Baseball great Miguel Cabrera is spending the offseason hoping the offseason will bring relief from back pain. The Tigers slugger dropped from an eight-season batting average of over .310 to just .249 in 2017 as a result of two herniated disks in his lumbar spine: the injuries altered his swing significantly, and on some days left him with wondering whether he’d be able to continue his career. Now he plans to dedicate himself to physical therapy with the hope that it will help his body to heal and restore itself.
Herniated disks can happen to anybody, and our lumbar spine specialty practice in New Jersey cares for many patients with the condition. But baseball players are particularly vulnerable to them. Among professional athletes diagnosed with lumbar disk herniations, roughly 35 percent are baseball players, and for good reason: the sport demands greater axial trunk rotation than any other, and when you combine the greater degree of rotation with the force that accompanies it, it puts tremendous pressure on the spine.
In Cabrera’s case, it has made continuing to swing the bat in his normal way nearly impossible. With herniated disks between his L3 and L4 vertebrae and the L4 and L5 vertebrae, he is using his hips less and his arms more. “I’m leaning back,” he says. “There’s no way you’re going to hit like that. I think this year I struck out with a lot of bad swings on a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. But the good thing is that I know what I’m doing wrong.”
Every time Cabrera tried to swing he would experience nerve root pain known as radicular pain, radiating into his hips and legs. The pain comes directly from the pressure that the herniated disks put on his spinal cord. Though the spine is made to stand up to tremendous pressure vertically, when you add rotation into the mix, it is easy for injuries to take place. Torsion, or twisting, can tear the outer layer of the disk, called the annulus fibrosis, which is made of collagen tissue. This allows the inner part of the disk, which is made of water and collagen fibers, to pop out and press against the nerves. The body can eventually heal this type of injury: it recognizes the material as not belonging, and sends white blood cells to break down the material and reabsorb it. The tears in the annulus can also heal, but it takes time.
The good news is that when patients are waiting for that healing to take place, there are other, non-invasive treatments that can help. These range from taking medication to ease the discomfort caused by inflammation to injections that neutralize the sensation of pain. Physical therapy is also extremely helpful, as it helps to strengthen the core and to stabilize the muscles and joints supporting the spine. In Cabrera’s case, physical therapy is the answer he has chosen: he refuses to mask his pain or to get an injection that might keep him from fully recognizing the extent of his injury.
If you are suffering from back pain, or pain radiating into your hips and legs, you may be suffering from a herniated disk. Call our office today to set up an appointment with our experienced lumbar spine specialist in New Jersey. We will identify the source of your problem and put you on the road to healing.