I was on a popular spine health forum talking with a few people about spinal fusion and reading some of the answers they were giving…mind BLOWN! Now I truly understand why they say be careful what you read on the internet! By no means do I think I am the expert and my information trumps all other medical advice but the difference between what I tell you and what a lot of other people will, is to always consult with your physician FIRST. You have to understand exactly what your situation is before diving into anything. What I want to teach you today are some key points you need to keep in mind if you are looking to get back into the gym after a spinal fusion.
This kid had 10 vertebra fused using a metal rod trying to fix scoliosis and was looking for advice on ab exercises that wouldn’t damage his back further. About 4 replies down somebody piped in and said weighted decline sit-ups. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I literally almost had my blueberries and cottage cheese come out through my nose (I was eating it for lunch at the time) I won’t go into detail on why you shouldn’t do any spinal flexion when it comes to abdominal exercises so if you want to get a more in-depth look check out this article here.
In this article today I am going to briefly touch on the do’s and don’ts of time in the gym after a spinal fusion. This can be ANY kind of fusion whether you had it done in your neck or cervical section, your mid back or thoracic section or your lower back also known as the lumbar section. Spinal fusions are normally done on people who have some kind of degenerative disc issue or severe case of spinal deformity. For example, If I were to push the envelope with my doctor, I would probably be a good candidate for an L5-S1 Spinal fusion due to my now degenerative disc. It makes perfect sense. The disc in between the two vertebrae can no longer give the support it needs to so I would just fuse the two vertebra together. In some cases this procedure brings relief but most of the time there are usually complications.
The pro’s and con’s to getting a spinal fusion are not what’s important here. What I want to make you aware of is what to do once the procedure has been done.
To be honest, the recovery time can vary. For most, the first few months are the hardest but once you overcome this first obstacle, movement gets much easier. The important thing to remember with a spinal fusion is the fact that you just had your vertebra fused together. This means you took two hard boney structures that used to have a spongy discs between them and screwed them together (not always the exact procedure but pretty common). When you screw them together, you’re basically turning two separate vertebra into one big one. Think about the effects this has on the spinal column. Think about how the spine is used to support the body under heavy loads as well as twisting, flexion, and extension. Each vertebrae was designed to move off of the other.
When it comes to exercising after a spinal fusion, proper lifting cannot be taken lightly. Everything you do, you need to always consider the load the movement is placing on the fused vertebra. It’s impossible to only use one part of the spine. To move fluently you need the entire column and its vertebra to move along with you. The thing about a spinal fusion is that now the discs above and below the fusion are forced to work even harder. This is where a lot of people run into more spinal fusions 5-10 years down the road after their first one. They think that by fusing the discs, the issue is taken away but in reality your putting a greater potential risk on the discs above and below it.
What to do in the gym after a spinal fusion.
Besides constantly working to maintain a healthy range of motion after the procedure, you want to be very cautious when doing something that directly affects the fused area. For example, someone who has had any range of cervical fusion should stay clear of doing exercises that require repeated flexion or extension of the neck. Exercises like sit-ups with their hands pulling on the back of their head or repeated squats with the neck in a hyper extended position. Over time these movements are going to wear on the discs above and below the fused area. This isn’t because these exercises are not healthy (besides the sit-ups) it’s just that now these other discs have to carry the weight of the now fused discs. Make sense?
“It’s not the vertebra you had fused that you need to worry about, it’s the extra weight the discs above and below it are now responsible for”
The best thing to do is consider the load that will be placed on the specific area before committing to the exercises. One of the trainers at my gym has multiple fusions throughout her spine and still maintains a healthy exercise program. Her routine consists of a lot of dynamic movements that work on balance and endurance. She says her main goal is to constantly train in a way that throws her body off balance in order to strengthen the spine stabilizers. You won’t see her do anything with repeated neck flexion or heavy loaded exercises. She is in great shape despite the obstacles she has overcome. The people who normally have the biggest difficulty years after a fusion are the ones who continue to train the same way they did before the fusion. I can’t stress this enough, keep an open mind to training in a way that protects the spine from future damage. Having a spinal fusion doesn’t mean you have some bionic part that makes you stronger. Fusions come with responsibility and the ability to adapt to a change in lifestyle. The people who can respect that are the ones who you can never tell had a fusion done.
Key Takeaway: Get cleared by your physician first before starting anything. Seek to train the body with your spine in a neutral position. Until you are fully recovered, repeated bending, twisting, and excessive loads need to be minimal and progressive. Pay close attention to the what you’re doing with the area that was fused. Stay away from bending, twisting or loading that specific area. There is always an alternative exercise you can do. If you are experiencing a progressive pain as the workout goes on dial back are-assesses the movements the exercise requires and make the changes if needed. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions on specific exercises!
If you remember nothing from what you read above remember these 4 points.
A) Take out flexion-based exercises for the core. This means no more sit-ups, crunches, leg raises, flutter kicks etc.
B) Be mindful of the position of your spine while exercising. Fusing your vertebra takes the mobility out of that specific joint. If you treat your spine the same way you did before the fusion the discs above and below that fused joint will now take all the pressure.
I put together a FREE mini course of all the essential elements when it comes to exercise after a spinal fusion.
If you’re wanting to get back into the gym but have no idea where to start pick this up.
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Talk to you soon,