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What to Expect When Recovering From Your Neck Surgery

Recovering from neck surgery requires a thoughtful approach. If your condition warrants surgery, you should already be contemplating ways to expedite the healing process. Here, we'll take a step-by-step approach to neck surgery recovery and explore the many ways you can enhance the recovery process.

Preparing for your neck surgery recovery must begin immediately. You don't want to wait until after the procedure to start making changes that will aid in the healing process. Getting ready for surgery will ensure a smoother transition to post-operative recovery.

There are many things you can do to prepare for surgery. They include:

  • Finding a board-certified surgeon to perform your procedure who offers a minimally invasive option, which will mean smaller incisions, less trauma, and a faster recovery
  • Consulting with your surgeon so you know exactly what to expect from the surgical procedure
  • Setting realistic expectations for your recovery process
  • Stopping smoking immediately, because nicotine is detrimental to bone healing
  • Beginning an approved exercise regime, which will improve overall health, strength, and flexibility
  • Improving your diet, because a healthy body heals more quickly than an unhealthy one
  • Planning to take time off from work, so you don't re-injure your neck by returning to physical activity too soon
  • Having post-operative help on hand, in the form of family, friends, or a caregiver, because you will be limited physically and not able to care for yourself immediately following surgery

These important preparations will greatly aid in the recovery process by preparing your mind and body for the procedure.

Download Neck Surgery: A Guide to Understanding Your Options

Immediately Following Surgery

Physical Activity

The level of activity you are allowed will be based on the procedure performed. But despite the procedure, your activities will be limited during the period immediately following surgery. Aftercare is critical to your recovery. Simple chores like bathing, cooking, and caring for family must be curtailed while your neck heals. Overexertion following surgery can reinjure your neck, cause complications, and interrupt the healing process, so be sure to follow your surgeon's directions concerning physical activity.

Wearing a Rigid Collar (“Neck Brace”)

Following cervical fusion, your surgeon will likely prescribe that you wear a rigid cervical collar. A common misconception is that you shouldn’t move your neck at all, and the collar acts like a cast on a broken limb. On the contrary, moving your neck within a comfortable range of motion several times during the day is encouraged to minimize tightening of the muscles and spasm. The collar acts to help support your neck muscles as they hold up your head. Therefore, you should wear the collar when you will be upright for more than a few minutes, such as sitting up in a chair or going out for a walk. You should not wear the collar at other times, such as:

  • Lying in bed
  • Showering
  • Eating

It’s a good idea to check with your surgeon on his or her specific preferences regarding the wearing of a collar.

Pain Management

You will probably experience pain following surgery. The incision sites must be protected and allowed to heal properly, and the muscles and nerves in your neck may be sore. The doctor should prescribe pain medications, and it is imperative you follow the medication directions, especially if you are taking narcotics. Drinking, driving, or making important decisions should be avoided while taking narcotics, and you should plan to wean yourself off the medication as your neck heals. Discuss the dangers of addiction with your doctor, so that you avoid falling victim.


Return to Fitness

Physical therapy will be an important component of your healing process. As your strength and range of motion improve, a trained physical therapist can guide you in the proper exercises that will enhance the healing process, while guarding against re-injury. It is critical you follow their prescribed program. You don't want to negate the benefits of surgery through improper movement and activity, especially if your vertebrae were fused. Bone fusion requires time to heal, as the graft gradually grows together and stabilizes the joint.

Long-Term Recovery

The positive improvements you made to prepare for surgery should continue during and after your recovery. By eating a healthy diet, exercising safely and regularly, not smoking, and avoiding activities that may aggravate or reinjure your neck, you can reap the benefits of neck surgery for years to come.

Recovery Depends on You!

Successful neck surgery recovery is greatly dependent on you. The steps you take to prepare for surgery, and the plan you follow afterwards, will either enhance or impede the healing process. So, to recap our recommendations:
• Choose a qualified surgeon who offers minimally invasive spinal surgery (MISS).
• Prepare your body by improving your overall health.
• Set realistic goals and expectations for the surgical procedure.
• Follow the recommendations of your surgeon and physical therapist, to maximize the healing process and expedite your recovery.

Take responsibility for your recovery by doing all you can to promote the healing process.


Richard Kim, M.D.

About the author

Richard Kim, M.D. Born and raised in Southern California, Dr. Richard Kim earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from University of California, Riverside. This followed with a Master of Science in biochemistry and neurophysiology. He then earned his medical degree from St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri, graduating Magna Cum Laude. Read more articles by Richard Kim, M.D..

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