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Mir H. Ali, MD, PhD
Orthopedic Spine Surgery
Patient Educational Series

When to Return to Work?

The answer to when one can return to his/her work after being treated for a spinal condition depends on the type of work one performs and the type of treatment he/she has received.

For example, a housewife (domestic engineer) may be ready to return to household activities within a few weeks of being treated for a disc herniation with physical therapy and/or medications. She may need a few more weeks and a more gradual return to her battery of household activities if she is treated for the same condition with an outpatient surgery. She may require a few months, however, if she has a more serious condition and requires a more extensive surgery, such as a lumbar fusion. Even when she does return to her regular duties after a major surgery (such as a lumbar fusion), she will likely need to alter the way she did those activities to prevent aggravating her lower back. The major surgeries to the spine do not make the spine 'normal' and thus precautions should always be followed when performing activities.

Conversely, a heavy manual laborer may not be able to go back to work with a relatively minor problem for a couple of months because he has an increased risk for aggravating or worsening his condition without significant precautions. In many of these cases, a course of physical therapy and a lighter duty job may be recommended for the first couple of months after the injury. If the patient requires surgery, this rehabilitation process may take a few months - even up to a year - until the risk of aggravation or further injury is minimal in the face of heavy manual labor. If/When he does return to work, he will have to be very conscious and mindful of following proper techniques to prevent/minimize re-aggravation of his lower back.

In summary, it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of a recurrent injury after returning to work, especially with heavy manual labor. However, the spine surgeon needs to be comfortable with balancing the risks versus the benefits of returning to work prior to clearing the patient to return to his duties. To that end, there are many work hardening and work conditioning programs that can help transition the patient back to his/her job duties in a relatively safe manner. The risk of recurrent injury cannot be completely arrested, but minimized as much as humanly possible with a good team of surgeons, physicians, nurses, therapists, and employers.

Please discuss any further questions about your specific situation with a trained orthopedic spine surgeon. The physical therapist with expertise in work-related conditions can also be very helpful with a battery of exercises/techniques that can help prevent re-aggravation of the injury.

Mir H. Ali, MD,PhD
Director - Deerpath Spine Institute
Orthopedic Spine Surgeon - Rezin Orthopedics & Sports Medicine

Dr. Ali is a board certified orthopedic spine surgeon trained in the diagnosis as well as the treatment of non-operative and operative spinal disorders. Dr. Ali practices in the far western and southwestern suburbs of Chicago and utilizes surgery as a last resort when all other non-operative treatments have failed to relieve pain and/or reduce risk of nerve damage/injury. All recommendations on this site are for general situations and a particular situation requires evaluation before specific treatment recommendations can be made.