A Closer Analysis: NFL Defensive MVP J.J. Watt Undergoes Microdiscectomy Surgery to Repair Herniated Disc

With Houston Texans’ standout defensive end J.J. Watt recently having undergone surgery to repair a herniated disc, I was interviewed by the Houston Chronicle about his prognosis following surgery. With the national media spotlight shining brightly on his condition and recovery, I wanted to take the opportunity to educate readers about what exactly is a herniated disc and the type of minimally invasive surgery he had reportedly undergone to repair it.
houston texans football league logoHerniated Disc: How common?
Herniated discs may be the most common and frequently occurring spine condition that people of all ages seek treatment for. Simply put, a herniated disc (also called a ruptured disc) implies that the protective disc that separates the vertebrae in the spine has slipped, ruptured or bulged out of place. In a healthy spine the disc consists of a ring of fibrous tissue within which is contained a soft gel-like material between each vertebra that cushions the structures of the spine, acts as a shock absorber when we run, jump, or simply walk, and allows for us to move fluidly with no pain.

In the case of a herniated disc, the ring of fibrous tissue that surrounds the soft gel-like portion of the disc develops tears and the gel like portion gets squeezed out. This dislodged material in turn places pressure on the surrounding nerves, causing a sharp shooting pain that originates at the site of the herniation, and often radiates throughout the back and sometimes even into the buttocks and legs (this is commonly referred to as sciatica pain).

herniated discDifferent Causes and Symptoms
There are many different causes for this type of disc herniation, ranging from direct trauma such as a car accident, lifting heavy objects, or chronic conditions such as degenerative disc disease. The symptoms of a herniated disc are common and easy to recognize in most people. Pain that originates at one specific point on the spine (at the site of the disc herniation) and radiates down one or both legs, numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness are indicative of a damaged disc that is pressing on the spinal cord or surrounding nerves.

Short-Term vs Long-Term Treatment Solutions
So what can be done to treat these herniated discs and relieve the pain? It’s important to know that most herniated discs can be treated with appropriate physical therapy, chiropractic therapy and/or pain relief medications to relieve the inflammation on the nerves. If symptoms are not relieved within one to six months, surgery will then be considered. Though most conservative treatment options do help temporarily relieve the pain, 10 percent of people, including high-performing athletes such as Watt, with a herniated disc will need surgery for a long-term solution.

Minimally Invasive Microdiscectomy
One common type of minimally invasive surgical procedure used to treat a herniated disc is called microdiscectomy. During the procedure, the portion of the disc that is impinging on the nerve and/or spinal cord is carefully removed, relieving the pressure and banishing the pain it is causing. The spine and its surrounding tissue are extremely delicate and great detail needs to be observed when performing any surgical procedures in this area.

A microscope is utilized during the procedure to magnify the area affected, allowing the surgeon to clearly and precisely view the affected disc and nerves. Operating through a magnified view also allows the surgeon to create a smaller incision, in turn reducing the healing time for the patient post-surgery.

Generally, no hospital stay is necessary after a microdiscectomy, due to the minimally invasive nature of the procedure, and the patient may return home the same day. Though this type of procedure doesn’t carry as many risks as more invasive operations, it is still important to observe precautions and allow proper time to heal thoroughly and completely before returning to regular activities or before returning to the sports field. Physical therapy is almost always recommended to help the body build back up to its pre-injury level of function, and to ensure a safe and healthy transition back to regular activities as soon as possible.

With surgical expertise from a seasoned spine expert, combined with a detailed rehabilitation program, patients can expect to make a complete recovery and be back on their feet and participating in their usual activities just weeks post-surgery. Patients can enjoy a pain-free life once again—or in Watt’s case—ending the painful life that opposing quarterbacks enjoyed while he was on the sidelines.