Tiger Woods: A Story of Triumph over Back Pain and Spine Issues

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

by Jeffrey R. Carlson, MD

Congratulations to Tiger Woods on his 5th Masters Golf Tournament win!  I’ve followed Tiger’s career with interest, given his history of back problems and subsequent spine surgeries.  As a spine surgeon, I’m often asked by patients “What activities that I enjoy will be limited after my spine surgery?”  There’s been a lot of misinformation about spine surgery, disguised as advice, given to people over the years, on the internet, from well-intentioned friends, and even from physicians. This “advice” is based on outcomes and even hearsay from outdated surgical techniques and procedures that aren’t used anymore.  Subsequently, many believe that having spine surgery will mean the total cessation or limitation of their physical activities of choice for as long as they live. This is incorrect.

In orthopaedic spine surgery, my goal has always been to get patients back to their normal activity levels as quickly and safely as possible.  Most patients who come to me for a consultation have a limited, sedentary lifestyle, due to the pain or nerve compression in their neck or lower back.  It wouldn’t make sense to have a person go through a spine surgery which only allows them to function the way they could prior to their surgery, versus seeing a vast improvement in how they are able to move and function after surgery.

This is why everyone’s so excited about the real life and publicized experience of one of the best golfers in the world, Tiger Woods.  He has struggled with low back pain, caused by spinal disc problems, which led him to have several of those highly-marketed, Band-Aid spine surgeries.  These weren’t helpful in returning him to success in professional golf, because they weren’t the surgeries he really needed to address his spine issues.  Therefore, his severe pain continued and he couldn’t train well enough to be in top form to win golf tournaments.

Small disc surgeries are used to remove pressure off of the nerves and improve nerve function and lessen pain.  The marketing of laser spine surgeries has led many patients to believe that a laser procedure will forever rid them of their pain and let them move as they once did.   These small procedures certainly have their role, and can be performed successfully in patients that don’t have chronic pain or slippage of the bones, called spondylolisthesis.  However, when spinal bones (vertebrae) move abnormally, causing severe pain, the disc between the vertebrae can be removed, but the bones must be stabilized with a fusion to prevent the painful abnormal motion.  Screws, rods, plates and bone grafts are used to provide the initial stabilization while the bones heal together or fuse.  With the improved stability, the spinal bones do not grind together during movement and the pain goes away.

Tiger’s final, successful spine surgery included a fusion of discs in his lumbar spine (lower back), that improved the stability of his spine, thereby decreasing or eliminating his pain.  After recovery, he was able to return to proper training.  As his fitness improved, so did his golf form and performance, eventually leading to his Master’s tournament win on Sunday.

Now you may not be a professional athlete, or hope to win a Grand Slam, but you shouldn’t be scared of a fusion due to the dogma, or horror stories about older spine surgery techniques and procedures.  The surgical hardware used in spine surgeries is very similar in nature to that of a hip or knee replacement, and is used for improving recovery and a faster return to normal activity for the patient.  If you have been told you need spine surgery, it’s important to consult with a fellowship trained spine specialist who can fully address your concerns about what to expect after surgery, including your activity level.  Tiger Woods is a wonderful example of how having the right spine surgery for the problem can return a person to most any activity, even winning the Master’s!