This is a very common question physical therapists are asked after a patient has started their post-operative rehab for back surgery. As with most things in medicine, the answer is: it depends. Factors such as the type of surgery, the number of spinal levels involved, and the pre-surgery/injury fitness level of the patient all play significantly into the speed of recovery. Other factors like cardiovascular health, metabolic disease, and bone density also play a role. Even smoking can be a factor, as tobacco use slows tissue healing time.

The most common types of back surgeries are lumbar laminectomy, discectomy, and fusion. A laminectomy is a procedure which creates space by removing the back part of the vertebra which covers the spinal canal. Also known as decompression surgery, a laminectomy enlarges the spinal canal to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.

A discectomy is a procedure which removes herniated disc material that is pressing on a nerve root or part of the spinal cord. It is fairly common to have both a laminectomy and discectomy at the same time.

A fusion is essentially a welding process that joins two or more vertebrae so that they heal into a single, solid bone, providing improved stability.

To learn more on how soon a patient can return to golf after surgery, I spoke to Dr. Tony Bozzio, MD. Dr. Bozzio sees patients in Petoskey, Charlevoix, Roger’s City, St. Ignace, Cheboygan, and Gaylord.

After a lumbar laminectomy, how soon might a fairly-fit patient under 50 hope to return to playing golf? How about a less-fit patient over 70?

There are a number of different opinions on when to return to sport after this, and no clear consensus, so the timeframes will differ based on surgeon, patient factors, and specific type of surgery performed. Regarding age, I don’t make any specific changes based on the number alone. For golf, chipping and putting is fine around the 3-week post-op mark, after the skin incision has healed. If there is no discectomy performed, return to sport is fine around the 6-week post-op mark. I see patients again around 6 weeks after surgery and at that point golfing is fine. If there was a discectomy performed, I have patients wait 10 to 12 weeks before golfing to reduce the risk of disc re-herniation.

After a single-level lumbar fusion, how soon might an average patient be able to return to golf?

For a single level fusion, regardless of approach, which could include either anterior, lateral, or all posterior surgery, chipping and putting is fine around the 6-week post-op mark.  Most patients are golfing again at 10 to 12 weeks after surgery.

What advice do you give to patients who want to get back to golfing as soon as possible after a back surgery?

I try to encourage most people to do a gradual return to golf, and take things one step at a time. Immediately after surgery, the goal is walking more each day and resuming day to day activities while the skin is healing- this is usually for the first 3 weeks. Then, patients start gentle physical therapy that gradually progresses to more golf-specific movements. Patients can start to do some chipping and putting soon after that.  A full return to golf starts with some easy time on the driving range, then a progression to 9 holes, and then finally returning to full rounds.