Pre-existing lumbar spine diagnosis as a predictor of outcomes in national football league athletes

Gregory D. Schroeder*, T. Sean Lynch, Daniel B. Gibbs, Ian Chow, Mark Labelle, Alpesh A. Patel, Jason W. Savage, Wellington K. Hsu, Gordon W. Nuber

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Background: It is currently unknown how pre-existing lumbar spine conditions may affect the medical evaluation, draft status, and subsequent career performance of National Football League (NFL) players. Purpose: To determine if a pre-existing lumbar diagnosis affects a players draft status or his performance and longevity in the NFL. Study Design: Cohort study; Level 3. Methods: The investigators evaluated the written medical evaluations and imaging reports of prospective NFL players from a single franchise during the NFL Scouting Combine from 2003 to 2011. Players with a reported lumbar spine diagnosis and with appropriate imaging were included in this study. Athletes were then matched to control draftees without a lumbar spine diagnosis by age, position, year, and round drafted. Career statistics and performance scores were calculated. Results: Of a total of 2965 athletes evaluated, 414 were identified as having a pre-existing lumbar spine diagnosis. Players without a lumbar spine diagnosis were more likely to be drafted than were those with a diagnosis (80.2% vs 61.1%, respectively, P < .001). Drafted athletes with pre-existing lumbar spine injuries had a decrease in the number of years played compared with the matched control group (4.0 vs 4.3 years, respectively, P = .001), games played (46.5 vs 50.8, respectively, P = .0001), and games started (28.1 vs 30.6, respectively, P = .02) but not performance score (1.4 vs 1.8, respectively, P = .13). Compared with controls, players were less likely to be drafted if they had been diagnosed with spondylosis (62.37% vs 78.55%), a lumbar herniated disc (60.27% vs 78.43%), or spondylolysis with or without spondylolisthesis (64.44% vs 78.15%) (P <.001 for all), but there was no appreciable effect on career performance; however, the diagnosis of spondylolysis was associated with a decrease in career longevity (P < .05). Notably, 2 athletes who had undergone posterior lateral lumbar fusion were drafted. One played in 125 games, and the other is still active and has played in 108 games. Conclusion: The data in this study suggest that athletes with pre-existing lumbar spine conditions were less likely to be drafted and that the diagnosis is associated with a decrease in career longevity but not performance. Players with lumbar fusion have achieved successful careers in the NFL.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)972-978
Number of pages7
JournalAmerican Journal of Sports Medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 4 2015


  • Football
  • Herniated disc
  • Lumbar spine
  • Spondylosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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