Last year, Woods underwent his fourth spine surgery in fewer than three years (that’s on top of four previous knee procedures and a nagging Achilles tendon ailment). This time, he received a minimally invasive Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion (ALIF) to relieve his chronic back spasms and sciatic pain in his legs.
“Instability [in the back] can occur due to a number of conditions including herniated discs, degenerated discs, spine fractures and more,” says Dr. Chetan Patel, medical director of Florida Hospital’s Spine Health Institute. “The goal of a fusion procedure is to provide stability to the spine and reduce painful symptoms.”
During an ALIF procedure, surgeons remove a large portion of the degenerated disc that is causing back pain and replaces it with a bone graft. One thing that makes this procedure unique – and tailor-made for golfers – is how the spine is accessed. “ALIF procedures provide great results with minimal scarring because the spine is approached through the front of the body, leaving the back the muscles and nerves untouched,” explains Dr. Patel. The result is smaller incisions, less interference with surrounding muscles and tissue, and shorter recovery times.
The saga of Woods’ back injuries began in 2010 when he first revealed his struggle with cervical pain and bulging discs. In 2014, he withdrew from tournaments due to lower back spasms and later had a microdiscectomy for a pinched nerve. He continued to miss key tournaments before undergoing a second microdiscectomy to remove a disc fragment in September 2015 – only to be followed by a third procedure the very next month to relieve more discomfort.
These ailments have led many to wonder whether Woods would ever pick up a club again. But with a seemingly successful ALIF surgery under his belt, Woods has proven he’s still one of the greatest in the game.
In early March, Woods clawed his way back to a second-place finish at the Valspar Championship in Florida, just a single shot behind winner Paul Casey – his best performance since 2013. Swinging hard and confidently, Woods also scored the fastest club-head speed of the season, a sign that his back is strong and stable.
For Dr. Patel, Woods’ success isn’t a huge surprise. “Outcomes from this procedure are very good when accompanied by a proper recovery time and physical therapy,” he says. After an approximately six-month recuperation period, patients must practice proper bending, lifting and twisting techniques before they can safely return to the green.
It’s not uncommon for golfers of every skill level to grit their teeth through the recurrent back pain. Research by the Titleist Performance Institute shows that lower back pain is the most prevalent ailment among golfers by a long shot. That’s because the twisting motions of a golf swing can overwork the lumbar spine, forcing it to carry excessive loads. Resulting injuries can include game-ending disc ruptures, bone fractures, and degenerative arthritis.
Florida Hospital’s Golf Fore Life program was created to help players of all ages perfect their game and protect their spine. With the expertise of Titleist Performance Institute-certified specialists, the Golf Fore Life team will assess your stance, help improve your technique and create an individualized golf fitness program to keep you in good spine health, on the green and off. Because unlike Tiger Woods, not every player has nine lives.