Spinal Stenosis Surgery: Recovery

Recovery from spinal stenosis surgery can vary based on what type of procedure was performed and the number of vertebrae operated on. Activity restrictions will be put in place during the initial stages of recovery until the spine heals and becomes fully stabilized. Physical therapy may also play an important role in your recovery to get you back to performing everyday activities safely and without pain.

Man in physical therapy pointing to his low back.
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Surgery Follow-Up

An appointment with your surgeon should be scheduled soon after your spinal stenosis surgery was performed. After the initial follow-up visit, your healthcare provider will make regularly scheduled appointments, typically around every six weeks in the beginning, to monitor your progress during your recovery.

Pain Management

You will likely be given an initial prescription for narcotic pain medication to help with symptom management after the surgery. Narcotic medications can be addictive and cause undesirable side effects, especially gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, constipation, and abdominal pain.

It is best to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions about weaning yourself off of the medication and doing so as early as possible if your pain is well controlled.

Always make sure to ask your practitioner if it is safe to take over-the-counter pain medications if necessary based on your medical history and type of procedure performed. Certain medications can increase the risk of bleeding or hinder bone growth and can be problematic for recovering from spinal stenosis surgery.

Physical Therapy

Depending on the extent of your surgery and remaining limitations after the operation, your healthcare provider may give you a prescription for outpatient physical therapy. You can receive physical therapy services either at an outpatient private practice or the outpatient rehabilitation department of a hospital.

If you need to be sent to a subacute rehabilitation center before being discharged home, you will receive physical therapy during your stay. Physical therapy services performed in your home are also available for patients who have significant limitations impairing their ability to safely leave their home.

A physical therapist will evaluate you and develop a plan of care that will help to address your pain and make improvements in the range of motion of your spine, your strength, and your ability to walk, as well as change positions and maintain your balance if you are having difficulty with these areas.

Physical therapy generally begins at a frequency of two to three times a week for four to six weeks. Your physical therapist will communicate and coordinate care with your healthcare provider and determine if you need more visits after the initial frequency is close to completion.

Recovery Timeline

For a discectomy, laminectomy, or foraminotomy, you can generally go back to work within a few days to a few weeks after returning from the hospital, although it may take up to three months to return to normal activities.

These procedures can vary in length of recovery from two to four weeks (or potentially less) to resume a sedentary job, or up to eight to 12 weeks for more physically demanding roles that require heavy lifting.

During the first two weeks of recovery, you will have several restrictions in place to facilitate healing of the spine. These restrictions may include:

  • No bending, lifting, or twisting
  • No lifting anything that weighs more than 5 pounds
  • No strenuous physical activity, including exercising, housework, yardwork, or sexual activity
  • No driving or operating a vehicle of any kind until discussed with your surgeon
  • No drinking alcohol in the initial stage of recovery or while taking narcotic pain medication

For spinal fusion surgery, recovery may take longer. It may be four to six weeks before you can comfortably go back to work. Full recovery from spinal fusion surgery can take between six months to a year to resume normal activities.

Restrictions similar to those for other spinal stenosis surgery procedures should be followed, along with any recommendations made by your surgeon.

If you are given a back brace, it should be worn at all times of the day except while you're lying down and sleeping. Wearing the back brace will no longer be necessary once the fusion has stabilized: your healthcare provider will track your progress and advise you when this occurs.

Coping With Recovery

Recovery from spinal stenosis surgery can be a challenging process if significant back pain and activity limitations still exist several weeks after the surgery was performed.

It is important to follow all instructions from your surgeon and physical therapist to promote optimal healing and recovery for the best possible outcome. Recommendations for optimal recovery include:

  • Prioritizing getting enough sleep at night—at least seven to eight hours—to promote healing
  • Eating a healthy diet and managing a healthy weight
  • Staying adequately hydrated
  • Maintaining a positive attitude and learning how to cope with and manage stress
  • Following your exercise program as prescribed by your physical therapist
  • Staying active and limiting the amount of time you spend sitting each day
  • Maintaining proper posture with sitting, standing, walking, and sleeping to decrease strain on your low back
  • Learning proper lifting techniques to utilize your core and leg muscles to prevent increased pressure on your spine

Wound Care

You may experience pain and discomfort in your low back. Your healthcare provider will prescribe you pain medication to help manage symptoms after the surgery. Applying ice to the incision site can help provide pain relief and decrease inflammation.

If you develop a fever, or if the surgical site becomes red, hot, or swollen, contact your healthcare provider immediately, since these are signs that you may have an infection.

You may shower within a few days after the surgery, but your incision site should remain covered and dry if you do. The incision should remain covered for a few days, usually no longer than five days after the surgery. Your surgeon will give you specific instructions about how long to keep the bandage covering the surgical site. Once you remove the bandage, wash gently around the incision and pat dry.

Your incision should not be submerged or soaked in water, so avoid using baths, pools, or tubs in the initial stages of recovery to prevent the incision from reopening. Also avoid applying lotions, creams, or ointments to the area unless directed to do so by your practitioner.

If stitches or staples are left in place, do not remove them yourself. Your healthcare provider will remove any stitches or staples at your follow-up appointment once the incision site has adequately healed.

A Word From Verywell

It is important to follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations after your spinal stenosis surgery in order to promote optimal healing and recovery. The length of your recovery can vary depending on the type and number of procedures performed.

Remember that you can play an active part in your recovery: follow your prescription for physical therapy visits and a home exercise program, if applicable, and maintain healthy lifestyle habits, stay active, and limit the amount of time you spend sitting each day to help ensure the best possible outcome from your surgery.

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2 Sources
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  1. UW Health. Home care instructions after lumbar laminectomy, decompression or discectomy surgery.

  2. University of Michigan Health System. How to care for yourself after lumbar spinal fusion.