This won’t be necessary if your doctor used dissolving stitches and tape strips. Be sure to call your doctor if your wound is red, swollen, warm, draining excess fluid, bleeding, or starting to open.
  • Quit Smoking
    Your doctor will likely ask you to stop using tobacco.
    If you smoke, your doctor may have suggested that you stop smoking or using tobacco before surgery. If you didn’t meet that challenge then, it’s vital that you take it on during spine surgery recovery. Nicotine inhibits bone healing and fusion. It doesn’t matter what form of nicotine, so nicotine-based programs to stop smoking aren’t a good choice for spine surgery patients. But there are other medicines that can help you kick the habit. Talk to your doctor for more information.
  • dialing-phone
    Your doctor will tell you when to call about possible complications.
    It’s important to be aware of possible complications while you recover so you can tell your doctor. Call your doctor right away if you have fever, problems urinating or having a bowel movement, or worsening pain. These could be signs of a complication. Other warning signs include pain, swelling, redness or tenderness in the leg, calf, ankle or foot. Call your doctor or seek medical attention if you experience these problems.
    Maintaining your overall health is key for the best recovery possible.
    An ideal spine surgery recovery is one that returns your spine function without pain or other symptoms. This may not be possible in all cases, but you can do your part to get there. Staying in good physical condition and maintaining a healthy weight can help minimize any pain left after your recovery. Your doctor will check your progress as your spine heals. Follow your doctor’s recommendations and be sure to call your doctor with any concerns.
What to Expect During Spine Surgery

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. After Spine Surgery. Johns Hopkins University.
  2. Preparing for Low Back Surgery. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
  3. Spinal Fusion. North American Spine Society.
  4. The Road to Recovery After Lumbar Spine Surgery. Johns Hopkins Medicine.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 31
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.