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Optimism for Tiger return, says spinal surgeon

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tiger Woods has good reason to be optimistic about resolving a nagging back injury that led him to undergo a second back surgery this past week, a leading spinal surgeon told Reuters on Saturday.

Woods, 39, said on his website on Friday that he had undergone a second microdiscectomy surgery similar to one he had on his back in March 2014 and was scuttling the rest of his 2015 playing plans with a hope to return to the links in early 2016.

“Return to play for an elite athlete is around 90 percent, that they can return to their elite level of competition,” Dr. Andrew Hecht, chief of spine surgery at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“The prognosis is very good.”

Hecht said that in general the risk of recurrence of a herniated disc, which had initially led to a pinched nerve for Woods, was five to 10 percent for anybody having a microdiscectomy.

Hecht, who works with the New York Jets in the National Football League (NFL) and sits on the NFL brain and spine committee, likened a herniated disc to a squished jelly doughnut.

The discs that sit in between the vertebrae that run from the base of the skull all they way down to the pelvis, serve as shock absorbers, he explained.

When the outer part of the disc tears or forms a tiny hole, the gelatinous material inside “hernia out, almost like jelly coming out of a jelly doughnut,” Hecht said.

“When it gets out of its normal location it can contact with a nerve. The jelly had to come out of somewhere, it comes out of a tear or a hole in the disc.

“A microdiscectomy is where you remove that herniated piece of jelly. But remember, there is still a hole there and that hole has to heal on its own, but it’s forever a weak spot in the disc. The most common problem with anybody who has a microdiscectomy is reherniating the disc.”

Hecht said the fact that Woods was approaching his 40th birthday should not be a factor against his recovery.

“To me the most important factor is the kind of symptoms you have pre-operatively. When you have a herniated disc, very often you have pinched nerve, and pain that radiates down your leg.

“Those people that have pain in their leg ... they do amazingly well. Those that mostly only have back pain, and not leg pain, they don’t do as well.”

According to his website, Woods said he “felt some occasional discomfort in the back and hip area the last several weeks...”

Woods has provided few specifics about the exact nature of his injury, though he did acknowledge discomfort in the hip area which, according to Hecht, is the sort of pain that can more predictably be eliminated.

“One part of the healing process is the surgery, getting the pressure off the nerve by removing that piece of disc material,” he said.

“The second part of this is the rehab program to strengthen the muscles around the spine, your core muscles, your trunk muscles and your hip muscles, to get yourself back into a shape where the muscles that support your spine are strong and ready to endure the mechanics of a golf swing.

“People should be optimistic that he can return to being himself.”

Woods, a fitness buff, has slipped in recent years due to injuries and the mastering of a new swing as he strives to add to his major championship total of 14, with his last major triumph coming at the 2008 U.S. Open.

Dr. Hecht thought that soon, Woods’ rise or fall would be down entirely to the quality of his golf, and not due to a physical problem.

“Because of his commitment and overall physical well being ... he has all the right motivations and work ethic to maintain an excellent career and not be limited by this.”

Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Andrew Both