By the time scoliosis becomes severe enough to require surgery; reducing this curvature of the spine is certainly the top goal. Patients should expect to follow plenty of do’s and don’ts in the months after surgery that can help smooth their recovery, according to Praveen Kadimcherla, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Atlantic Spine Center.
The most common spinal deformity in school-age children, scoliosis affects about 2% to 3% of kids under the age of 16, according to the University of Washington. For some, the condition may begin in childhood and worsen in adulthood, leading to corrective surgery if lungs or other internal organs are squeezed by the curved spine. About 29,000 scoliosis surgeries are performed in the United States every year, mostly on adolescents, according to the Clear Scoliosis Institute.
“Scoliosis surgery isn’t done unless someone has a severe curvature of the spine, typically 45 to 50 degrees or more,” Dr. Kadimcherla explains. “Its major surgery and not something to be taken lightly. But patients are always glad to hear that they have some control over how well they recover if they follow some guidelines for what to do or not do in the first weeks and months afterward.”
Long-term view toward recovery:
Scoliosis surgery fuses vertebrae in the spine to both correct the curve and stop it from worsening. The 4- to 8-hour procedure typically involves placing rods, screws, wires or other surgical hardware in the spine to help keep it straight, while also using a bone graft to stimulate bone healing in the fused vertebrae.
Given the procedure’s complexity, a several-day hospital stay is usually required, Dr. Kadimcherla notes. During the immediate post-surgical period, heavy painkillers are often needed and a physical therapist works with the patient in the hospital to get them up and moving about adequately before they go home.
“We’ve moved muscles and re-aligned the skeleton, so naturally patients have quite a recovery process ahead of them,” he says. “It’s also a process that requires both a short-term and longer-term mindset to realistically approach their everyday activities. They can break down their post-surgery expectations into shorter and longer periods.”
Typical timetable of activities:
For some guidance on what to do and what to avoid doing after scoliosis surgery Dr. Kadimcherla offers these tips:
1 week after surgery:
DO expect lingering pain for several weeks but taper down painkiller type and use over time to avoid dependency.
DO walk around for longer periods as comfort allows.
DON’T disturb your surgical dressing until your follow-up appointment with your doctor.
DON’T bathe or shower until your doctor’s OK. Take sponge baths instead.
DON’T expect to go back to school or work until 2 to 4 weeks after surgery. Lay low and let your body heal.
DON’T carry a briefcase or backpack until at least 4 weeks after surgery.
1 month after surgery:
DO aim to stop prescription pain medicine use by this time since they can become addictive if taken for longer periods.
DO resume light social activities and get out with friends to improve your mood.
DO wear a protective back brace if prescribed by your doctor.
DON’T do any heavy lifting and minimize bending forward until 6 to 12 weeks after surgery. Also, don’t run or jump.
DON’T drive a car until your doctor’s OK, which is typically 6-8 weeks after surgery and only after narcotic-type pain medications are no longer being taken.
3 to 6 months after surgery:
DO expect lingering stiffness in your back, especially in the area where vertebrae were fused. But you should have enough motion in the unfused portion to do all your daily activities of living and most sports by now.
DO expect to get the green light to return to non-contact sports by 6 months post-surgery, such as running, weightlifting and other exercises.
DON’T resume contact sports, such as football, until receiving your doctor’s OK.
Dr. Kadimcherla cautions that it may take a full year to heal completely after scoliosis surgery, and contact sports may not be undertaken until that time.
“It takes a solid year for the spine to be completely fused and ready for all activities after this major surgery,” he says. “But by sticking to a logical set of do’s and don’ts, patients can help ensure they’re back to doing all their favorite things as soon as possible.”