A member on another forum posted a question that I thought might help some folks here as well. The question was from a long-time heavy weight-lifter about post-surgery restrictions and returning to the gym after ACDF surgery. Let me preface this by saying that I am not a doctor or any kind of medical professional. I’m an artist and computer programmer so this information is shared as simply my own personal experience. It should not be construed to be advice of any kind – medical or other. You should ONLY listen to your doctor when it comes to your health. I’d go so far as to say you should ONLY listen to your surgeon when it comes to your ACDF surgery. He/she is the expert. In my experience, a responsible doctor who does not specialize in this kind of surgery will defer to a neurosurgeon or orthopedic surgeon on this type of issue. So you should too.
I am 43 years old and had my first ACDF two weeks shy of my 41st birthday. I was an avid runner, lifter, and boot-camp style workout junkie for several years before my first (of two) ACDF surgeries. My main focus wasn’t on lifting but I was a pretty heavy lifter (315 lbs bench press). I was in the best shape of my life before surgery – and that helped with recovery a great deal.
My situation is atypical but may give you some insight into what to expect nonetheless. I had c5-c7 fusion in December, 2010. The c5-c6 level failed to fuse so in December, 2011 the surgeon had to redo that level. Unfortunately, it has failed to fuse completely the second time around though it did make it to just over 50% fusion. I don’t have a lot of pain and very rarely do I have numbness and tingling. The doc has cleared me to start lifting again and I’m hoping to start this week but I’m basically starting over so I’m not rushing into it. I need to do my research. I haven’t been a beginner in many years so I don’t really know how to start.
After my first surgery, I was restricted to wearing a hard brace for 6 weeks, then the soft brace for another 2-4 weeks. I was not allowed to lift anything heavier than 10 lbs for about 3 months after surgery but after about 2 months, the doctor did allow me to start doing curls with 5-10lbs. He also cleared me to start jogging about a half mile max every other day at about 3-4 months out. At about 6 months post-surgery my x-rays looked pretty good so I was cleared to start lifting again. Since I had been lifting heavy for a few years, it didn’t take long for me to get back in shape and I was starting to feel like my old self again. After about 2 months, though, I started having trouble with excruciating pain in my right arm and the hand would go numb every night. I tell you this part only as a forewarning that it is imperative to take it really slow when you get back to the gym. A few months more recovery is well worth NOT having a second surgery like me.
I think for a typical recovery you have to wait about 3 months before you can start to do any real exercise other than walk. Your doctor will probably tell you to start walking as soon after surgery as you can. It helps a lot. I started at a half mile the day after surgery and built up to a couple of miles a day within a couple of weeks.
I started Physical Therapy about 6 weeks after surgery. The main focus is on strengthening the stabilizer muscles along your spine. These muscles, as you know, are pretty small and damage easily so it’s important to build them up before getting back to lifting of any kind. The therapist had me doing light dumbbell work (curls, side raises, front raises), some work with bands, and some isometric work. I did PT for about 2 months.
I’ve read dozens, if not hundreds, of stories from folks who have had 1, 2, and 3 level fusions and their experiences vary greatly. The approach that doctors take to post-surgery restrictions also vary greatly. Some doctors allow their patients to return to normal activities as early as 6 weeks post-surgery but that doesn’t seem to be the norm. 3 months of restricted activity then gradually easing back into normal activities seems to be more common, with weight lifting usually being restricted until about 6 months after surgery. For whatever reason, the bones in your neck fuse slowly. It typically takes about 9-12 months for them to fully fuse. If you are having plating put in, then the fusion will be pretty stable but lifting can put a heck of a strain on your neck. I mean, try to think of a single upper body exercise that doesn’t engage your neck muscles at least secondarily. The plates are not the primary support. They are only intended to hold the spine in place while your body builds up bone between your vertebrae and the bone graft. Once fused, the bone is very tough but until it is fused, it’s pretty unstable and the slightest movement can cause all kinds of problems. Trust me on that one. I know first hand. I have been out of commission for nearly 2-1/2 years. I’ve only been able to get back to serious running since November 2012 and have just been cleared to start lifting (very light, very slow) since about March 15, 2013. It’s been a long, slow road.
Anyway, I’m not trying to scare you. As I said, my experience is atypical. I just have one level that doesn’t want to fuse. I hope it will remain stable enough for me to return to a mostly normal lifestyle. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do my boot camp style workouts any more, which is a shame because I loved them the most.
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