On average, artificial disc replacement recovery time takes about 3-5 weeks; however, artificial disc replacement recovery time varies from patient to patient. Many patients can return to light activities and desk work within 1 week, but a few may not be at full activity level for up to 3 months. Importantly, since the vertebrae do not need to fuse together after artificial disc replacement surgery, recovery time is shorter than it is for spinal fusion surgery. See more about the differences on our disc replacement vs spinal fusion guide.
What is artificial disc replacement? An artificial disc replacement surgery to treat one level of disease takes between 45 minutes to 1:15 minutes max. In artificial disc replacement surgery, a skilled spine surgeon first removes your damaged natural vertebral disc from the spinal column. This has to be done carefully and completely to avoid complications and to make sure all of the diseased disc is removed. There are many different types of artificial disc replacement, however, typically the spine surgeon may then modify your vertebral bones above and below the now removed disc. This modification allows the artificial disc to be placed in precise alignment on your spine. Once the artificial disc is in place, the surgeon closes the area and incision, and you are moved out of the operating suite and into post-anesthesia care. Once fully awake, you may spend up to 4 hours in the surgery center before being released to home to recover. This is an outpatient surgery.
Ideally, patients will have prepared for the artificial disc replacement recovery period before surgery. This means having access to easy-to-prepare, healthy meals and all medications and supplies you will need during recovery. Most people find post-surgery artificial disc replacement recovery is easier if they have at least one person at home who can help them with basic tasks.
You may need low-dose opioids for the first few days after cervical artificial disc replacement, but most people can tolerate post-surgery discomfort at home with acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen.
Follow your surgeon’s post-surgery instructions carefully. This document will guide you on how to care for your surgical incision, how and when you can shower, and when you can expect to return to certain activities. You should plan to limit your activities for several days after artificial disc replacement surgery. As time passes and your body heals, you will safely be able to do more and more things. In fact, a few weeks after artificial disc replacement, you may be asked to participate in a short course of physical therapy. Physical therapy cannot only help you heal correctly and faster, but also get the most out of your artificial disc.
You can expect to return to the surgeon’s office a few times after artificial disc replacement. The first visit will be within a week or two after surgery, and then again in a few weeks to one month after that. Your first appointment after artificial disc replacement is probably the most important during the recovery period. Your surgical team will examine your wound (remove any stitches if any remain) and perform an exam to see how you are healing. You may need to have some X-rays or other imaging study to see how the artificial disc and your spine look.
Your spine is not the only thing that needs to heal after artificial disc replacement; the wound on your skin needs to heal as well. To make sure this area heals properly, you will need to take proper care of the site. You should receive instructions from your surgeon’s office, but it essentially requires dressing changes and careful cleaning.
In the first few days after surgery, you will need to remove your dressing and perhaps more often if there are signs of bleeding or excess moisture. Make sure to clean your hands thoroughly before changing your dressing and use sterile dressings every time. Your surgeon’s office will show you how to carefully clean the wound and look for signs of infection, e.g. redness, warmth, swelling, pus, etc. Your surgeon may prescribe oral antibiotics to further reduce the risk of infection. There may be steri strips on your skin underneath the dressing and they should be left on for 10-14 days.
Most people can expect a full recovery from artificial disc replacement surgery within 3 months after the procedure. Some patients will fully recover sooner than this, while a few may need just a bit longer. Your best chances for a fast, full recovery are to choose a spine surgeon who has extensive experience performing artificial disc replacement surgery and following their pre- and post-surgery instructions. Read more on how long artificial discs last on our guide. Unlike spinal fusion, artificial disc replacement preserves much of the natural motion of the spine. Thus, when people do fully recover from artificial disc replacement surgery, they often have little to no residual pain and a wide range of motion they thought they had lost forever.