For patients with severe spinal curvatures that do not respond to bracing, surgery may be necessary to realign the spine.
While scoliosis surgery can greatly improve a patient’s confidence and reduce their pain, it’s still a major procedure that temporarily disrupts their everyday life.
Scoliosis surgery recovery is a relatively long process – patients won’t be able to go back to their normal activities until 3 to 6 months after the procedure. And because most of the patients who undergo scoliosis surgery are adolescents, parents often worry about how this recovery period will affect their child’s life. How long will they be out of school? How will recovery interfere with their participation in sports and other activities?
Dr. Geoffrey Cronen, an orthopedic surgeon at Florida Medical Clinic, hopes to address the most common questions patients have about scoliosis surgery recovery. Knowing what to expect at each stage of the healing process can help you prepare and feel more at ease.
A Smooth Recovery Starts with Good Preparation
The first few weeks at home after scoliosis surgery are the most difficult, but you can make things easier with a little bit of prep work.
First, decide who will be helping the patient with everyday tasks and when. Create a schedule to keep things organized, and share it with any other family members, friends, or aides involved with the patient’s post-surgery care. Patients won’t be able to drive themselves for up to 8 weeks following surgery, so they’ll also need help getting to follow-up appointments and running errands.
For children and teens undergoing scoliosis surgery, it’s also important to plan a return-to-school date. Most kids will be able to return to school between 3 and 6 weeks after surgery, but you may want to start with half days at first.
To avoid injury, kids should not carry around a heavy backpack on their shoulders – consider switching to a rolling backpack instead. Parents should also talk with their child’s teachers and school staff to discuss possible accommodations, such as extra time between classes, elevator privileges, and special seating arrangements.
Take Basic Precautions: Avoid the “BLTs”
When your doctor tells you to avoid the BLTs after scoliosis surgery, they don’t mean bacon, lettuce, and tomato – they mean bending, lifting, and twisting.
This might sound like an easy rule to follow at first, but we do these three things without thinking all the time. You’ll need to be extra careful to avoid the following activities and movements during your recovery until your doctor gives you the all-clear.
- Bending: You’ll be able to bend at the knees to open a bottom cabinet or grab something off the coffee table, but you shouldn’t bend your back to pick things off the floor. Have someone else help you or use a long grabber tool.
- Lifting: For the first 2 weeks after surgery, avoid lifting anything heavier than 5 lbs (or whatever weight your doctor recommends). That includes common household items like a laundry basket full of clothes, a vacuum cleaner, or even a gallon of milk.
- Twisting: You may not think that you twist your spine very often, but you probably do it every morning when you get out of bed. To avoid twisting and injuring your healing spine, practice “log rolling” in and out of bed instead.
Scoliosis Surgery Recovery Timeline
Every patient’s recovery journey is different, so take this timeline with a grain of salt and listen to your doctor – they’ll give you the best idea of what to expect in the weeks and months following surgery.
First 7 Days After Surgery
If there are no complications, most scoliosis surgery patients can expect to be discharged from the hospital 3 to 7 days after surgery.
During the first few days, patients will need plenty of rest. As early as the first day after surgery, your doctor may have you stand and walk short distances with assistance. By the end of the first week, you should be able to perform some small daily tasks that don’t require bending or lifting, like brushing your teeth.
On your discharge day, your doctor will provide instructions for at-home care, such as what medications to take and any exercises you should do. Remember, you won’t be able to drive yourself home, so make sure you’ve arranged for someone to pick you up from the hospital.
1 to 2 Weeks After Surgery
As you’re regaining your strength during the first 2 weeks of scoliosis surgery recovery, having friends and family members around to help you with daily chores like cleaning, cooking, and shopping for groceries is a must.
While they’re busy helping you, you’ll be busy with wound care at this stage in the recovery process. To prevent infection, you’ll need to keep the area dry and clean.
It may be tempting to start applying scar creams as soon as possible, but it’s best to avoid applying any creams or lotions until the incision is fully healed. Follow your doctor’s wound care instructions and, when in doubt, ask before applying any other topical solutions.
3 to 4 Weeks After Surgery
Patients typically start to feel more energetic. Adults might start returning to work, and children and adolescents might get the green light from their doctor to return to school. Your doctor will likely have you off all prescription pain medications by this point in your recovery.
While you may start feeling better, you should still be mindful of your restrictions. Light exercise, like walking, is encouraged, but you won’t be able to run, jump, or lift heavy objects just yet.
6 to 12 Weeks After Surgery
Around 6 weeks post-op, you’ll see your doctor for a follow-up appointment to determine if you’re ready to take on more strenuous activities.
At 12 weeks, your doctor will want to take some X-rays to check your progress. If all is well, you should be able to return to (almost) all of your normal, unrestrictive activities.
The only things your doctor may still consider off-limits are sports that require a great deal of spinal flexibility, like gymnastics or bowling, or activities that can potentially damage your spine, such as riding a rollercoaster or playing contact sports.
6 Months to 12 Months After Surgery
After a final recovery check-in with an orthopedic surgeon, many patients can resume all activities (including contact sports) between 6 and 12 months post-op.
Remember, these recommendations are made by doctors on a case-by-case basis. Don’t assume that just because it’s been more than 6 months after your scoliosis surgery you can do whatever you want. Always consult your doctor before starting or resuming contact sports and other more extreme activities, such as rock climbing or bungee jumping.
Listen to Your Body (And Your Doctor)
Everyone’s body is different, so no two recovery stories are the same. While discomfort and stiffness are normal parts of the recovery process, increased pain is a sign that you need to slow down and take it easy.
You know your body best, so listen to it. Ask for help when you need it, and call your orthopedic surgeon if something doesn’t seem right.
For parents with children about to undergo scoliosis surgery, knowing what to expect and planning ahead helps reduce anxiety about the procedure. Ask your orthopedic surgeon as many questions as you need to before and after surgery – print a list of questions and take it with you, if that helps. The more informed you are, the more confident you’ll be with your surgeon and the more satisfied you’ll be with the end result.
If you still have unanswered questions about adolescent or adult scoliosis surgery recovery, call board-certified spine specialist Dr. Geoffrey Cronen. Surgery is not the only treatment option available – if you’ve noticed visible symptoms of scoliosis in yourself or your child, our spine care team can assess the severity of the curve and recommend the best treatment approach.
To make an appointment with Dr. Cronen and his team in Tampa or Wesley Chapel, Florida, fill out our quick online appointment request form or call 813-979-0440.
Disclaimer: This blog is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a licensed medical provider. Always seek the advice of your physician regarding your medical condition.