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If your doctor has told you that you’ll need an anterior cervical discectomy, you may be confused or concerned about what your road to recovery will look like. Rest assured, though, that health care professionals have plenty of experience getting patients like you back to full function after an operation. By consulting with your doctor about the procedure and reading this article, you can learn more about the recovery from anterior cervical discectomy and feel more confident about the future of your health.

What Exactly Is Anterior Cervical Discectomy?

In order to know how long it will take to recover from anterior cervical discectomy, it can be helpful understanding just what the procedure is. If you’ve already been diagnosed with a spinal pathology and have been told that you will need to undergo an anterior cervical discectomy, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with it. Here is an overview of the procedure to fill in any gaps.

Anterior cervical discectomies are performed to treat pain caused by an inflamed nerve root, which may result from either a herniated disc or a degenerated disc. A disc herniation occurs when the soft, jelly-like inner portion of the disc in your spinal column becomes displaced and puts pressure on the spinal nerve. In a degenerated disc, on the other hand, the mostly water-filled disc dries out, impairing its ability to provide cushion between your vertebrae. In either case, the goals in anterior cervical discectomy are to remove the affected disc, expand the space surrounding the nerve and ensure that the cervical spine is stable.

Once you are safely under anesthesia, the surgeon will access the affected area from the front, entering through the throat and moving aside the muscles, nerves and blood vessels. Then, depending on the specifics of your condition, one or more problematic discs will be removed, along with any disc material that may have been displaced.

After the disc is removed, the surgeon will remove any bone spurs near the nerve to give it more space as it exits the spinal canal. The next goal will be to improve the stability of the area after the disc removal by fitting a bone graft into the empty space. This process, known as a fusion, can be done using a piece of bone from your hip, a piece of bone donated from a cadaver or an artificially-constructed bone graft substitute. Which one of the three is used will depend on your needs and your surgeon’s preferences.

Recovery and Important Factors

Once the operation is finished, you will wake up in a postoperative recovery area. Doctors and nurses will take precautions to make sure that your pain is manageable and that you are as comfortable as possible. If your bone graft was taken from your hip, then you may experience some pain around the site of the removal. Most patients who undergo anterior cervical discectomy stay in the hospital for one to three days after the operation, but it is possible to go home the same day. Discharge depends on several factors, such as your capacity to eat and walk, your level of pain and the severity of your pre-existing condition.

Whether you leave the hospital the day of your operation or three days after, a complete recovery usually takes 1-3 months, depending on how many levels are fused. During the first four to six weeks, you may be advised to wear a neck brace, which is helpful not only because it ensures that your spine aligns properly, but also because it improves your awareness of your posture. It’s important to stand up straight and avoid twisting and bending so that your spine can heal in the correct manner. Throughout this healing process, your doctor may want to take X-rays to monitor the progress of the bone fusion. He or she may also recommend neck stretches and exercise to help restore your mobility and functionality.

While you may be able to return to everyday activities in fewer than three months, there may still be certain restrictions in place until then. This is because the stability of your spine depends mostly on bone fusion, a process which takes six to18 months to complete. Your doctor will monitor your progress and determine the appropriate timeline for your return to activity. This timeline can have wide ranges due to several factors that differ among patients:

Age

In general, younger patients are able to heal more quickly and return to activity ahead of their older counterparts. However, because younger patients may have a higher pre-operative level of activity, their standard for a “complete” recovery may be higher and thus require more time.

Condition Severity

A more severe disc herniation or degeneration or the need to address multiple discs at a surgery may lead to a longer recovery timeline. Also if you condition is associated with a neurological problem like numbness or weakness, the full benefits of surgery can take many months.

Overall Health

Factors such as weight, tobacco or nicotine use and diet as well as medical conditions like diabetes can all influence the healing process. Those with better overall health are usually able to recover more quickly from anterior cervical discectomy.

Final Thoughts

Herniated and degenerated discs can be painful and impede an active lifestyle. Fortunately, they are well-understood conditions that can be effectively treated, so you won’t have to worry or wonder about how long it will take to recover from anterior cervical discectomy. You can use the information in this article as a guide for discussions with your doctor.

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