Lumbar discectomies in elite rowers: presentation, operative treatment, and return to play

Scott L. Zuckerman, Mena G. Kerolus, Ian A. Buchanan, Alex S. Ha, Anton Gillespie, Meghan Cerpa, Eric Leung, Ronald A. Lehman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: In a cohort of elite rowers requiring lumbar spine surgery, we report information regarding: (1) presentation, (2) operative treatment, and (3) return to play (RTP). Methods: All competitive rowers undergoing spine surgery at a single academic institution from 2015 to 2020 were analyzed. Three rowers underwent spine surgery during the allotted time period. Demographic, clinical, operative, and RTP data was recorded. Each athlete’s self-reported level of effort/performance was assessed before and after surgery. First RTP was defined as the time of initial return to rowing activities, and full RTP was defined as the time of unrestricted return to rowing activities. Descriptive statistics were performed. Results: The three collegiate rowers ranged from 20- to 21-year-old, each with L5/S1 disc herniations. Preoperative pain levels ranged from 8 to 10, and inciting injury events included back squats, front squats, and rowing during the ‘finish’ stage. Each athlete underwent a minimally invasive, unilateral L5/S1 decompression, partial medial facetectomy, and partial discectomy with microscopic-assistance. First RTP ranged from 4-6 months, with full RTP at 6–8 months. Pain dissipated to the 0–1 range at full RTP. Final effort/performance improved from 10–60% mid-injury to 90–100% at full RTP. Each athlete’s 2000m row time showed a decline mid-injury and an improvement to at or within 10 s of their pre-injury time. Conclusions: Drawing from three collegiate rowers who underwent lumbar decompression surgery, each athlete successfully returned to rowing, with initial RTP in the 4–6 months range and full RTP in the 6–8 months range. Performance levels rebounded to near or better than pre-injury performance. The results of this small case series warrant replication in larger, multi-institutional samples.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)414-418
Number of pages5
JournalPhysician and Sportsmedicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Rowing
  • crew
  • lumbar decompression
  • lumbar spine surgery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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