Outcomes of Lumbar Discectomy in Elite Athletes: The Need for High-level Evidence

Rueben Nair, Cynthia A. Kahlenberg, Wellington K. Hsu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Methods: We performed a systematic literature review of articles of lumbar discectomy in the elite athlete population through the MEDLINE and EMBASE databases from 1947 to 2013. Elite athletes were defined as professional, Olympic, or National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I collegiate level. A hand search of the references of all key articles was performed to ensure inclusion of all relevant studies. Information regarding study design, types of athletes, level of sport, recovery time, return to sport, length of career after surgery, and career performance after surgery was extracted. Ten articles met the inclusion and exclusion criteria for this review. These articles consisted of levels III and IV data and were graded based on the Methodological Index for Non-Randomized Studies (MINORS) scale.

Results: Overall, the studies included in this review found that 75% to 100% of athletes were able to return to elite competition after operative treatment. In general, a higher proportion of baseball players returned to elite competition compared with other athletes. The reported recovery period after lumbar discectomy ranged from 2.8 to 8.7 months. The average career length after lumbar discectomy ranged from 2.6 to 4.8 years. Elite athletes reached an average of 64.4% to 103.6% of baseline preoperative statistics after lumbar discectomy with variable performance based on sport.

Conclusions: A high proportion of elite athletes undergoing lumbar discectomy return to play with variable performance scores on return. Future prospective studies are needed to compare the recovery time, career longevity, and performance for athletes undergoing lumbar discectomy versus nonoperative treatment for lumbar disc herniation.

Background: Although lumbar discectomy for treatment of lumbar disc herniation in the general population generally improves patients’ pain, function, and validated outcomes scores, results of treatment in elite athletes may differ because of the unique performance demands required of competitive athletes.


Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1971-1977
Number of pages7
JournalClinical orthopaedics and related research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


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