Patients often ask about the activities that they will be allowed to participate in after they have spine surgery. Many fear that they will not be able to return to their previous level of activity and are doomed to a miserable future as an overweight couch-potato. Spine surgery can be concerning enough without the patient worrying about the consequences of the surgery itself.
There was a school of thought that suggested that patients who undergo spinal surgery should never participate in sports and should change jobs to less heavy labor positions. Now, there are several studies that show professional football players are able to return to their original starting positions on the field after disc removal, or microdiskectomy. Obviously, these are some of the top athletes in the country who should have better pre-operative fitness than the average patient. There is currently a study in the journal SPINE, which looks at patient’s perceptions of spinal surgery and their post-operative activities. As the physicians in this study found, patients who were more fearful of moving after surgery, had more pain and dysfunction after surgery than those patients who were more confident in their attitudes about moving.
One of the goals for most spine surgeries is to restore the patient’s activity levels to normal. The spine specialist should address any expected limitations after surgery, before the surgery is performed. This conversation should include the ability to walk, bend, lift, turn and any type of brace that will be needed. For example, after a typical spinal fusion, there will be some limitation in lifting and exercise for the first 6 weeks from surgery. After the first 6 weeks, patients should be allowed to return to their normal activities. Depending on the patient’s pre-operative health and fitness, physical therapy may be needed to get the patient back to their normal routines and exercise.
As a practical matter, if the spine surgeon does not present a surgery that will return you to your previous level of activities, the surgery should not be performed.
Dr. Jeffrey R. Carlson attended medical school at George Washington University, completed his residency at Harvard University Combined Orthopaedic Program in Boston, MA and has fellowships in Orthopaedic Spine Surgery and Orthopaedic Trauma Surgery. Dr. Carlson currently practices as an Orthopaedic Spine Specialist at the Orthopaedic & Spine Center in Newport News, VA.