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The Sports Medicine Doctor: What do Tiger Woods and Your Back Have in Common?

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By Andrew W. Gottschalk, M.D., Director of Sports Medicine Champion Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, Cole Memorial Health System

When Tiger Woods showed up on August 6 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., there was cause for concern. The PGA Championship was to begin the next morning and many doubted Woods would attend, let alone compete.

The Sunday before, Woods had experienced serious back pain. So much pain he withdrew from WGC-Bridgestone Invitational before finishing the ninth hole. So much pain he had to be helped into his golf cart. So much pain he had a hard time just changing his shoes.

It makes sense that Woods has back pain now and again. This past March, he had back surgery (a microdiscectomy in which a piece of his vertebral disc was cut out). Earlier in the week, when Woods went out of his way to assure reporters the back pain he felt on Sunday was unrelated to his recent back surgery, golf enthusiasts cocked a collective eyebrow as if to say, “Yeah? Are you sure …?”

Up to 84 percent of adults have occasional low back pain. It’s not surprising that an elite athlete like Woods experiences low back pain periodically throughout his career. His low back withstands tremendous repetitive torsional forces incurred when swinging a golf club with professional strength and speed.

I see sports-related back pain frequently in my clinic and know how frustrating it can be. Often, the first words out of an athlete’s mouth are, “I just want it fixed.”

This sentiment is understandable. After all, when we have a flat tire, we go to a mechanic who fixes it. When we have back pain, we go to a doctor. We want it fixed, and we want it fixed now.

However, human beings are not automobiles, and thus unfortunately are not so easily repaired.

The vast majority of back pain is treated with a regimen that includes rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and core strengthening exercises. And unlike automobile fixes, this (very appropriate) regimen is not a quick fix. “Take this pill, and your pain is completely gone forever,” does not work for most musculoskeletal pain. Furthermore, as Woods is proving, “have this surgery, and your pain is completely gone forever,” is similarly unlikely.

If a professional athlete like Woods is in too much pain to play his sport, he is losing money. The longer he is away from the sport, the more money he loses. Thus, eager to return to the sport, the athlete forgoes the rest, anti-inflammatory medication and proper rehabilitation exercises, and chooses to undergo surgery sooner rather than later. In perhaps the greatest irony in all sports medicine, what follows musculoskeletal surgery is a period of — you guessed it — rest, anti-inflammatory medication and rehabilitation exercises.

I’m not saying Tiger Woods didn’t need surgery. I trust the surgeons who evaluated him were competent and had his best interests in mind. Even so, I hope Woods didn’t rush to have someone stick a scalpel in him. An old adage in medicine says, “The best surgeon in the world can’t put you back together as well as God put you together the first time.” After surgery, I hope Woods’ physicians advised him to take adequate time to rest, recuperate and rehabilitate before rushing back to the PGA to compete at the level of … well, Tiger Woods.

How well did present-day surgery serve Tiger Woods? It’s impossible to know for sure. What we do know is this: Woods is not competing at the level he once could. Woods, playing in obvious back pain throughout the tournament, for the second time this year, missed the cut. Along with the rest of us, Woods watched the PGA Championship unfold from the sidelines.

Andrew W. Gottschalk, M.D., is the Director of Sports Medicine at Champion Orthopedics & Sports Medicine of Cole Memorial Health System and team physician for St. Bonaventure University athletics.

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