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What Tiger Woods' Return to Golf Illustrates About Spine Surgery

Dr. Anand Blog

January 18, 2018

After his fourth back operation in three years, golf legend Tiger Woods made a return to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge Tournament, recently held in the Bahamas. Nine months of recuperation from his fourth spine surgery, a minimally invasive anterior lumbar interbody fusion performed in April 2017, prepared him to step back onto the green and attempt to pick up where he left off. Woods was "overall very pleased" with his performance in the tournament, and he stated that he was "excited" about his progress. Spectators, reporters and fans held their breath as Woods debuted his post-surgery swings, but the onlookers felt he never held back or looked as if he was trying to slowly ease into things. Woods said he did not experience any back pain during or after the tournament.

Spine Surgery and Golf

The operation and recovery from Woods' fourth spine surgery to rid himself of continuous back spasms and nerve pain appears to have gone as well as it could have, meeting the end goal of getting Tiger back into his golf game with seemingly full range of motion and minimal pain. While this time around looks to have been a success, Tiger hasn't always had this much luck returning to play after spine surgery. At the 2016 Hero World Challenge, he was optimistic for the coming year, only to once again be stricken with back pain and spasms, landing him back on the injured list for another 10 months. Tiger commented honestly that even last year as he returned to a tournament after his third operation, which was a follow-up procedure to his second microdiscectomy, he was still struggling with some pain. Looking back at old footage, Woods says he didn't realize how bad his back had become then, and how slow he was actually moving compared to his speed now.

As a spine surgeon, it is a victory and inspiration when one of my patients makes a full and pain-free recovery. Though he wasn't my patient, I have this hope for Tiger, too. I am enthused to see him back to physical activity, doing what he loves with a pain-free spine. However, his previous not-so-lucky recoveries are just as important parts to the story. As I try to thoroughly explain to all of my prospective spine surgery patients, unfortunately, spine surgery is not a magic cure. It comes with risks, and there is never a guarantee that any surgical procedure will completely eradicate the pain. Being transparent with my patients about this is extremely important because sometimes, as in Tiger's case after his first three surgeries, there may still be pain after an operation due to factors beyond the patient's or surgeon's control. But the good news for everyone who has undergone spine surgery is that pain-free recovery, even against the odds, is possible, and Tiger is a shining example.

In this case, multiple surgeries were necessary to reach the end goal of a pain-free spine, while maintaining free range of motion and strength. If you find yourself in the same boat faced with the choice of a second (or third) operation, one way to think of it is as another opportunity for success. Tiger was put to the test to exercise patience throughout his back surgery saga, and all current indications point to success so far. After two microdiscectomies, one follow up procedure, and the most recent lumbar fusion, many would have thought Tiger's golden golf days were over. But part of his success can be attributed to his diligence and determination to recover, so that he could finally return to the sport he loves with full energy and no pain.

The moral of the story is that spine surgery favors no one, professional athletes included, and Tiger's story is an excellent example of this. What his return to golf also shows us, however, is that recovery is still possible after an initial surgery (or two or three) has failed to relieve pain. I remain confident and assured that the benefits of spine surgery can be life changing, and partnering with a skilled surgeon who understands your needs, shows compassion, and is willing to do whatever it takes to reach the finish line is invaluable. If I could give just one more piece of advice to any of my patients (or prospective patients) it's to trust in your surgeon, listen to the risks and benefits they present to you, and be willing to work with them to arrive at the best pain-free you that you can be.

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