Spinal Fusion in Spotlight With Tiger Woods' Masters Comeback

Tiger Woods’ remarkable comeback to win the Masters championship is being celebrated as a great sports achievement. But an increasingly common and effective treatment for chronic back pain, called spinal fusion surgery, is also getting credit for Mr. Woods’ return to winning form.

Woods, 43, had an “anterior lumbar interbody fusion,” or ALIF, in April 2017. A career-threatening, lower back injury, such as the one Mr. Woods faced, is not uncommon in professional athletes — and non-athletes as well.

The minimally invasive ALIF was the fourth operation on his back in slightly more than two years. Back spasms and related pain shooting through his leg had made it difficult for Mr. Woods — not only to swing a golf club — but do ordinary things like remaining seated long enough to eat dinner at a restaurant.

“Most people will suffer at least one episode of major back pain during their lifetimes and this tends to be in the lower back,” says Jobyna Whiting, M.D., neurosurgeon at Baptist Health Neuroscience Center. “The reason is that throughout our lifetime, the lower back bears the brunt of our load and the work that our back is doing.”

ALIF is an option not only for pro athletes but for anyone who is physically active. It is a surgical procedure that corrects problems with the small bones in the spine (vertebrae). It is essentially a “welding” process that fuses together the painful vertebrae so that they heal into a single, solid bone, according the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Spinal fusion is a treatment option when motion is the source of pain — the theory being that if the painful vertebrae do not move, they should not hurt.

“Often, lumbar fusion is the best option or the last resort, depending on a person’s medical history and required physical activity — whether it’s sports or a profession that is involved,” says Dr. Whiting. “Tiger Wood’s achievement hopefully will get more people who are suffering with chronic lumbar pain to seek appropriate medical help.”

The disk that was hurting Mr. Woods provided the cushion between the lowest lumbar vertebra (L5) and the highest vertebra in the sacrum (S1). The sacrum is the bony structure that is located at the base of the lumbar vertebrae and is connected to the pelvis.

An “interbody fusion” involves removing the intervertebral disk, which acts like a shock absorber between each of the vertebrae in the spinal column. This type of fusion can be performed using different approaches. The surgeon can access the spine through incisions in the lower back or through incisions in the side. In an ALIF, the surgeon approaches the lower back from the front through an incision in the abdomen.

“Since we are not going through the back, that means were are not cutting vital muscles and we’re not hurting soft tissues,” says Dr. Whiting. “This greatly helps in speeding up recovery time for most patients. This minimally invasive approach has become very common with an excellent rate of success.”

Mr. Woods was reportedly back in training for his rigorous golf schedule within a few months after having his ALIF.

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