I am an agent for several professional ball players. My job is to help them negotiate their contracts and keep them in the game. Two of my top players are out with surgery for herniated discs. What are the chances they will get back to work and how long will it take?


More than any other patient groups who suffer from a herniated disc, professional athletes successfully return to work after surgery. In fact, this response has become what is considered “the expected norm.” So for most (not all) players, it’s not a matter of will they play again but rather when will they return to the field or court.

Predicting time needed off for rehab, and/or surgery and rehab, and recovery isn’t easy. But getting a handle on expected times can be very helpful when agents and players are making important personal, financial, and professional decisions. Not only that, but the teams have to take stock of player availability when making decisions.

A study was done by spine surgeons who provide care for teams in the Los Angeles area. Many professional players from all over the U.S. seek their services for problems like this. To aid surgeons counseling players, they ooked back at the medical records of 85 players who had this type of surgery for a herniated disc. This group of patients included football players, basketball players, baseball players, and hockey players.

For all of the players in this study, diagnosis was made with MRIs. The surgery was performed using a microscopic technique after they failed to get relief or improvement with a nonsurgical approach. Each player had the disc removed from a single spinal level. The most common area injured was in the lumbar spine: either L45 or L5S1. L5S1 refers to where the last lumbar vertebra joins the sacrum.

As it turns out, return to sports is a progressive phenomenon. At the end of a year, there are many more back in action compared with the first three months. On average, it took the players in this study about six months to return to their preinjury level of participation.

To be more specific: half of the group returned to play after three months, 72 per cent at six months, 77 per cent at nine months, and 84 per cent at the end of one year (12 months). The authors report that from their study, the average chance of returning to sports after microdiskectomy in the lumbar spine was 89 per cent.

But please understand that predicting the time it will take to return to play is a challenge and not fool-proof even with the information provided by this study. There are individual player factors that can factor into the equation. Not to be too flippant but these figures are “in the ball park” of what you and your players can expect.