How Long Does It Take for Nerves to Heal After Back Surgery?

Back surgery is commonly used to treat pinched or damaged spinal nerves from conditions like spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, and herniated disc. However, the process of nerve recovery after back surgery can be lengthy and uncomfortable. Nerve tissue takes a notoriously long time to heal.

In this article, we’ll explore the healing process for nerves after back surgery and offer strategies to improve your recovery. 

Does Nerve Pain Ever Go Away After Back Surgery?

Nerve pain goes away after back surgery in most cases. However, it can take a year or even longer after the surgery for the nerves to completely heal. Nerves heal slowly when compared to other types of tissue.  

If nerve pain doesn’t go away after back surgery, it may be referred to as failed back surgery syndrome. With this condition, the spinal procedure fails to resolve the patient’s symptoms, which may include nerve pain. While the reason for failed back surgery syndrome is often unknown, possible causes include:

  • A surgical error, such as nerve damage during surgery
  • An incorrect diagnosis, with which the spinal procedure may not address the root of the patient’s pain
  • Scar tissue formation, which can occur around a nerve root and trigger lasting nerve pain
  • Adjacent segment disease, or ASD, which is a possible complication of spinal fusion and occurs when the spinal segments surrounding the fused segment degenerate at an accelerated rate
  • Hardware failure, which occurs when the spinal hardware (i.e. screws) breaks, potentially leading to nerve pain

How Do You Know If a Nerve Is Healing After Back Surgery?

Your nerve is likely healing after back surgery if you experience gradual relief from radiating pain, no pain with movements that used to cause flare-ups, and restored sensation in the treatment area. Other signs of nerve healing include:

  • Reduced numbness and tingling
  • Improved mobility and range of motion in the spine
  • Greater muscle strength in the affected area

Confusingly, some patients experience a tingling sensation while a nerve is healing. This occurs because the nerves fire sporadically as they regenerate, and the nervous system tends to kick into overdrive during the recovery process. This tingling, pins-and-needles sensation is temporary and simply indicates that the nerves are regaining their normal function. 

Your physician or surgeon can help you differentiate between tingling that indicates nerve damage and tingling that indicates nerve healing. 

Nerve Healing Signs

Nerve healing signs may include:

  • Reduced pain and inflammation; improved mobility and muscle strength; and reduced neurological symptoms, as discussed above
  • Greater sensation in the area supplied by the nerve
    • Some people experience hypersensitivity to touch in the affected area as the nerve heals. 
  • Itching 
  • Tingling
  • “Electric” sensation

Some individuals don’t experience notable signs of nerve healing. So, if you don’t have the symptoms above, your nerve may still be healing properly – experiences vary from patient to patient. 

Why Does Nerve Healing Cause Itchiness?

Though it may sound strange, itching is a normal sign of nerve healing. This occurs because as nerves heal, they’re stimulated by activity at the site of the injury. The brain construes this stimulation as itchiness and gives you the urge to scratch. 

Tingling and Nerve Regeneration

Though tingling in the extremities is a symptom of a pinched spinal nerve, tingling is also a known sign of nerve regeneration. Specifically, tingling can suggest that young axons are present in the affected area and are actively developing. 

Axons are thin fibers that link nerve cells (also known as neurons) together, allowing them to communicate through electrical impulses. Axonal regeneration is the second key phase in nerve regeneration, preceded only by Wallerian degeneration, which involves removing the end of the injured neuron. 

Electric Shock Sensation Due to Nerve Repair

As a nerve heals, some individuals experience an electric shock-like sensation. This can be uncomfortable but indicates that the nerve is effectively recovering. 

It can be hard to differentiate this sensation from the burning, shooting pain of nerve damage. However, when a nerve is healing, the “electric” feeling will likely move as the nerve grows, then subside. In cases of nerve damage, the burning sensation tends to worsen over time.  

If you can’t tell whether an electric sensation is a sign of nerve healing or nerve damage, contact your physician. 

What Helps Nerves Heal Faster?

Cardiovascular exercise, physical therapy exercises, getting plenty of sleep, and eating a nutrient-dense diet can all help nerves heal faster. These natural therapies support nerve regeneration and promote the body’s healing process. 

Cardio for Nerve Healing

Cardiovascular exercise can benefit nerve recovery by boosting the release of growth factors and neurotrophins in the spinal cord. While you shouldn’t push through pain during exercise or stray from your surgeon’s aftercare instructions, gradually adding low-impact cardio to your routine can encourage healing after back surgery.  

Examples of low-impact cardio include:

  • Brisk walking
  • Water aerobics
  • Using a stationary bike or elliptical machine
  • Yoga 
  • Resistance exercises

PT for Nerve Healing

Your physical therapist can provide stretches and strengthening exercises that promote nerve healing. In strengthening the muscles that support the spine, PT exercises can limit impact on the spinal structures with day-to-day motions, helping to prevent further nerve damage. Additionally, PT exercises can promote blood circulation to the spine, ensuring that the irritated nerves have the oxygen and nutrients required to heal. 

Sleep for Nerve Healing

If you miss out on high-quality sleep at night, your pain threshold may suffer. As a result, nerve pain after back surgery may feel worse. So, try to prioritize sleep after the procedure by:

  • Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees or on your back with a pillow under your knees, which helps reduce pressure on the spine after back surgery
  • Wearing satin pajamas to easily change positions during the night
  • Keep your bedroom at a consistent temperature (ideally between 60 and 68℉)
  • Invest in a supportive mattress, ideally firm to medium-firm
  • Avoid naps during the day, which can make it difficult to sleep at night
  • Consider wearing an eye mask or earplugs to limit disturbances while you sleep

Nutrition for Nerve Healing

A variety of dietary nutrients are crucial for nerve regeneration, including B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin C, and antioxidants. Foods that are rich in these nutrients and can support nerve healing include:

  • Antioxidant-rich fruits like cherries, cherries, peaches, and grapes help fight inflammation after back surgery by preventing free radical damage. 
  • Leafy and green vegetables like spinach, kale, broccoli, and asparagus are rich in B vitamins, which support nerve regeneration. Many of these veggies also contain alpha-lipoic acid, which is known to improve nerve function.
  • Potassium-rich foods, including avocados, bananas, beets, and squash, promote healthy nerve transmission.    
  • Sweet potato is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as natural anti-inflammatory compounds that can help with nerve recovery. 

What Is the Fastest Way to Recover From Back Surgery?

The fastest way to recover from back surgery is to closely follow all of your surgeon’s instructions, safely engage in low-impact exercise, and adhere to a healthy lifestyle. This should involve:

  • Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
  • Eating a nutrient-dense diet with plenty of fiber, low-fat protein, and antioxidants
  • Avoiding excessive bed rest 
  • Sleeping for at least seven to nine hours each night
  • Avoiding activities that could strain the spine, such as lifting objects and twisting the spine

Low-impact exercise is considered a key component to a fast recovery from back surgery. Walking will be the recommended exercise in the first few months after the procedure, so aim to walk regularly. This will promote circulation to the spine, prevent muscle atrophy, and increase your spinal mobility. 

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The TOPS System significantly reduces patients’ back surgery recovery time when compared to spinal fusion. By creating a controlled range of motion within the spine, it’s an ideal spinal fusion alternative for patients with lumbar spinal stenosis or spondylolisthesis. 

Contact a spinal surgeon in your area to learn more about nerve recovery after back surgery.