Neurosurgery One Blog

What can I expect during recovery from back surgery?

Posted by Paul Boone, MD on Jul 11, 2018 11:30:00 AM

Doctor examining man back in medical officeWhat can I expect during recovery from back surgery?

Just as every patient is unique and every surgery is different, no two patients experience recovery from back surgery in exactly the same way.

One thing almost all patients have in common: questions about their recovery from spine surgery.

Here neurosurgeon Paul Boone, MD, of NeursurgeryONE, formerly South Denver Neurosurgery, answers some of the more common questions patients ask about recovering from back surgery.

Q: How long should I expect recovery from back surgery to take?

A: Everyone’s recovery is different, and the type of back surgery you have will affect how long your recovery takes. For example, with a minimally invasive surgery, you may be back to normal activities in about two weeks.

With an open surgery, it might take longer.

Q: Will I experience pain after back surgery?

A: Again, that varies with the individual and with the type of surgery. It’s common to experience some pain at the surgical site, which can usually be managed medically. Typically, that pain is short-lived.  With minimally invasive surgery, you may experience less pain or pain over a smaller area than with open surgery.

Q: How soon after surgery will I be able to drive?

A: I tell patients who are having minimally invasive back surgery that they may be able to drive in as few as three days. For patients who’ve had an artificial disc replacement or other open surgery, it may take a couple of weeks before you’re able to drive again. But with all my patients, I tell them to think about these factors:

  • When you sit behind the wheel, do you feel you can operate the vehicle safely?
  • Could you respond quickly in an emergency, such as swerving quickly to avoid another vehicle?
  • And are you confident that any medication you are taking is not impeding your ability to drive?

Q: How soon will I be able to shower?

A: I don’t use sutures or staples to close an incision. Instead, the skin is closed with a special type of medical glue, so most patients can shower the day after surgery. I just advise that they don’t scrub the surgical site, but showering is fine. Sometimes patients are asked to wait 2-3 days as well.

Another advantage of the medical glue is that it doesn’t have to be removed. It will flake off on its own, usually in a week to 10 days.

Q: How soon will I be able to return to work?

A: That depends on the type of work you do. For a job where you sit at a desk or have very little physical demands on you, you may be able to return to work in a week.

For work that is more physical, such as construction work or operating heavy equipment, it could be up to six weeks, depending on the type of surgery.

Q: Will I need a cane, walker, or other mobility assistance device?

A: I generally leave that choice to the patient. With minimally invasive back surgery, recovery time is typically short enough that you won’t feel you need it. But if having a cane or a walker helps you feel more stable, more confident on your feet, and, consequently you are able to walk more, then by all means, use one.

Q: Will I need physical therapy?

A: Immediately after your surgery, the best physical therapy will be simply getting up and walking, as much as you are comfortable.

For patients who’ve had a minimally invasive surgery, we might have you start physical therapy two weeks after surgery. For surgeries such as disc replacement, it’s often closer to four weeks after surgery.

Generally, we recommend that patients have physical therapy three times a week for two to six weeks, depending on the type of surgery, although many people do most of their physical therapy at home after 1-2 initial visits.

Q: Will I set off metal detectors?

A: No. The metal detectors in airports and other public locations pick up metals that contain iron. The metals we use in back surgery for stabilization are made with titanium, not iron.

Topics: spine surgery, back surgery