Neck surgery recovery time is a primary concern for patients who need surgery to relieve neck pain or pain or numbness in their arms and hands. Neck pain will affect most people during their lifetime. As we spend more time looking at computers and smartphones, the incidence rate of neck pain has been increasing and a new phenomenon called “text neck” even has been invented. Nearly half of the patients I see at Neurosurgery One come in for some type of neck pain.
What about you? Is your chronic neck pain taking a toll on your physical and emotional health? Have you tried physical therapy, injections and other non-surgical treatments with little or no results? Check out my recent blog post about the top 3 signs you may need disc replacement surgery for neck pain.
If you’ve been told you need neck surgery, you may hesitate to consider this option because you’re worried about the neck surgery recovery time. I hope to alleviate some of your fears in this post, where I discuss what you need to know about cervical surgery recovery time. I will also outline what to expect during each phase of the healing process. This post is the final post in a four-part series:
- What are the most common types of neck pain and when should you seek medical care?
- Is cervical disc replacement a good spine surgery for neck pain?
- Three signs cervical disc replacement might be right for you.
- Today’s post: What can I expect from neck surgery recovery time?
How can I prepare for neck surgery to have the best recovery?
I, along with the other Denver neurosurgeons at Neurosurgery One, use a unique program called Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) , that is medically researched and proven to result in less pain, faster recovery, and better outcomes for spine surgery patients. This program includes patient education that starts before surgery to teach you the things you can do to reduce your neck surgery recovery time, including “pre-hab” exercises, dietary changes, and lifestyle recommendations. You’ll also receive guidance on how to improve your experience after surgery including learning how to safely bend, twist, and lift after surgery.
Another vital aspect of your recovery process is preparing your home before the procedure. Just like you have to “baby-proof” or “puppy-proof” your home before a new arrival, you’ll need to create a safe home environment where you can focus on your recovery.
This might include:
- Placing frequently used items within easy reach (between hip and shoulder level)
- Preparing and freezing meals ahead of time
- Adding a non-slip shower mat in your bathroom
- Removing loose cords, throw rugs, or other trip hazards
- Keeping button-down shirts and slip-on shoes in an easily accessible location
- Arranging for someone to stay with you for a few days after you return home (if you live alone)
This is also the time to ask for help with activities you won’t be able to do right away after your surgery. For example, you may need someone to drive you to appointments, walk the dog, shovel snow, and clean the house. Ask your friends and family for their support or consider hiring extra help.
What can I expect while I’m in the hospital for neck surgery?
Once you have your preparation in place, it’s time to focus on your upcoming neck surgery. Depending on your overall health and the type of surgery you will be having, you may go home from the hospital or surgery center the same day as your surgery, or you could spend 1-2 days in the hospital. During your time in the hospital or surgery center, you will receive pain medication to ease any discomfort from your neck surgery. You’ll also be monitored while you eat in case you have any difficulty swallowing.
After surgery and as you come out of anesthesia, you will be helped out of bed so you can take a short walk. Likely, you will be encouraged to take walks every few hours. This improves blood flow, prevents constipation, and speeds up the healing process.
While you’re in the hospital, your neck will likely feel stiff and sore. You will be given pain medication to control your pain. You may also be given a neck brace to wear depending on the type of operation you’ve had. While not everyone needs to wear a brace, some find it useful to help remind themselves of the limitations in terms of movement and reminding family members of their recent surgery.
What is neck surgery recovery like at home?
Once you’re cleared to go home, make sure someone is there 24/7 to assist you. You’ll have restrictions on how much you can lift (usually nothing heavier than a gallon of milk). Your Denver spine surgeon will give you specific instructions on what to do and not do, including the best position to sleep in. You’ll probably be the most comfortable sleeping in a reclined position or on your back. Aim to get at least eight hours of sleep each night (or even more) to help your body heal.
Short frequent walks are ideal, and you can avoid stiffness by changing your position every hour or so. Daily showers will keep your incision clean, but you’ll want to avoid pools, hot tubs, or baths until the site is fully healed.
During your first follow-up visit (usually within two weeks of surgery), I will advise you on when it’s safe to begin resuming other types of light exercise, housework, or sexual activity.
What can I expect from neck surgery recovery time over the initial weeks and first few months?
Every patient has a unique recovery process depending on their health and the type of surgery they have. Our neck surgery guide gives more details about cervical disc fusion and disc replacement surgery. I have also included a brief overview below.
You’ll need to avoid bending over or twisting your neck for the first few weeks. Expect to wait 4-6 weeks before you’re cleared to lift “heavy” objects (heavier than that gallon of milk). If you’re able to turn your head and you’re not reliant on pain medication, you can usually start driving within 3-6 weeks after surgery.
Depending on which type of neck surgery you receive, you’ll likely start physical therapy about 3-4 weeks after your neck fusion surgery or 2-3 weeks after disc replacement surgery. You will continue physical therapy for several months. People with office jobs can expect to return to work within a month or so, while people with more physical jobs may need to wait longer.
As far as sports and physically-demanding hobbies, you’ll need to consult with your spine surgeon about when it’s safe to resume those activities. You might expect to begin low-impact activities within 2-3 months; but again, this is just an estimate. It all depends on how well your body is healing, any other health conditions you may have, and how well you adhere to our instructions.
Learn More About Different Types of Neck Surgery
As you have read, cervical surgery recovery time varies depending on a number of factors. In general, you can expect to go home within a day or two of your surgery and resume gentle activities within a few weeks. You’ll likely do physical therapy for a few months to help with the neck surgery recovery process. With an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, the vertebrae are usually solidly fused together within three months. However, it may take up to 6-12 months before you can resume physical sports or other physically intensive activities.
Studies show that up to 90 percent of spine fusion patients have significantly reduced neck pain or their neck pain has completely been eliminated after receiving a spine fusion. Disc replacement surgery has been found to be equally as successful. In addition, a 2016 study published in PLOS ONE found that artificial disc replacement resulted in better functional outcomes, less need for additional surgery, and fewer complications than fusion.