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After a back injury, spinal repair surgery may be the answer to reclaiming your life. However, as with any surgery, there is a recovery period during which your main job is to heal and get better. Before spinal repair surgery, you should be aware of the timeline of this recovery period. This knowledge will allow you to plan accordingly and avoid the pitfalls of a lack of preparation.

In the interest of providing a thorough overview of the recovery process for spinal repair surgery, the following information is based on a discectomy and spinal fusion surgical combination. It’s important to note that depending on the type of surgery required and your individual condition, this timeline may vary. Your surgeon can give you a more accurate estimate of how your own recovery will likely progress.

Understanding Spinal Surgery

Surgical techniques have come a long way. The introduction of the minimally invasive procedures has eliminated a large amount of the tissue trauma associated with traditional, open back or neck surgery. One such surgery that has benefited greatly from these less invasive techniques is a discectomy and spinal fusion.

Damaged or compromised intervertebral discs can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort in some individuals. As such, the removal of the damaged disc is the best option in some cases for eliminating the symptoms and restoring functionality.

The Procedure Overview

Discectomy and spinal fusion are two different procedures that are performed together to constitute a single surgery. This is a general anesthetic surgery, which means you will be completely asleep for the duration of the surgery.

When your surgeon performs a discectomy, he or she will create a small incision near the damaged disc. Using a microscope and specialized surgical instruments, the damaged disc will be carefully removed. In some instances, it’s also necessary to remove bone spurs that have grown in the area.

Once the disc is removed, a fusion is performed. A fusion creates a “bridge” of bone between the two vertebrae that were flanking either side of the disc. This can be done using your own bone, donor bone, a special scaffolding material or even in combination with instrumentation such as rods, plates and screws. Fusion surgery is used to stabilize the spine and provide protection to the area from which the disc was removed.

A discectomy will take around one to two hours on average but a spinal fusion will take longer. Both of the procedures may take longer if the spinal repair surgery is more involved. When the procedure is completed, your surgeon will close the incision and you’ll be taken to recovery.


Recovery begins as soon as your surgeon closes your incision. You will wake up in the recovery area of the hospital. Your nurses will adjust your pain medication and ensure your vitals are stable. Once you’ve been deemed stable and conscious enough to go to a room, you’ll be moved to another portion of the hospital for the remainder of your stay. Most people that have undergone discectomy and spinal fusion stay in the hospital for one or two days.

Week One

During the first week after your surgery, you’ll be fatigued and will probably want to sleep more than usual. This is completely normal, and it’s important to listen to your body and rest frequently.

You will be sent home with pain medication. Be sure to take the medication exactly as prescribed to ensure that you don’t experience pain and discomfort. If you feel you’d like to cut back or discontinue the pain medication after a few days, be sure to call your surgeon prior to doing so.

Nutrition is key in giving your body the nourishment it needs to heal properly. Try to eat a well-balanced diet and avoid consuming alcohol or other “empty” calories. If you are not on a protein-restricted diet because of pre-existing medical conditions, an increase in your protein intake will give the soft tissues and bones a boost.

If you smoke, avoid doing so. It may be tempting to resume the habit but your healing depends greatly on your avoidance of tobacco product consumption.

Weeks Two – Four

Your surgeon will want to see you back for a follow-up between the second and fourth week. You may have an imaging study done (MRI, CT scan or x-rays are the most common) so your surgeon can see the progress of your fusion and ensure that everything in the former disc space looks good.

If you work in a light-duty job, such as at a computer, you may be able to return to work around the third or fourth week. Although you may be feeling better, don’t overdo it. If you are still feeling tired, be sure to ask for a modified work schedule until you’re feeling more energetic.

Towards the end of this time period, your surgeon will remove your sutures (if there are any). You may also be released to start participating in more activities.

If you’ve been prescribed physical therapy, be sure to start attending on the recommended date. Don’t miss any sessions, as PT can make or break your spinal repair surgery recovery.

Week Five & On

During the fifth or sixth week following surgery, you will be well into your recovery period. If you work in a high-impact or strenuous job, you may be able to resume work with modifications recommended by your surgeon.

Physical therapy should be continued — even if you’re feeling fine, your doctor prescribes PT for a certain length of time to ensure that you regain strength and mobility.

Follow-ups are also of great importance. They allow your surgeon and medical team to monitor your spinal fusion and note any changes that might be taking place.

Being prepared for spinal repair surgery can help you not only plan accordingly for your recovery but also help you understand the milestones you should be working toward.