Spinal Surgery

New Surgical Procedures Offer Hope to Athletes with Spine and Neck Injuries

Spinal SurgeryIn 2012, it looked as though David Cooper was never going to walk again. The Cleveland Indians first baseman had just dove into a base during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays and landed strangely, suffering a herniated disc that compressed his thoracic spine. As a result, Cooper’s entirely future was in jeopardy — and his future in baseball was certainly right out of the question.

Now, all that’s changed. Dr. Curtis Dickman, a spinal surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, was able to perform a rare procedure on Cooper to remove the herniated disc, freeing his spine in the process. The procedure, which took place last April, saw Dickman open up Cooper’s chest, insert bone grafts, a titanium plate and screws in order to repair the damage to his spine.

Nearly two years later, Cooper has rejoined his Indians for spring training. And as Fansided.com reports, his first at-bat yielded a walk, a fitting action for the athlete who once feared he’d be paralyzed for the rest of his life. What’s even more impressive is that he came back from that kind of injury at all. Dickman said that only about 1 or 2% of people face thoracic spinal injuries like Cooper’s, and the surgery he performed is right now only offered in a few places in the entire world.

Because of Dickman’s innovative surgical work, Cooper is back at the plate. But Cooper’s not the only pro athlete who’s had to deal with spinal injuries in the recent past.

Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley was left with a bruised spinal cord after he collided with a Cleveland Browns safety last fall. Finley underwent spinal fusion surgery to join his C3 and C4 vertebrae together, and now he’s inching closer to a return to the field. Through strenuous practices and strategic exercises, Finley is re-training his neck muscles to work in tandem with his eyes as he scopes out flying footballs. And as of March 11, he’s been medically cleared to play once again.

Even on the Olympic front, athletes haven’t been safe from spinal injuries. Last month, skier Maria Komissarova fractured her spine on the slopes in Sochi during a practice run. The injury took her out of the games and led to surgeons placing a metal implant in her spine. It’s still far too early to tell if Komissarova will be able to ski as she once did.

Neck injuries have also proved to be a problem for athletes, including football great Peyton Manning.

“Peyton Manning had a cervical fusion, and while cervical fusions are the traditional way of alleviating symptoms of disc disease or disc herniation’s, the latest technology is artificial disc replacement,” explains Dr. Elkanich, MD and orthopedic spine surgeon at Artificial Disc Institute. “This will allow the athlete to maintain their range of motion at the affected disc, as well as above and below that segment. As all of us know, it is important to maintain range of motion in athletes, so that they can compete at the highest level. These procedures can now be performed on an outpatient basis, at one and two levels. There is decreased risk for infection, decreased operating room time, and the patient can return home the same day.”

With any sport, injuries come with the territory. Spine and neck injuries, however, have always had a much higher risk of permanent damage — but that seems to be changing at a rapid rate. If a baseball player can be given a grim diagnosis of paralysis only to return to spring training two seasons later, who knows what the future holds in the field of spinal breakthroughs.