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What is “normal activity” after spinal fusion?

A few months before my scoliosis surgery, I asked my doctor a question:


“How restricted will my movement be, once my spine is fused?”


I knew he was planning to fuse at least 11 of the 17 vertebrae in my torso*, so I was prepared for the answer to be bleak. But I also hoped that maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought - he was the doctor, after all, and had seen many cases just like mine. I was shocked at his response.


“Oh, after 6 months, you won’t have any restrictions! You can return to all normal activity!”


Somehow, it was both exactly what I wanted to hear, and also, exactly not what I wanted to hear. I wanted so badly to believe it, but I simply could not. How could I have nearly 50% of my vertebrae immobilized, and not have any restrictions? And how did he even know what my “normal activity” was? Did he know I was a gymnast? Did he know I practiced yoga?


“Well probably not all activity” I said with a small laugh.


“No restrictions,” he repeated, confidently.



It turns out that even excellent surgeons cannot see the future. Nor do they know what “normal” is for any of their patients. No matter how many cases this doctor had seen before me, he had not, in fact, seen a case just like mine - because everyone’s case is different.


While I am extremely thankful for my surgery, and for my surgeon (I really do think he did an excellent job), I still take issue with his prognosis of “no restrictions” and “returning to all normal activity.” My movement is, by all accounts, restricted, and there are plenty of things I cannot do now that used to be “normal”:


Twisting until my back cracks; back handsprings; sitting comfortably in a sedan; back flips; sitting comfortably on a couch; wheel pose; upward facing dog; painting my own toenails…


To me, these were all “normal.” And while some may not have been “practical” (like back handsprings, flips, or even certain yoga poses), they were part of my everyday life, and brought me joy. They felt good in my body. And after surgery, I would never be able to do them again.


Again, I am extremely thankful for the movement that I still have. And there have been many times when someone has been shocked to find out that I have a fused spine. “I never would have guessed!” they say, “You’re so active!” And it’s true. There are so many things I can still do:

Walk and hike; run marathons; practice and teach yoga; rock climb; handstands; downward facing dog; trim my own toenails… (Don’t ask me how I can still trim, but not paint… It’s an enigma, even to me!)


But the truth is this:

  1. I approach physical activity with a great deal more caution.

  2. I have had to make time to mourn the things I can no longer do.


I used to love practicing gymnastics. I used to not worry whether or not I would fit in a car. I used to be comfortable sitting on any surface to watch a movie. And while yoga still feels wonderful, even without big twists or backbends, there are many times when all I want is to twist until my back cracks, or press up into a big, beautiful wheel pose.


So to anyone out there thinking about scoliosis surgery: I am by no means here to talk you out of it. I am here simply to say that it will change your life.


In some ways, it will likely make your life easier: You won’t have to worry about your curves progressing so rapidly, or perhaps at all. With your spine straightening, your organs may have more space, and (unless you have a more complicated surgery) your lung capacity and digestion may even improve.


In other ways, it will make things more difficult: You may have to adapt many of the daily tasks you perform to make them easier on your body. You might reconsider certain sports or activities based on their risk. And you will almost certainly encounter things that you’d like to do, things that used to be so easy, but your body just won’t anymore.


I’m here simply to say: Let it change your life.


Let yourself be scared and sad and anxious, and give yourself the space to mourn the loss of your spinal mobility (even if your surgeon thinks the loss is “insignificant”).


and


Let yourself see the opportunities that are still here. Let yourself do things differently. Let yourself find new hobbies or sports. Let yourself be kind and gentle with your body, and also, let yourself test your limits.


Remember that you are stronger than you know, and that your strength may surprise you in how it shows up. Trust in your strength, and trust in your ability to evolve and adapt.


My heart (and spine) is with you.


x-ray images of spinal fusion surgery front and side view

*We have 24 vertebrae, total, but 7 of these are in our neck. The 17 referenced here are the 12 in the thoracic spine and the 5 in the lumbar - which are the segments typically fused in scoliosis surgery.


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