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General Spine News

Chances of Returning to Play Ball After Disc Removal

What are the chances a professional athlete having a diskectomy will be able to get back on the playing field (or court) and how long does it take? These are the two important questions this study answers. The authors (orthopedic surgeons at a spine center) looked back at the medical records of 85 players who had this type of surgery for a herniated disc. This group of patients included football players, basketball players, baseball players, and hockey players.

It is understandable that a professional athlete facing this type of surgery wants to know up front, "How long is it going to take to heal and get back to the game?" No surgeon has a crystal ball to predict the exact answer. But the results of this study might help provide some guidance in at least giving estimates of average return time.

For all of the players in this study, diagnosis was made with MRIs. The surgery was performed using a microscopic technique after they failed to get relief or improvement with a nonsurgical approach. Each player had the disc removed from a single spinal level. The most common area injured was in the lumbar spine: either L45 or L5S1. L5S1 refers to where the last lumbar vertebra joins the sacrum.

As it turns out, return to sports is a progressive phenomenon. At the end of a year, there are many more back in action compared with the first three months. On average, it took the players in this study about six months to return to their preinjury level of participation.

To be more specific: half of the group returned to play after three months, 72 per cent at six months, 77 per cent at nine months, and 84 per cent at the end of one year (12 months). The authors report that from their study, the average chance of returning to sports after microdiskectomy in the lumbar spine was 89 per cent.

The researchers did take a look to see if the spinal level affected made a difference in return to sport rates: it didn't. They compared sports to see if one type of ball player was likely to return sooner than another. Although more baseball players returned faster and more basketball players returned than in any other sport, there wasn't a statistically significant difference.

The conclusion of this study was that surgeons counseling professional athletes about disc surgery can offer this information:
  • Try a nonoperative approach to treatment first with medications and physical therapy.
  • Opt for a microdiskectomy when conservative care fails to produce the desired results.
  • The presence of numbness and tingling down the leg and/or leg weakness are predictive factors that surgery will be needed.
  • Expect about a six-month recovery period.

    Progressive recovery is the key phrase to use. On average, most players returned to sports participation six months after surgery. But if recovery is not present by then, waiting another six months may improve results. The players must always understand that predicting the time it will take to return to play is a challenge and not fool-proof even with the information provided by this study.

    Robert G. Watkins, IV, MD, et al. Return-to-Play Outcomes After Microscopic Lumbar Diskectomy in Professional Athletes. In The American Journal of Sports Medicine. November 2012. Vol. 40. No. 11. Pp. 2530-2535.


    *Disclaimer:* The information contained herein is compiled from a variety of sources. It may not be complete or timely. It does not cover all diseases, physical conditions, ailments or treatments. The information should NOT be used in place of visit with your healthcare provider, nor should you disregard the advice of your health care provider because of any information you read in this topic.
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