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Tiger Woods: Spotlight on Spinal Fusion

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Author name: Dean Lin, M.D., board-certified neurosurgeon


Tiger Woods’ victory at the 2019 Masters tournament completed one of the most dramatic comebacks in sports history. For anyone who suffers debilitating back pain, Tiger’s green-jacket victory also offered a unique kind of hope.

“Congratulations to Tiger Woods for an unbelievable accomplishment,” says Dean Lin, M.D., a board-certified neurosurgeon with Lee Health. “To call his spine surgery a success is a gross understatement.”

"Low back pain is extremely common and almost everyone suffers from it at some point their life. Tiger underwent several less invasive procedures to avoid having a lumbar fusion, but some patients eventually need a lumbar fusion," Dr. Lin says.

What is Spinal Fusion?

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), spinal fusion aims to correct problems with the lumbar vertebrae (small bones in the spine). Essentially a “welding” process, the procedure fuses painful vertebrae so they heal into a single, solid bone. When motion is the source of pain, spinal fusion becomes a treatment option because it eliminates movement of the vertebrae.

Physically active people tend to have issues with L5/S1 disc because it’s the lowest disc in the spine, and thus bears most of our weight, Dr. Lin says. In 2017, Tiger underwent minimally invasive anterior lumbar interbody fusion (ALIF) surgery to relieve debilitating pain from a degenerative disk in his lower spine.

The surgery marked Tiger’s fourth back surgery in two years. A statement posted on the golfer’s web site detailed how Tiger — after failing to improve with conservative therapy that included rehabilitation, medications, limiting activities and injections — chose surgery.

According to Dr. Lin, the procedure is an extremely effective procedure to alleviate sciatica pain. Typically, ALIF involves the combined efforts of a vascular surgeon and a spine surgeon.

Higher Quality of Life

Because the procedure is performed anteriorly (the surgeon approaches the spine from the front) through the abdomen, a vascular surgeon has to mobilize the blood vessels that are in front of the damaged disk. “Once the vessels are safely moved out of the way, the spine surgeon performs the ALIF,” Dr. Lin explains. “The idea is to reduce motion, so there’s less pain on his nerve.”

Most patients are highly satisfied with ALIF, according to Dr. Lin. He says the procedure restores them to a higher quality of life. As with any spinal fusion, ALIF is considered a last resort procedure after conservative treatment has failed.

Since returning from spinal fusion, Tiger has added the 2019 Masters to his collection of major golf championships. Stay tuned to see if he will remain a contender.

For more information, visit our page on Neurosurgery

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