The Surgery That Got Tiger Woods Golfing Again

Tiger Woods is something of a miracle…

His back problems had gotten so bad he was unable even to putt in the garden with his son, never mind play a competitive match.

Tiger was practically rendered an invalid. In agony around the clock, it seemed his professional golfing career was over after 3 unsuccessful surgeries.

But, his fourth surgery enabled him to spring back and win the Masters in 2019.

Sadly, the golfing superstar Tiger Woods has been struggling with back pain and sciatica for the past 10 years, as well being beleaguered by multiple knee problems.

Before he suffered from back complaints, Woods underwent numerous surgeries on his knees. It wasn’t until 2010 when he first started experiencing major problems with his back.

In July 2020 Tiger Woods was reported to have said that he is “just hanging on” to professional golfing. Although his surgery in 2019 was successful, he still struggles on despite the pain.

Chronology of Tiger Woods’ Back Pain

  • 2010 Woods thought he might have a bulging disk. He was later diagnosed with an inflamed facet joint in his neck.
  • Between 2010 and 2014, Woods had various problems and surgeries on his knees.
  • Tiger Woods famously dropped to his knees due to back spasms at the Barclays tournament in 2013. This signified the start of his back troubles.
  • March 2014 back spasms caused Woods to pull out in the final round of the Honda Classic. This led to his first microdiscectomy.
  • April 2014, Woods announced he was not participating in the Masters that year having had his second microdiscectomy for a pinched nerve in his back.
  • August 2014, Woods jarred his back and had to pull out of the WGC-Bridgestone International.
  • February 2015, he again withdrew from the Farmer’s Insurance Open due to back pain.
  • October 2015, has a third microdiscectomy.
  • After back surgery in 2017, Tiger made a historic rebound by winning the 2019 Masters.

What Is Wrong With Tiger Woods’ Back?

Tiger’s back problem is degenerative disk disease. This happens to all of us as we age, but our lifestyle  influences the rate of deterioration.

Just like we develop grey hair and wrinkles, our disks become dehydrated and flatten to the point where the disks touch. The bones rub together and pinch the nerves causing horrendous pain.

The full swing that golfers perform means they are continuously twisting and torquing their body. It’s no wonder that it is common for golfers to suffer with lower back pain.

What Back Surgery Has Tiger Woods Had?

Woods has had three microdiscectomies and one Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion. As his bone didn’t fuse properly from the three microdiscectomies, his surgeon Richard Guyer at the Texas Back Institute decided it was time to perform a spine fusion.

Surgery should only be a last resort after extensive physical therapy. In Tiger’s case, the ALIF was a last resort after the three failed surgeries.

What Is a Microdiscectomy?

A microdiscectomy is an outpatient surgery performed to relieve pressure on a root nerve by removing parts of an invertebrate disk using a tool akin to a pair of scissors. There is very little downtime with this procedure.

Some people feel pain relief right away, while others notice a gradual improvement over a few weeks.

The success rate of microdiscectomy is pretty high.

Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion (ALIF)

After the three microdiscectomies, Tiger Woods lost a lot of disk material. The disk had become quite thin, so it wasn’t providing adequate cushioning between his vertebrae which had become quite close to each other.

As the disks had moved closer together it compressed the nerve in his spine causing him agony.

Woods had both mechanical back problems as well as nerve compression.

In 2017, Woods underwent an Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion or ALIF. This is a surgery for relieving pain due to disk degeneration. The procedure fused his bottom two vertebrae in his lumbar region. This section of the spine is most likely to degenerate.

An ALIF can be performed either from the front or the back. When doing an ALIF from in front, the surgeon makes an incision in the abdomen about 4cm long. They then move the abdominal muscles and blood vessels a to the side to access the spine.

Implant

The surgeon removes the damaged disk material from the spine, before placing an implant called a cage in the disk space.

The implant is made of plastic which is filled with morphogenic protein. This helps to fuse the bones together and stabilize the spine. The procedure releases the pressure on the nerve eliminating both nerve pain and back pain.

The healing of the spinal fusion makes the spine stronger, which should enable Woods to twist and torque as much as he likes without causing any injury.

The cage relieves pressure on the nerve roots by creating space between the disks. A bone graft is then placed inside the cage. This is sometimes secured with screws.

For a bone graft, bone tissue is typically taken from the hip bone.

You may wonder why he didn’t have the ALIF sooner, but this procedure is normally used to revise previous surgery. When fusion surgery is unsuccessful, it is because the bone graft has not worked. Surgery should only be used as a last resort.

Tiger Woods Today

Today, Tiger Woods is still competing, despite the agony of his back pain. His will and determination are quite miraculous. Managing to win the Masters just 2 years after complete incapacitation was described as “winning the lottery” since the chances of him winning were comparably slim.

In July 2020 though, Woods said that he is simply “hanging on” to golfing professionally after grappling with back pain at the Memorial Tournament.

It’s rather sad to see the best golfer in the world go through so much pain and suffering. That said, he appears to triumph over his setbacks with true grit.

Tiger is approaching 40, almost retirement time for a golfer. Let’s hope, though, that he can find some respite and continue to win for as long as possible.

Final Thoughts

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