Getting back in the game after surgery

NORTHWESTERN (US) — Elite athletes who play in the National Football League are able to return to the game following back surgery—good news for the average Joe worried about returning to physical activity.

A new study finds that 80 percent of NFL lineman—whose spines are especially vulnerable to degeneration because of the amount of time spent in a squatting stance—are able to return to play, says  Joseph Weistroffer, assistant professor of orthopaedic and of neurological surgery at Northwestern University.

“Many times after the surgery, people are afraid to go back and live their lives,” Weistroffer says. “They don’t want to hurt themselves and have another herniation. If a football player can get back to playing football again, you, too, can resume normal life. Just because you had disc surgery doesn’t mean you are going to be broken for life.”

For the study, researchers scoured two decades of public records to determine the career outcomes of 52 NFL offensive and defensive linemen who had had herniated disc surgery during their active careers.

Not only did 80 percent of the players return to the game, they also played an average of 33 games during three years after the surgery. More than half of them were named the starter at their position.

Details are reported in the Journal of American Sports Medicine.

“The numbers show they were able to get back to the extreme and sustained activity of playing football on an NFL level. That’s significant.” Weistroffer says. There is limited evidence showing clinical outcomes for high-end athletes after herniated disc surgery.

Discs, disk-shaped tissue that separates the bones of the spinal column, start to wear out as people age. The sidewall of the disc may tear, but usually heals on its own.

Occasionally disc material will squirt out through the tear and pin the nerve root against the bone, causing extreme back and leg pain. Most of the time the body can heal itself within six to 12 weeks. If healing doesn’t occur, surgery can relieve the pressure on the nerve root and in many cases, relieve the pain, Weistroffer says.

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