How You Can Return to Sports After Back Surgery

3 procedures and what you can expect afterward
How You Can Return to Sports After Back Surgery

Contributor: Dominic W. Pelle, MD

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Contrary to what people fear, back surgery does not have to mean the end to a promising sports career. In fact, studies show that Olympic and professional level athletes have returned to their same level of competition following many common types of back surgery. The athletes’ level of competition, overall fitness, the sport, as well as the type of surgery, all impact how soon an athlete can get back in the game.

This holds true for recreational athletes as well. If this is you, don’t let the prospect of back surgery keep you from returning to your former sports routine. With a team approach involving the patient, surgeon and physical therapist, most athletes can anticipate a return to sports after spine surgery.

Here are three common back surgeries and what you can expect in terms of returning to your exercise or training routine.

Lumbar microdiscectomy

Lumbar microdiscectomy is a common spine surgical procedure to treat symptomatic herniated discs. Many patients with herniated discs, however, do not necessarily need back surgery. Many patients will improve with conservative treatment.  If an athlete fails to improve after non-operative treatments such as physical therapy, rest, medications and possibly injections, removal of the disc herniations may be recommended. Lumbar microdiscectomy surgery, where removal of a small portion of bone over the nerve and excision of the herniated disc, allows more space for the nerve and is usually performed through a small incision.

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Walking as exercise can be started almost immediately following surgery. Physical therapy is very important in getting an athlete back to sports, and many surgeons will start it around three weeks after surgery. Studies show that an athlete’s dedication to the post-operative rehab program has a significant impact on returning to the pre-injury level of competition.

Recreational athletes in non-collision sports may be able to return to competition as early as six to eight weeks. Professional collision athletes can anticipate a return to play as early as three months, although there are some circumstances where it may be closer to six months.

Lumbar decompression for stenosis

Even aging athletes with degenerative spine conditions such as stenosis who have failed to improve without surgery can get back to sports after a decompression surgery. Spinal stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal, which restricts the spinal cord and may cause pain, numbness and sometimes weakness.

Following decompression surgery, you should refrain from heavy lifting for six weeks. You can start back to cardiovascular conditioning at three to four weeks, and can start physical therapy about one month after surgery. With good progress in physical therapy, a return to sports can be expected at three to six months.

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Lumbar fusion

Lumbar spinal fusions are done for numerous reasons, but the most common is spinal instability. Because bone-healing must occur, returning to sports after a fusion is a slower process.

Physical therapy may be started at three months. The age of the athlete, the sport, and the level of competition greatly impact the speed of return. An avid golfer, for example, may be cleared to return to play at six months after surgery. Return to contact sports is a slower process but is favorable with successful fusion.

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