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Back Surgery: Not A Career-Ender for NFL Linemen

Researchers from Feinberg’s School of Medicine at Northwestern University have found that professional football players can undergo back surgery and return to their positions on the field thereafter.

Dr. Joseph K. Weistroffer and his team of researchers noticed how linemen from the National Football League were able to play after undergoing surgery for a herniated disc even if most broadcasters and sports commentators would say a player would be unlikely to play again postsurgery.

NFL linemen perform physically demanding and punishing stunts on the field. They do a lot of pummeling, twisting and crouching, which can put enormous stress on their backs. That is why a good number of linemen suffer from herniated disc—a condition that occurs when the discs between spinal vertebrae “slip” or become displaced. This can result in intense back pain, which can be accompanied by arm or leg tingling.

For this study, the researchers focused on the NFL’s injury reports for linemen who were diagnosed with herniated disc between 1982 and 2009. There were 14 players who were treated nonsurgically while 52 underwent surgery.

“What’s remarkable is that many of these players not only returned to play, they returned to starter positions,” Dr. Weistroffer said.

For those who had undergone surgery, 42 percent were able to return to the field for at least one game. On the other hand, only 4 of the 14 “nonsurgical” players returned to play.

A nonsurgical approach to herniated disc usually consists of muscle relaxants, painkillers, cold compresses and anti-inflammatory medications. Surgery, as pointed out by Dr. Weistroffer, is a last resort. “[I]f a herniated disc doesn’t heal naturally, surgery may be an option,” he stated.

Dr. Weistroffer added, “[I]f an NFL lineman can return to full activities, the average Joe has a good chance to get back on with their life if they don’t heal naturally and decide to turn to surgery.”


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