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Spinal fusion surgery: The science behind Manning's life changing operation

by Christi Sodano
Feb 02, 2012


With his home turf the epicenter of the Super Bowl buzz this season, his younger brother in contention for the NFL championship and a potentially life-changing contract decision only one month away, it is little wonder why Peyton Manning’s recovery is at the forefront of Indianapolis conversation.

Last September, Manning underwent his third neck surgery in two years. The controversial spinal-fusion surgery aimed to correct a cervical disc herniation in his neck has been associated with declines in his on-field performance.

Cervical disc herniation occurs when the cushioned discs, which act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae, bulge and pinch the spinal cord or nerve root that are encased in the spine.

This is generally caused by repeated neck motion or trauma and can result in loss of motor function and numbness or sharp pain, said Dr. Selene Parekh, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Duke University.

Typically surgery is considered only after the patient has endured prolonged pain of up to six weeks, said Dr. Wellington Hsu, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

In Manning’s case, disc fragments pinching the nerve root in his cervical spine likely caused acute pain and decreased arm strength.

During the September operation, doctors removed a single disc through a small incision in the front of the neck, alleviating pressure on the nerve root and replacing the disc with bone grafts or a plastic implant. Once the new disc is set into place, the surrounding vertebrae are fused using a titanium plate and screws in the upper and lower vertebrae.

Prior to Manning’s spinal-fusion surgery, he underwent two microdiscectomies in an attempt to correct the problem. After a series of diagnostic tests in September showed his recovery was not on track, spinal-fusion surgery became the next step.

Although the surgery is touted by many industry professionals as more than 95 percent successful, Dr. Kenneth Pettine, an American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons member, said in a 2010 report, “The perception is that this is a great operation. I’m not saying it’s an awful operation. We’re just presenting the data that it’s certainly not 95 percent.”

“When you get one level fused, the next level up and down has to take all the motion. This very often accelerates into adjacent level dysfunction. That can happen two years later, that can happen 10 years later,” said Shaeffer Bannigan, development engineer at NuVasive, Inc., a spinal surgery technology company.

Hsu, who published a study in 2010 about the likelihood of athletes to return to the NFL after spinal- fusion surgery said, “For a player like Manning, the time frame to play football is closing in and when his arm strength was not improving fast enough, he elected to have the fusion.”

In his study, Hsu analyzed 99 players, some of whom are still on the field, and found on average players treated surgically had a higher return-to-play rate and longer career than players who are treated nonsurgically and position was a key factor in success after surgery.

Performance after surgery largely depends on the player's position and is particularly relevant for quarterbacks, Parekh said.

“Loss of function, even if only by a few degrees, is significant because if neck rotation is inhibited, that can affect your ability to assess what is happening on the field,” he said.

Recovery plans after surgery vary depending on the patient.

According to Parekh’s medical-information blog, the bone usually takes 12 weeks to fuse and after fusion, “a prolonged course of therapy will be needed to regain some of the loss of function, mobility and strength.”

Despite a lengthy recovery process, Hsu speculated that, “Manning will be able to come back to the NFL next year. What his level of play will be after he returns is still yet to be determined.”

However, Hsu’s opinion is not shared by all.

“My personal opinion was that there wasn’t an entirely honest view of what was happening him, there is a real chance that he may never return to play in the NFL,” Parekh said.