A Closer Analysis Part 2: NFL Defensive MVP J.J. Watt Re-injures Spine after Returning to the Field Following Microdiscectomy Surgery

Expectations vs. Reality in Spine Surgery Recovery

After undergoing microdiscectomy surgery to repair a herniated disc in July of 2016, JJ Watt suffered a season-ending setback when he reinjured his back last month after playing just three games to start the 2016 NFL season. Of course, anytime a situation like this occurs, sports analysts and the public have many questions – the answers to which we often try to extrapolate to what this situation would be like if we were experiencing it ourselves.
Illustration of a spinal disc herniationOnce someone has suffered a herniated disc – there is a chance of subsequent herniation to the same disc, even after surgery.

  • Did the surgery fail?
  • Was there a too-soon return to the field?
  • Is his career in jeopardy?

Most spine surgeons will tell you that the answers to these questions are different for every single patient. That isn’t us trying to evade answering the questions – it’s simply the truth. In Mr. Watt’s case specifically, this spine re-injury is season-ending as he was placed on the injured reserve list. Though by NFL rule his team can bring back one player from that list after eight weeks, it is highly unlikely they will do so for Watt. He, along with his medical advisors, made the decision in early October to undergo discectomy surgery on the same injured disc that had previously been operated on.  This time however, he will have significantly more time to recover and rehabilitate before returning to the field than he did after the first surgery.

Is it possible that Mr. Watt returned to play too soon after the initial surgery? Yes, it is possible. But it is also true that once someone has suffered a herniated disc – there is a chance of subsequent herniation to the same disc, even after surgery. This means that no matter how well-rehabilitated or initially corrected the spine is, the same injury can reoccur. Does that mean that microdiscectomy surgery is ineffective? Of course it doesn’t mean that. It simply means that this procedure does not provide a 100% lifetime guarantee. Spine or not, no surgery can provide that guarantee.

Lifestyle and long-term wear and tear are also strong considerations for patients considering this type of surgery. In Mr. Watt’s case, he is a 300-pound man who plays one of the most physically demanding sports on the planet. His prognosis and recovery prospects after surgery are likely to be much different than those of say – someone who is retired and stays physically active through light aerobic exercise. The potential for re-injury and risk are often going to be higher in someone whose lifestyle is more physically rigorous.

Of course, one of the biggest questions in Mr. Watt’s case is whether or not these spine injuries will end his career. While his return to play remains to be seen after this most recent discectomy surgery, there are more than a few players who have returned to the field after significant spinal injury. And yes, there are also those who haven’t. At present, it appears as though he is going to have plenty of time to solely focus on recovery. And that will be vitally important for him.

Rehabilitation and following recovery protocols after spine surgery are also huge indicators of overall “success” in spine surgery. Using minimally invasive surgical techniques, I can successfully remove a herniated disc, but my patient must play an active and vital role in following the specific guidelines put in place for rehabilitating and strengthening the spine post-operation. This aspect of the surgical journey is critically important and one that is often overlooked. Time to heal is crucial, but that time is spent actively, not passively. The rehabilitation process after spine surgery is hard work and based on J.J. Watt’s tremendous work ethic and dedication I would not bet against his returning the field better than ever. With the determination and guidance from a spine expert, it is absolutely possible and the recovery prospects will be the better for the effort.