Can you return to riding motorcycles after spine surgery?
The sunshine state is one of the most popular destinations for motorcyclists both young and old. Whether or not you’re looking forward to carving canyons in Clermont or leaning back on your big set of ape hangers to cruise along the beach, you’ll undoubtedly wonder if getting back in to riding might put your injured or recently-operated on spine at risk.
Motorcyling is a unique form of transportation that already comes with its own set of inherent dangers, but as a rider you’ve likely already done an assessment of the risks and determined that you are ready to accept them every time you swing your leg over the saddle.
For people with chronic spinal conditions, spinal stenosis, nerve compression, and other similar disorders, these risks are amplified and made more apparent by the constant pain and misery they can produce. Not only is chronic back pain one of the most common diagnoses in the American population over 40 years old, it is also one of the least understood by physicians. This can lead down a frustrating road where you will be presented with more questions than answers, all the while you’ll likely be abstaining from riding due to the difficulty you are having with the pain.
Fortunately there is hope that you’ll one day be able to return to the freedom of the open roads and get to feel the wind through the vents on your full-face DOT and ECE-approved helmet (or in your hair, we’re not going to judge you.)
One of the first things to consider is the kind of riding you plan on doing. Street riding on a bike with relaxed feet-in-front seating where your shoulders are squared with the handle bars and you are going predominantly in straight lines has a much lower impact on your back than carving canyons on a sport bike hunched down in a feet-beneath seating position. The worst yet would be off-roading, which is a very popular motorsports activity especially in Florida where there are plenty of dirt roads, forest paths, and large mud flats to break loose on.
When asked about the kinds of motorcycling he’d expect his patients to return to Dr. Deukmedjian, our neurosurgeon, said this:
“With patients who are being treated surgically for back injuries, the easiest return to biking will be done in the form of street riding. I’d expect my patients to gradually return to motorcycling after any major surgery, laser or fusion, and the first step in this process is definitely street riding. If the patient had a laser surgery and are following all of my post-operative instructions including wearing a back brace both on and off the bike, they can return to street riding in 3 weeks. If it was a spinal fusion the timeframe is increased to 3 months. It must be understood though that the return should be gradual, and the riding you do at this point needs to be as minimally-impactful as possible. No stunt riding, no off-roading, no risky maneuvers.”
When asked then about the risks posed to riders who have not yet gotten surgery but still continue to ride he had this to say:
“It is difficult not to be frustrated by motorcyclists who continue to ride with spinal injuries. These injuries don’t just put you more at risk, but they also make you a worse rider and more of a danger to everyone else on the road. To keep yourself and others safe, you need to be able to maintain full control of your motorcycle. Riding is a physically demanding task, and if your injury has resulted in any kind of nerve damage or nerve impingement in your lower back, you may have decreased function in your legs, issues with balancing, and even cognitive impairment if the spinal cord was compressed in the neck including bouts of confusion and dizziness. Even without nerve compression back pain and muscular spasms make you more stiff, reduce your reaction time, and keep you very distracted from the flow of traffic. A poorly-timed bout of back pain can be all that stands between you and a tragic accident. As riders you need to understand and accept that a lack of physical coordination and mental processing due to a spinal injury may not be immediately apparent to you, but your ability to ride safely will absolutely be impacted.”
It’s not something any biker wants to think about, but a sound mind and a sound body are essential to safe riding. Thankfully getting treatment for conditions that cause back pain, leg pain, and cognitive deficit won’t keep you off of your bike permanently. The return-to-riding timeframe below might help you get a better idea of your roadmap to recovery.
Deuk Laser Disc Repair
(3 WEEKS) Return to street riding, no high speeds, no risky roads, no long-haul trips. Preferably on a street-touring or cruiser-style motorcycle with a relaxed seating position and a relatively low curb weight (sub-400) you will still have to be wearing your back or neck brace at all times. Mobility and balance may be inhibited as a result, so safety should be your number one priority.
(2 MONTHS) Gradual increase in street riding activities. You should still be wearing your back or neck brace, but you can begin to take longer trips, and the kind of bikes you can now ride has increased to include sport bikes. The hunched-down riding position is still not recommended, and high speeds should be avoided as a result. Your muscles and nerves may still not be fully recovered from surgery so expect some difficult with balance and mobility. Safety is still your number one priority.
(6 MONTHS) With proper physical therapy your strength and mental coordination should be improving. At this point it is important to remember that although you may feel fully healed, it is necessary to allow more time for your annular tear to stitch itself back together. This may not happen until one year has fully elapsed, but if your cognitive impairment has improved significantly, you can expand your scope of distance and types of roads you can ride on again. Still continue to wear your beck and neck brace to avoid whiplash or accidental pivoting at the hips. This is CRUCIAL to avoid reinjury.
(9 MONTHS) At this time you are now permitted to begin off-roading again. Treat the reintroduction of dirt bikes the same way you reintroduced yourself to street riding. Take small gradual steps, do not put yourself in a position of excessive risk, and do not push your physical limits. Your discs are still vulnerable at this time, so do not jeopardize your healing with high impact activities. While street riding you no longer have to wear your back or neck brace, but must still be aware that jerky fast-twitch movements may reinjure your discs, so the brace may be worn if you don’t feel comfortable policing your own movements.
(1 YEAR) This is the point where your disc is fully healed, in the last 3 months you should have been gradually re-introducing certain activities to your riding routine, and now you may ride as you did before your injury. Once the disc is fully healed it is no longer vulnerable to reinjury, and you can once again comfortably take to the roads, to the canyons, or to the mud flats.
Keep in mind that with these timeframes, almost all of them are expanded for fusion patients by up to 5 months. And they can be longer if you are a smoker, excessive drinker, or overweight, as any of these factors can effect how quickly your body heals. Your surgeon should be able to tailor a hand-crafted recovery window for you based on your individual needs and lifestyle, this is just a general guideline to give riders hope.
Know that at the Deuk Spine Institute no injury is permanent, and recovery is possible. The activities you love can be resumed, and your suffering doesn’t have to be forever.