After the fusion has had three months to heal together, it’s time for exercise to become a central component of the recovery process.

Progress in daily activities is usually readily apparent at this stage, and many patients are already working with a physical therapist.

Early in the patient’s recovery, rest was a priority. After the trauma of surgery, though, the muscles of the trunk, as well as the patient’s overall condition, are compromised. A loss of muscle tone and reduced range of motion leading to stiffness are common.

Exercise Helps Fusion Heal

Many patients are understandably worried that they might damage the fusion through exercise, but activity promotes healing. Bending, lifting, and twisting are still to be avoided, in most cases, but gentle exercise, as tolerated, has major benefits.

Once the fusion has set, it is no longer fragile. Instead of endangering the fusion, stressing the area after three months helps it become stronger.

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As the fusion matures, a reconditioning program is necessary. People with spinal problems fare best when they get in better shape. A controlled, progressive exercise program is typically started about three months after surgery, at times with the guidance of a physical therapist.

Rehabilitation includes a combination of stretching, strengthening, and aerobic conditioning.

The success of a spine fusion over time requires that the patient participate in a long-term self-directed exercise program. More specialized physical therapy (also called "work hardening" programs and MEDEX) may be done in situations requiring a return to work. Even people wanting to return to strenuous occupations or recreation can often do so by six months after surgery.

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Complete Recovery

While progress is likely to be obvious at this stage, full recovery usually takes up to 8 months, with the bone continuing to evolve for 12 to 18 months. In some situations where a patient’s nerves have been seriously injured, it may take up to 1 to 2 years to see how well the nerves will recover after surgery.

Taking an active role in strengthening the body once physical therapy has been completed is one of the best ways patients can help avoid future back problems.