Cervical artificial disc replacement surgery is an increasingly common procedure for relieving nerve compression in the neck. This surgery is relatively safe and reliable for treating radicular pain that travels from the neck down into the arm or hand.
While different spine surgeons recommend somewhat different approaches to postoperative care after cervical artificial disc replacement, there are several general aspects of recovery that can be expected.
Cervical Artificial Disc Replacement Recovery Time
Most people are able to return to everyday activities, such as light work and driving, within a week of having surgery. A full recovery typically takes 6 to 12 weeks, when heavier lifting and more vigorous activities may be resumed. If nerve compression prior to surgery was severe, healing in the nerve may continue for up to 1 or 2 years after surgery.
Much of the postoperative pain felt is related to the small incision in the front of the neck as well as areas inside the neck where the surgery took place. Some people may have discomfort or trouble with talking or swallowing, as the esophagus and other soft tissues may have been irritated during the surgery. This pain typically subsides considerably within a few days or weeks. In rare cases, it is possible for pain or other complications to last longer or become permanent.
Factors that Can Slow Down Recovery Time
Recovery from cervical artificial disc replacement surgery can vary. Some factors that can affect recovery time include:
- Smoking. Studies have shown that people who smoke tend to have higher rates of infection at surgical sites.1 Also, nicotine is a known bone toxin, so it may hinder the artificial disc’s attachment to adjacent vertebrae. Many surgeons may require a person to refrain from smoking in the few weeks leading up to and after surgery.
- Multilevel surgery. When more than one level of the cervical spine is operated upon, the recovery is likely to take longer compared to a single-level surgery. If a hybrid surgery is performed (fusion surgery at one level and artificial disc replacement at an adjacent level), the fusion will likely take 6 or more months to fully grow together. Currently 1- and 2-level artificial cervical discs are FDA-approved in the United States. If more than this level is being performed, the risks of off-label use need to be discussed with the surgeon.
- Medication plan. If medications are not taken as directed by the surgeon or pharmacist, there is an increased risk for delayed recovery due to complications or inadequate pain relief. If a prescribed medication is causing unwanted side effects or not relieving pain, ask the surgeon about other medication options. Unlike fusion surgery, anti-inflammatory medications are often used following disk replacement.
- Physical activity levels. While walking is advised shortly after surgery, too much activity early in the recovery period may lead to increased pain or injury. Additionally, too little movement or activity may increase the risk for neck stiffness, constipation, blood clots, or other complications. Follow the surgeon’s recommendations for which activities are appropriate at each stage of the recovery.
- Age. People who are older may not heal as quickly. One study of outcomes from cervical artificial disc replacement surgery compared people who were over age 65 with people who were younger than age 40. While the outcomes in both groups were good, people over age 65 tended to have more issues with swallowing after surgery.2
Other factors may slow down recovery time, such as malnutrition or overall poor health.
Planning Ahead for Cervical Artificial Disc Replacement Surgery
The return home after cervical artificial disc replacement surgery may go smoother with some preplanning. Many people have a sore throat the first few days, so having soft foods already on hand can help avoid a trip to the store while fatigued.
A person recovering from this surgery may also need help with cooking or other household chores. Having a friend or family member ready to assist is a good idea, especially during those first few day when pain and fatigue tend to be highest.