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Herniated Discs in Athletes

Herniated discs occur frequently in athletes and non-athletes alike, and are in fact a common cause of back pain. However, if an athlete gets a herniated disc, he could potentially be out for months—not the ideal situation in the middle of the season. Famous athletes Tony Romo, Tiger Woods, and Peyton Manning all suffered from herniated discs, sidelining them for months.

With proper treatment, athletes can often find relief from herniated discs and get back in the game. (If you aren’t an athlete, click here to learn more about how herniated discs can affect you.)

What is a Herniated Disc?

The discs in our spine sit between the vertebrae, acting as shock absorbers. Discs are made up of a thick outer ring of cartilage called the annulus, and a gel-like center called the nucleus. A disc is herniated when the nucleus pushes through the annulus, which can weaken over time as a result of repetitive motion and trauma from contact sports like football. Herniated discs are sometimes referred to as slipped or ruptured discs.

Herniated discs irritate and put pressure on the spinal nerves. Depending on the location of the herniated disc, an athlete may experience different symptoms. A lumbar herniated disc, occurring in the lower back, may cause weakness in one leg, tingling or numbness in the leg or buttock, and a burning pain centered in the neck. Tony Romo and Tiger Woods both had lumbar herniated discs.

A herniated disc in the cervical spine, located in the neck, presents similar symptoms in the upper body. A cervical herniated disc can cause tingling, numbness, or weakness in one of the arms, and a burning pain in the shoulders, neck, and arm. Peyton Manning suffered from a cervical herniated disc, forcing him to sit out the entire 2011 season.

More severe symptoms like weakness and numbness are not often present initially; if you are experiencing these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Accuracy is important for athletes, so these symptoms can be quite problematic. However, treatment from a skilled doctor can get an athlete back on track.

Treatment for Herniated Discs

Doctors will often try to treat herniated without surgery first. Rest, over-the-counter pain medications, and cold compresses can be very helpful in relieving the symptoms of a herniated disc. Muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, and analgesics can also help to relieve pain. If these more conservative methods do not work, the doctor may administer an epidural steroid injection.

If symptoms persist after several weeks of nonsurgical treatment, surgery may then be considered. Surgery often involves removing all or part of the herniated disc to relieve pressure on the nerves.

In 2011, Peyton Manning underwent an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, one of the most common surgeries for herniated discs in the neck. During this procedure, the surgeon approaches the spine from the front, or anterior, of the neck, making an incision to access the affected area. There, he or she can remove all or part of the offending disc. Then, the surgeon often uses metal hardware or bone grafts from the athlete’s hip to fuse together the vertebrae above and below the herniated disc, creating more stability in the spine. Prior to the anterior discectomy and fusion, Manning had 3-4 other procedures to try to correct the issue, including a posterior discectomy, during which the spine is approached from the back.

Microdiscectomies are commonly used to treat lumbar herniated discs. A microdiscectomy is a minimally invasive surgical procedure, during which all or part of the herniated disc is removed. The surgeon uses a special microscope to view the structures of the spine during the surgery, allowing him to perform the procedure through a smaller incision than a traditional open surgery. Minimally invasive procedures are ideal for athletes, as the techniques are designed to avoid disturbing the muscles. This often results in a quick recovery time, since there is minimal damage to the tissues surrounding the spine.

Tiger Woods had a microdiscectomy earlier this year, and is now preparing to return to golf. The details of Tony Romo’s surgery were not made public, but he did undergo a discectomy and is preparing for the upcoming season.

The outcome of these procedures can vary for athletes, who put more stress on their bodies than the average person, but approximately 90% of athletes return to sports with the same level of function they had prior to the injury. Manning has had success with his most recent surgery, going on to win the MVP award in 2013. Woods has suffered from back and knee problems for years, and many are hopeful that he will have a successful return following surgery. As for Romo, we will likely have to wait until football season begins to see if surgery has helped, although initial reports are positive.

While surgery is generally used as a last-resort treatment for herniated discs, it can add years to an athlete’s career. Without surgery, Manning may have been forced into an early retirement. In the hands of a good doctor, most athletes can expect a successful return to their sport.