Will J.J. Watt’s Perfect Record Be Spoiled by a Herniated Disk?

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News reports that the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt underwent back surgery on July 20 have football fans wondering whether the top-rated NFL defensive player will be back in fighting form in time for his team’s season opener against the Chicago Bears on September 11. A tough competitor by any standard, Watt has yet to miss a regular season game in his five-year pro career (despite multiple injuries) and is considered a key to the Texans’ chances for success in 2016.

By all accounts, Watt is definitely going on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list for all of training camp and likely the entire pre-season. But as for whether he’ll make it back in time for the first regular season game – well, that depends on who you ask. Some team sources are estimating a six-to-eight week recovery period that would put the star athlete back on the field just in time for game one. But at least one insider has provided a more conservative projection of around 10 weeks until Watt can come back, and hinting that he might not be 100 percent healthy until as late as mid-season.

So, with the Texans’ early-season prospects seemingly at stake, what exactly do we know about what’s going on with J.J. Watt?

His surgery was to repair a herniated disk.

Apparently Watt played at least part of last season with this injury, which is also sometimes referred to as a “ruptured,” “torn” or “slipped” disk. This is a very common but potentially excruciating condition in which the jelly-like center portion of an intervertebral disk pushes out past the disk’s hard, outer surface and comes in contact with highly sensitive spinal nerves. This can cause radiating pain down the spinal cord and into the hips, buttocks and legs, as well as tingling, numbing and burning sensations. In the most severe cases, the pressure of a herniated disk on a spinal nerve can cause loss of bladder or bowel control.

While we don’t know for sure whether Watt’s herniated disk was in his lower back or higher up on his spine, the statistical odds favor a lower back injury since disks in the lumbar region are many times more likely to experience a herniation than those in the thoracic or cervical regions.

Read about common spine conditions on our website.

Depending on his injury, several types of surgery may have been performed.

While herniated disks can usually be treated with nonsurgical means via physical therapy, steroid injections and anti-inflammatory pain medications, a youthful star like J.J. Watt who plays a sport known for its relentless and brutal hard hits likely did not have the luxury of these options. Instead, depending on the extent, location and other aspects of his injury, he may have undergone a laminectomy, microdiscectomy or spinal fusion procedure – or some combination thereof. The most common (and therefore most likely) type of surgery for herniated disk repair is a discectomy, where a portion or all of the problematic disk is removed via an incision in the back. When this surgery is performed with minimally invasive tools and a very small incision, it is called a microdiscectomy and requires significantly less recovery time. However…

This was Watt’s second surgery in the last six months – a potentially relevant fact in determining his recovery period.

Showing just how tough an athlete he is, Watt apparently played for some time with as many as five torn or partially torn core muscles on either side of his body that required surgical repair in 2015. ESPN reports that these muscles were in his torso, upper legs and groin; specifically, these included the right adductor longus (partial tear), left adductor longus (complete tear) and left adductor pectineus (full tear in the inner thigh and groin).

Understanding that the core muscles are responsible for protecting the back from injury and that an imbalance or weakness in this area puts the spine at greater risk, these previous injuries may well be a sign that Watt’s rehabilitation will take some time after all. (Indeed, the very fact that Watt’s core muscles were still in the rehabilitation phase going into last season could well have contributed to him aggravating the herniated disk that needed repair this summer.) And when you consider that “going back to work” for Watt means taking huge hits on the gridiron rather than just riding a desk, that’s all the more reason for this highly valuable athletic asset to take his time and fully rehabilitate his muscles AND vertebrae prior to returning to the field.

Of course, we wish J.J. Watt the speediest and most thorough recovery possible, and look forward to him setting new records for sacks and tackles when he’s truly healthy!

Learn more about herniated disks at TheSpineHealthInstitute.com.

If you suffer from chronic back or neck pain that may be associated with a herniated disk or other type of injury, contact us at Call407-303-5452 to book an appointment. Led by world renowned spine surgeon Chetan Patel, MD, we provide the full range of care including non-invasive, minimally invasive and advanced surgical treatments, with a focus on trying the most conservative options first. For your convenience, you can also click on the “Book Online” button at the top of this page to request an appointment with Dr. Patel or one of his medical team members.


J.J. Watt undergoes back surgery; Texans hopeful he’ll play opener (7/21/2016). Retrieved from ESPN.go.com: http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/17121935/jj-watt-houston-texans-back-surgery-ok-season-opener

J.J. Watt undergoes surgery to repair herniated disc (7/22/2016). Retrieved from NFL.com: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000676105/article/jj-watt-undergoes-back-surgery

Herniated Disk Surgery: What to Expect (1/21/2015). Retrieved from Healthline.com: http://www.healthline.com/health/bone-health/herniated-disk-surgery#Overview1

J.J. Watt Injury: Updates on Texans Star’s Recovery from Back Surgery (n.d.). Retrieved from BleacherReport.com: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2643918-jj-watt-injury-updates-on-texans-stars-recovery-from-back-surgery

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