Running After Spinal Fusion Surgery: When and How

Chronic low back pain is very common,even in people who enjoy running. Many middle and long distance runners develop chronic back pain at some point, usually long before they are ready to give up running. Sadly, many runners are forced to limit their running program or stop running altogether because of chronic low back pain. For some causes of low back pain, however, spinal fusion surgery can restore the ability to run more or less pain-free.

People certainly will not be running the day after spinal fusion surgery, but there is a way for runners to return to the hobby they love. It just takes some time. Think of it as a marathon, not a sprint.

  1. Follow all instructionsyou get from your spine surgeon

The initial recovery from spinal fusion surgery can be daunting, even for people who are physically fit and relatively healthy. Spinal fusion surgery patients need to take care of themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally during the recovery period. A good way to do this is to closely follow all of the instructions given to you by your spine surgeon. These may include diet, at-home exercises, and limitations on activity. Spinal fusion surgery patients do not need to remain inactive—far from it—they may be standing the day after surgery. However, runners tend to be impatient people, so it is important to remember to pace yourself as you recover from spinal fusion surgery. Always ask your physician when you can return to normal activities, including running.

  1. You must learn to walk before you can run

Runners are usually very physically fit, but if you have reduced your routine or stopped running routine because of low back pain, you are probably not as physically conditioned as you once were. Also, keep in mind that the surgery itself can take a chunk out of that conditioning. That is why it is best to start walking before even attempting to run after spinal fusion surgery. Start with small distances and a slow pace. One rule of thumb is to limit distance to 1 mile for a period of four weeks.

3.Respect pain

Listen to your body very carefully. Runners are trained to push past pain and perceived limits of physical conditioning. If runners could not overcome pain, there would be no marathoners or Ironman contestants. However, this is the wrong approach to take after spinal fusion surgery. Pain or even serious discomfort is something that should be taken very seriously in the first six months after spinal fusion surgery. If your body is telling you that you should stop, then you should stop. No really, stop.

4.Start slow, then grow

After the first month, you can gradually increase your distance and your walking rate (not jogging or running). Plot out a course that has you increasing your distance over the next two months. This may include increasing walking distance by a quarter-mile per week were similar program. Always refer to number three if you experience pain.

  1. Retraining yourself to run

Three months after spinal fusion surgery (with the blessing of your orthopedic spine surgeon), you can begin to increase the intensity of your routine. Low impact exercises like swimming and bike riding are helpful for building cardiovascular conditioning without placing stresses on your spine; however, if your ultimate goal is running than light jogging is an important part of the process. Consider adding light jogging to your routine. While you can “push through” discomfort you have that comes from a lack of cardiovascular conditioning (e.g., shortness of breath) do not attempt to push through moderate or severe pain you experience in your lower back.

  1. Your first run after spinal fusion surgery

Six months after surgery, again with the approval of your spine surgeon, you can attempt your first run. Your first run after spinal fusion surgery may be a natural extension of the jogging that you have done so far. You should have regained some of your physical conditioning at this point, and your spine should be fully healed. Nevertheless, you will want to start running as you started running in the first place. Make sure you warm up and stretch before attempting your first run. Also,learn and respect your limits for time and distance. Your training schedule will vary, but a good rule of thumb is to increase the intensity of your running by 10% per week until you reach your running goals.

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