After years of disappointing comeback attempts, Tiger Woods had a triumphant showing at the Valspar Championship in Florida, finishing second in the field and reportedly generating more club head speed than anybody else on the course when he was clocked at 128 miles per hour on the 14th hole. Speaking about the tremendous improvement following so many previous fruitless attempts, he was asked whether he regretted having waited before having the particular surgery that finally solved the problem – a lower lumbar fusion. The golf great said he had no regrets.
“I didn’t want to go there. That was last-case resort and ended up being the only option I had left. We exhausted all the non-surgical options. My disc was still intact so we’re trying to save the disc and I just never know with the future.”
The surgery that was performed on Woods was an anterior lumbar interbody fusion, which many feared would be the last straw for his golf career after three previous unsuccessful surgeries. This procedure removed the L5-S1 intervertebral disc and then added new fusing material to connect the two vertebrae. Though lumbar fusions are not at all uncommon for golfers, the location of this fusion was because it would leave him with almost no rotation.
Though the loss of rotation was considered a significant risk for Woods’ ability to swing, the minimally invasive procedure has the advantage of not impacting the back’s large muscles. This not only meant less pain and a faster recovery, but also less risk of a loss of strength.
Patients who are candidates for this type of surgery have their surgical area stabilized both internally and externally in order to allow the bone graft and fusion to take. Metal screws and rods are implanted to act as a brace, and there is also an externally-worn brace that provides support in the weeks immediately following the procedure. Though patients are permitted to walk around, that is the only activity that is permitted for about 12 weeks, or until your spinal surgeon is assured that the fusion has been successful and healing is where they hope. Following this benchmark, you will be permitted to do some stretching, and then at about the 6-month mark you will be permitted to return to previous athletic pursuits.
From the perspective of a professional golfer like Woods, it took approximately 8 months before he was able to return to full levels of activity, though he does need to exercise care as the force that his swing puts on his back is cause for concern, and could eventually lead to problems in the future. That’s why Woods refers to his surgery (and his future) as “uncharted territory. No one has ever had a lower lumbar fusion where I had it and come out here and played.” Still, recalling his pre-surgical condition, he says he was barely able to get out of bed when he needed to, and that he was “living from minute to minute.” Anybody suffering from back pain can relate. If you would like to discuss the options available to you, contact our office to set up an appointment.