Returning To Football After Herniated Disc Surgery

Category: Spine Surgery | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: October 11, 2016

Football Player Herniated Disc Surgery

Late last month we published a story about how JJ Watt re-injured a disc in his spine and needed to undergo a second operation to address the re-herniated spinal disc. He’s likely done for the season, and hopefully he’s learned his lesson about returning to athletic activity too quickly after surgery, but what are the odds he can return to a high level of play after this subsequent injury? A new spinal study suggests that he should be able to return to the field at an All-Pro level in the not too distant future.

Recent Spine Study

For a recent study, researchers at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine sought to determine the return rate of NFL players who had undergone surgery to address a herniated cervical disc. They examined herniated discs in both the upper level and lower level of the spine as well as return to play timelines for 53 players who underwent the operation between 1979 and 2013, although full medical data was only available for 40 players. 15 players underwent surgery on an upper-level herniation, while 25 had surgery for lower-level injuries.

To determine if their level of play suffered after they returned to the field, researchers analyzed NFL game statistics to determine a “Performance Score.” Performance scores post-surgery were compared to scores collected prior to surgery to determine if level of play fell off after an operation.

Herniated Discs in Football

After examining the data, researchers uncovered:

  • 67 percent of players with an upper level cervical disc herniation returned to play at a similar level of play after surgery.
  • 72 percent of players with a lower level cervical disc herniation returned to play at a similar level of play after surgery.
  • The average recovery was 9 months, which really shines a light on why JJ Watt’s return to field timeline was too quick.
  • After herniation surgery, the average player played another 44 games in their career.
  • 34 of the 40 players underwent a spinal fusion (an ACDF procedure), six players underwent a foraminotomy procedure, and four players needed an additional surgery after developing degenerative disc disease at a different vertebral level.

Researchers concluded that “most NFL players who undergo cervical spinal surgeries for cervical disc herniations are able to resume their careers,” and “return to play, and level of performance after returning to competition, appear similar for players with upper-level versus lower-level cervical injuries.”

So although Watt is undergoing a revisional procedure on his spine, this study suggests that he shouldn’t have too much of an issue returning to the field at a high level of play for the 2017 season.

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