Compared to cervical spinal fusion surgery, cervical disc replacement recovery is generally faster; however, recovery does take a few weeks. We review the most important information you need to know about the time course of recovery, how to make the most of recovery time, and how to achieve the best outcomes.
Cervical disc replacement recovery is the time that your body heals and becomes its new self. Recovery time varies, but the faster your body can heal, the faster your recovery will be. Keeping your body well-hydrated and well-nourished gives your cells and tissues the building blocks they need to restore you to top health. Recovery also depends on avoiding the things that can delay recovery like smoking cigarettes or putting unnecessary stresses on your neck. Self-care is perhaps the most critical determinant of recovery time. The better you are to your body, the faster it will heal.
You will be moved to a post-anesthesia care unit before you even wake from surgery. Staff will make sure you are breathing normally and your pain is well-controlled. Some people experience some difficulty with swallowing, but this is usually short-lived and will be managed by professionals. This is done in an outpatient setting for the vast majority of patients and most patients are sent home about 4-6 hours after the surgery.
Although some surgeons ask that you wear a cervical collar for a few days after cervical artificial disc replacement. I do not usually recommend a collar. Most patients are given a collar to wear when driving or riding in a car. This helps to keep your neck stable and your surgical wound protected. If you experience pain after surgery, this is the time it can be at its most intense. Remember, it is easier to keep pain away than it is to get rid of it once it occurs. So, make sure to take your pain medication as prescribed.
If you experience any pain after spine surgery, it should get better by degrees during the first week of recovery. You should not submerge your surgical wound under water as this could increase the risk of infection. However, keeping the area clean and replacing the dressing as directed are important parts of the recovery process. Remember to avoid lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk during this time. If you must go anywhere, make sure someone else is driving if you’re still taking pain medicine. If you are not on pain medication it is usually safe to drive yourself.
This week is the most difficult to predict. If you are on a quick healing course, your discomfort will be minimal during this week, you will regain your energy, and you will want to get up and about. As long as it is permitted by your surgeon, you can begin to perform light activities during the second week of recovery. Some patients are even able to return to desk work by the end of the second week. If you are on a slower path, listen to your body and take it slow.
Your spine surgeon may want you to come in for a wound check at 10-14 days after surgery. By the third week, almost all patients are able to stop taking the pain medications they were prescribed on the day of surgery. Also, the surgical wound should be well healed (there may be a small scar). Your spine surgeon will assess how your spine is healing through history, physical examination, and sometimes new imaging studies (e.g., X-rays of the neck). At your first follow-up visit, remember to ask your spine surgeon when you can add back in your regular activities. Your success in recovery up to this point can help your surgeon decide what level of work and activity are right for you. At this point, most people with desk jobs are back to work, but those with jobs that require physical labor with high effort may be off the job for six weeks. Driving and bathing are usually permitted during this time. If your surgeon recommends physical therapy, take advantage of this important resource because it can improve your overall recovery and long-term function.
You will likely be able to return to most regular activities at this point. If you like to jog, swim, or play golf, you should be able to resume these activities by 6 weeks (with your surgeon’s permission). Contact sports are a separate matter, however. Decisions about sports like football, hockey, and even basketball are made on a case-by-case basis. That said, most people can return to full activities at home and at work by the end of the sixth week of cervical disc replacement recovery.
Cervical disc replacement recovery time varies from person to person, but there are five ways you can help decrease your personal recovery time.
It is normal to feel a bit of discomfort after surgery. You may need to take opioid medications for a few days after surgery to manage pain. Some people may need to take opioids for up to a week after cervical artificial disc replacement surgery, but if you are experiencing severe pain for longer than this, it is important to call your surgeon for an evaluation. Pain should improve over the first few days such that you can switch to acetaminophen or NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen. Most people no longer need any pain medications 10 to 14 days after cervical artificial disc replacement surgery. Some patients have persistent or delayed onset of nerve pain. This type of pain is best treated with a different type of medication that is not an opioid.
The typical goals of cervical artificial disc replacement are to reduce neck and arm pain and to relieve symptoms like numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arm. Fortunately, cervical artificial disc replacement has a high degree of success in achieving these goals. Over time you should notice that you are able to do the things you once enjoyed with minimal to no pain. However, spinal fusion surgery can provide the same symptom relief. The true advantage of the cervical artificial disc replacement is neck mobility and flexibility. Life after cervical disc replacement is often highly active and enjoyable. Freedom from substantial pain and restored neck mobility allow patients to regain most or all of the function they had once lost.