During the first week of recovery from cervical artificial disc replacement surgery, rest and pain control are the main focus. While most people experience significant improvements in pain and energy levels during the second week, others may recover more slowly.

Activity Restrictions After Cervical Artificial Disc Replacement Surgery

Certain activities need to be limited or avoided during the first week or two after surgery:

  • Excessive neck movements. Some surgeons may recommend a soft neck collar for the first few days after surgery to stabilize the neck and reduce excess movement, but it is not typically necessary. While most neck motions are permitted and safe at this early stage, they could still be painful. In particular, most patients are advised to avoid extending the head and neck too far backward for the first couple weeks.
  • Heavy lifting. Typically, lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk (about 8 pounds) is discouraged during the first couple weeks after surgery.
  • Baths or other water submersion. Avoid submerging the incision site in water while the wound is still healing. Activities such as taking a bath, swimming, or sitting in a whirlpool increase the risk for infection.
  • Driving. No driving is permitted until the patient has transitioned off opioids and any other medications that may cause drowsiness or impair reflexes. Neck mobility and pain must also be improved enough for safe driving.
  • Running or other vigorous activities. Running, biking, and participating in sports are typically discouraged the first few weeks after cervical artificial disc replacement surgery.

Restrictions may vary depending on the surgeon and patient. Patients should always ask questions if they are not sure.

See Recovery from Cervical Artificial Disc Replacement Surgery

Pain Medications After Cervical Artificial Disc Replacement Surgery

Opioid pain medication is likely to be prescribed for the first few days at home. If muscle cramps develop or persist, a muscle relaxer may also be prescribed. At some point within the first week or two after surgery, most people transition off opioids to a weaker pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

While NSAIDs are an option after artificial disc replacement surgery, they typically are not recommended following fusion surgery because they may hinder bone growth. Contrary to fusion surgeon, one of the goals after artificial disc replacement is to maintain motion between the vertebrae rather than to foster bone growth. Abnormal bone formation may inhibit the mobility of an artificial disk.

Opioids are only recommended for short-term use because of their risk for serious side effects, including addiction.

See Opioid Medication Potential Risks and Complications


Getting Sleep After Cervical Artificial Disc Replacement Surgery

Some people may prefer sleeping in a reclined position, such as a recliner chair, for the first few days. Whatever sleep position feels the most comfortable is usually OK. Sleeping on the stomach is not advised because it puts the most stress on the cervical spine.

Some trial and error may be necessary with pillows of different sizes or firmness before finding what works best. If pain interferes with sleep, let the surgeon know. Do not take sleep medication without first consulting the surgeon or pharmacist.

Caring for the Incision

The small incision site at the front of the neck is typically 1 to 2 inches long and takes 10 to 14 days to heal. During this time, the wound must be kept clean and dry to reduce the risk of infection.

The incision site needs to be checked and cleaned periodically. Some recommendations may include applying a new dressing daily for the first 5 days. It is OK to let soap and water run on the incision so long as it is gently rinsed and patted dry. Showers are typically allowed 2 or 3 days after surgery, but it is best not to point the shower head directly at the incision.

Instructions can vary for how best to care for an incision site wound, so it is important to follow the surgeon’s specific directions. The surgeon needs to confirm that the incision has fully healed before permitting a return to baths, swimming, or hot tubs.


When to Seek Immediate Medical Care

Pain and energy levels tend to fluctuate after cervical artificial disc replacement surgery, especially during the first couple weeks. Some signs and symptoms that may require immediate medical evaluation include:

  • Pain that worsens despite taking medication as prescribed
  • Numbness, weakness, or reduced bowel/bladder control
  • Increased redness, pain, or discharge at the incision site
  • Nausea, dizziness, severe headache, fever, or chills

Most people will not experience complications after cervical artificial disc replacement surgery, but it is still important to know the signs and symptoms of unusual complications. Bringing an issue to the attention of the surgeon or medical care team early on may lead to better results and a quicker recovery.

Dr. Jay Jagannathan is a neurosurgeon specializing in spine surgery, and he is the Founder and President of a Michigan-based multidisciplinary practice offering neurosurgery, neurology, and pain management services.