How To Manage Spinal Fusion Recovery in the Workplace

January 26, 2019

Senior businesswoman stretching at her desk.
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

Every year, thousands of Americans have spinal surgery. For many, the procedure performed is spinal fusion, a complex surgery in which two or more bones of the spine are joined, or fused, together permanently. Since so many people undergo these procedures, they've become one of the more prominent health issues in the workplace.

Recovering from any type of back surgery can be difficult, but you may experience unique challenges after having fusion surgery. As you heal, it's important to keep in mind that you can't immediately return to your normal activities — it takes time for your spine to heal, and rushing the process can result in further injury.

Every person's recovery is a personal experience. But with your doctor's help, you can effectively manage any symptoms you may experience as your body heals. And if you experience any new or concerning symptoms, contacting your doctor immediately is the best way to avoid serious complications.

Understanding Spinal Fusion

This complex surgical procedure permanently joins, or fuses, two or more bones (vertebrae) in your spinal column together, preventing any further motion between them. This technique also permanently changes the way your spine moves, which may add additional stress to other parts of your body.

Spinal fusion is performed to help manage a variety of medical conditions, including:

  • Broken vertebrae
  • Spinal weakness or instability
  • Herniated disks
  • Spinal deformities

Other medical conditions that may cause severe back pain or nerve damage, like spondylolisthesis, are also treated with this type of surgery.

Recovering From Spinal Fusion

As with any surgical procedure, recovery from spine surgery takes time. In general, it takes a little longer to recover from fusion surgery than it does for other types of back surgery. Your doctor may recommend that you stay in the hospital for several days following your procedure to make sure your pain is controlled and your body is healing well.

Returning to work after spinal fusion can also be challenging. Since the procedure changes the way your spine moves, you may find it difficult to perform your usual work tasks. Even sitting and standing for prolonged periods may be uncomfortable.

It's normal to experience pain after fusion surgery, and a key part of your recovery focuses on pain management. Your doctor may recommend one or several therapies to help manage pain, including medications and back braces. A back brace supports good posture and helps take some of the pressure off your spine as you heal. Wearing a back brace can help reduce the pain or soreness you may feel after surgery.

In many cases, doctors also recommend physical therapy to help strengthen your back and promote healing. Generally, physical therapy begins six weeks to three months after your surgery. With the help of your physical therapist, you'll learn techniques to help you move and re-position properly, including how to properly sit, stand and walk to avoid discomfort.

As long as your treatment team thinks it's safe, you can perform physical therapy exercises at work. In most cases, exercises or stretches can be preformed right at your desk using many items common in the workplace. You may also choose to stretch or exercise in a private conference room or other quiet space at your workplace. If your doctor gives the go-ahead, you may want to try physical therapy exercises like these:

  • Seated hamstring stretch: From a sitting position, straighten one of your legs in front of you with your toes pointed upward. You may choose to rest this leg on another chair. While your leg is straightened, slowly move your chest forward to feel a stretch in your back and hamstrings. Hold for a few seconds, then repeat with the other leg.
  • Shoulder retraction exercises: While sitting, stretch your arms above your head with your palms facing forward. Slowly bend your arms to a 45-degree angle at the elbows while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Repeat.

Recovery from fusion surgery may take a little longer, but it's still possible to return to work while your body heals. Many people deal with these types of health issues in the workplace, and your doctor and healthcare team can recommend treatments for you that address your unique challenges and needs. Following your doctor's advice gets you back to work — and your life — as quickly as possible.

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