Last December, New England Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski’s future was very uncertain. Though the popular player was upbeat and promised he’d return, his fans were not so certain: Gronkowski needed to undergo season-ending back surgery. Now seven months have passed, and Gronkowski is “super excited” about his recovery. He recently spoke of “Being with the new teammates right now, working together, it’s awesome.” He’s come a long way.
The spine surgery Gronkowski had in December was his third, and at just 27 years old, that’s a lot. Like many people, he’s had chronic low back issues for years after herniating a disc in college. By his junior year, he had a microdiscectomy to resolve numbness, weakness, and pain in his legs and was able to join the Patriots. He had a second procedure on a different disc level in 2013. In the 2016 season, he played through his pain right up until the game against the Jets. Some think the injury occurred when he jumped up for an overthrown ball; others point to other plays. In any case, his condition was exacerbated and he went from a manageable bulging disc to a fully herniated disc putting pressure on his nerves and once again causing leg pain.
Gronkowski’s third surgery was performed in Los Angeles by the same surgeon who performed his previous operations. The physician removed the part of the disc herniation that was pressing on the nerves. This would have relieved the pain and weakness he was experiencing in his legs. Though this type of surgery can sound intimidating, the truth is that it is a minimally invasive procedure that provides maximal results. His recovery likely initially involved lots of rest so that the disc could scar over, and then he probably started working out again.
Looking forward, there are questions about what happens if he suffers another herniation, particularly at the same level. After more and more pieces of disc are removed, there is a thinning effect that can cause the vertebrae to rub together, causing new pain. At some point, Gronkowski may face osteoarthritis in the spine and his physician may recommend a spinal fusion, which would involve fusing a few vertebrae together in order to eliminate motion in the spine and stress on the injured discs. Once he gets to this point, it will likely be career-ending, but there is no indication that he is close to that level of injury.
In his recent interview, Gronkowski said:
“You just have to always look at the positives. Right now I’m feeling great. I’m feeling good out there with the team. We’re just at the stage right now, OTAs, offseason workouts, just getting to know each other, feeling it all out. Everything is going good. So I’m just happy to be where I am, happy to be out on the field playing football and participating.”