Does a Disk Herniation Spell the End of a Pitching Career

» Does a Disk Herniation Spell the End of a Pitching Career
Share this page

The results of this study show that major league baseball pitchers can recover from a neck or back disk herniation. It may take a while but they can even return-to-play after surgical treatment. How did they come to this conclusion? Public records were searched for information from 1984 to 2009. They found 40 major league baseball pitchers with a history of disk herniation and then followed the results of treatment.

Everyone included in the study had surgery for the problem. They either had a spinal fusion or a disk replacement. Although return-to-play status was the defining measure of success, there were other factors assessed. How long it took to go from the last game player before injury back to the playing field was one of those measures.

You can imagine how pitchers with similar injuries might want to know that information when faced with their own recovery. But the researchers also wanted to know how long the pitchers played before injuring their neck or low back. This is important information in terms of prevention of these kinds of injuries.

If you've ever watched the movements of a major league pitcher during the wind-up and pitch, you can appreciate the high forces placed on the arm. But that arm is connected to the neck and spine and those areas undergo torsional forces as well. And this study shows that these injuries don't signal the end of a player's career -- even if they have surgery.

So if your favorite major league baseball pitcher is out with a disk herniation, you may wonder how long before he is back in action? According to the statistical analysis of the 40 pitchers in this study, it takes an average of about one year for players with neck herniations to recover fully.

And players with a low back disk herniation experience an average of seven months between injury and return-to-play. That's a full season at least for both groups. But if the injury occurs mid-season, then a seven to 12-month period of time can extend into two seasons.

You may wonder: what about performance? Will my favorite pitcher return at the same preinjury level of elite performance? By performance we are talking about pitching statistics such as earned run average, innings pitched, and walks plus hits per innings. By comparing the pitcher's pre-injury stats to his post-injury performance, it is possible to see if his pitching performance is better-same-or-worse from then until now.

A closer look at all the data showed that the biggest before and after surgery difference was in the number of innings pitched per season. In both groups (cervical and lumbar disk herniations), players pitched fewer innings after surgery.

When those statistics were compared to players with similar injuries treated conservatively (nonoperative care), the players in the nonoperative group had better post-treatment stats. The major difference was in the number of players who were able to return-to-play in the conservative care group (far less than in the surgical group).

In conclusion, major league baseball pitchers with disk herniations can indeed recover and return to sports action as good as ever. The disk injury does not necessarily mean the end of a career or even reduced performance. Hopefully this report will help dispel some of the suggestions to the contrary made by sports prognosticators and sports writers and reporters.

The authors suggest further study would be helpful. This was a fairly small study with only 40 players evaluated. Additional research is needed to look at differences in pitcher stability and performance based on age and experience. It might be a good idea to also compare severity of injury or herniation against the results of treatment. Finding factors that affect outcomes could help direct the timing and method of treatment.

Reference: David W. Roberts MD, et al. Outcomes of Cervical and Lumbar Disk Herniations in Major League Baseball Pitchers. In Orthopedics. August 2011. Vol. 34. No. 8. Pp. 602-609.

Share this page