The Outcome of Lumbar Discectomy in Elite Athletes

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Study Design.An outcomes assessment of 14 elite college athletes who had undergone lumbar disc surgery was performed using the SF-36, a validated questionnaire that assesses quality of life.Objectives.To determine the outcomes and results of lumbar disc surgery in an elite group of athletes and compare the results with those in the general population and in age-matched control subjects.Summary of Background Data.Lumbar disc surgery is reported to be a highly successful procedure with excellent results. The outcome in elite athletes has not been assessed and compared with population norms and age-matched control subjects.Methods.Fourteen athletes from schools in the National Collegiate Athletic Association with a mean age of 20.7, underwent lumbar discectomy for radiculopathy refractory to conservative treatment. Ten had a single-level microdiscectomy, three a two-level microdiscectomy, and one a percutaneous discectomy. Patients were evaluated at a mean follow-up of 3.1 years, underwent a detailed clinical evaluation, and filled out the SF-36 questionnaire.Results.All 14 patients had improvement of pain with elimination of the radicular component, took less medication than before surgery, and returned to recreational sports. Nine patients, all with a single level microdiscectomy, returned to varsity sports. Five athletes prematurely retired from competitive sports because of continued symptoms. Three of the athletes who retired underwent two-level procedures, and one had a percutaneous discectomy. SF-36 scores for bodily pain, physical role, and social and mental health roles were significantly lower in those athletes who retired. Patient scores were also compared with those in a group of noninjured age- and sport-matched college athletes. There were no differences between injured and noninjured athletes, but both groups had scores significantly lower than normal values in an age-matched group for bodily pain, physical role, general health, and social function.Conclusions.All patients were satisfied with their surgeries, were greatly improved, and were pain free in activities of daily living. For a single-level microdiscectomy, the success rate in elite athletes is excellent, with 90% of athletes able to return to a high level of competition. Two-level disease may be associated with a less favorable outcome.

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