Tiger Woods' Neck Injury Could Sideline Him for Months

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Tiger Woods watching a putt
Flickr photo by Ethan Bloch

With all the emotional problems that Tiger Woods is having this year -- a marriage in shambles, financial losses, his swing coach quitting -- the neck problems that caused the superstar to withdraw from The Players Championship in Florida over the weekend may seem like minor stuff.

But the injury, what the golfer is referring to as a "bulging disk," could be serious enough to keep him from his game for months and limit the rest of his career if he's not careful.

For a sport that seems so la-de-da (I mean, they're just walking, after all), the arm, shoulder, and back motions required to repeatedly drive a ball at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour are "traumatic" and "violent" and put tremendous amounts of stress on the back and neck, says Dr. Michael Schafer, orthopedic surgeon and spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

"Golf may not equal contact sports, but the frequency of neck and back injuries is very high with golfers," says Schafer. "Lower-back problems in some of these high-performing athletes have hurt and even ended careers."

This is certainly the case for American professional golfer Fred Couples, whose chronic lower-back problems forced him to cut back drastically on the number of tournaments he's able to play, truncating a very successful career.

While lower-back problems are more the norm, an inflamed disk in the neck isn't usual, Schafer says. Here's a quick anatomy lesson on the spine -- and click here for more information on disk problems and pinched nerves

  • A disk contains two parts: A tough fibrous coating filled with a softer jelly-type substance on the inside. Disks are like soft cushions spaced out among the spine, allowing you to move your backbone.
  • A disk "bulges" when this jelly becomes inflamed and pushes out against the coating, stretching it.
  • A disk becomes "herniated" or "ruptured" when the jelly actually busts through the lining.
  • At either stage, the injury can press against the nerves in the spine, leading to a number of problems including the loss of muscle function and even paralysis.

Some writers are speculating that the injury is related to Woods' car accident in November in the midst of the adultery scandal. While sudden impacts do sometimes cause disk problems, there are other more likely causes, especially since Tiger first began complaining about his back several weeks ago at the Masters.

The constant and repeated motion of swinging a golf club with such force and intensity could lead to a sudden and traumatic injury of the disk, Schafer says. Or the damage could build more slowly as a degenerative condition, where the "jelly" loses water and becomes more susceptible to strain.

"At that point, even bending down to open the car door could cause the acute onset," Schafer says.

Tiger could be sidelined anywhere from six weeks to several months, depending on the severity and progression of his injury. His doctor will likely put him on rest with a heavy-duty anti-inflammatory like Celebrex and possibly a cervical collar to restrict motion while the disk heals.

This will likely be followed by physical therapy to stretch and strengthen his neck muscles, a regimen that will no doubt become a permanent part of Tiger's training in order to prevent a recurrence down the road.

But Schafer, a golfer himself who's seen Tiger play up close, guesses the sports star will be back sooner rather than later.

"You're talking about a tough guy who's gone through a lot and has a lot to prove," he says. "His doctors are going to do everything they can to get him back on the course as soon as possible."

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