Not easy to get back: The struggle for athletes returning from disc injuries

For most people, Tiger Woods withdrawing from yet another tournament this past week may seem like just another frustrating disappointment for Woods post-scandal. But let’s not generalize the situation, and give due weight to that important detail in why the former world No. 1 withdrew: back spasms.

I speak as someone who is now dealing with two herniated discs, and knows the pain, not just physical, but psychological as well, which Woods and so many other elite, world-class athletes go through in regards to disc or nerve injuries.

J.J. Watt. Photos via

I’ve certainly improved since the onset of my injury, over seven months ago, but the road which brought me to where I am today was a lot more taxing, and ultimately, lifestyle altering than I originally imagined. During that time, I’ve witnessed two iconic athletes, Woods and J.J.

Watt try and fail to overcome serious back injuries. I hope my experience and insight can give some understanding on the frustratingly difficult challenge these two athletes are facing.

For those who don’t understand the nature of these injuries, one’s back consists of several discs that go down one’s spine. When the disc slips out of its little pocket, one has a herniation. People can have a herniation, but not know it because the disc itself is not touching the nerve.

Once that disc does press up against the nerve though, the pain can feel crippling.

Recovery from this injury means a good degree of rest, obviously scaling back activity, and eventually, carefully measured rehabilitation to try to somehow get the disc back into place. The analogy that is often used is that the disc is like the jelly of a donut, and that the injury would be as if the jelly poured out of the middle of the donut. The challenge with recovery is to get that jelly back into the center.

Recovery is not like other injuries, where a person can get to a certain point and be in the clear. The injury is very much one of lifelong management, because at any moment, the jelly could spill back out.

Watt and Woods are competing in sports that put a substantial amount of pressure on their backs. The acceleration off any three point stance, or the torque of any swing have the ever-present potential to re-aggravate the condition. Beyond these physical hurdles are the mental ones. The frustration that exercises and daily activities in life which were once done without pause, now might have to consciously be done in a way to avoid aggravation.

A back spasm for Woods is by no means the nail in the coffin. A back spasm is actually just the back protecting itself from further damage. The spasm shows that something isn’t quite right, but it doesn’t mean that all the progress from the last 16 months is lost.

The fact is these athletes will battle with their respective back problems for the rest of their careers. The public won’t see what goes on behind closed doors; the stretching, therapy, ice and heat. The public will hear the quotes with positive spins that things are going well, but they shouldn’t take that as things are back to the way they were. People shouldn’t start making promotions about how Woods is back, and they most certainly shouldn’t get mad at the athletes for doing everything in their power to return.

So the next time you hear back spasm or herniated disc in regards to an athlete’s injury, don’t treat the timetable like that of any other injury. Back rehabilitation is a complicated, imperfect science. Hopefully these two icons can steer clear of future pain and setbacks long enough to deliver even more moments of greatness. For the sake of our and their gratification, let’s hope the jelly stays inside the donut.

James Justice is a broadcast and visual media major from Caldwell, N.J. He can be reached at or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.

Author: James Justice

James Justice is the Assistant Sports Editor at The Setonian, a role he took over in May of 2018. He previously served as the Sports Copy Editor in the 2017-18 year, following his time as a staff writer. Outside of The Setonian, James is a match-day correspondent for the New York Red Bulls' SB Nation website Once A Metro, in addition to being a news and sportscaster for 89.5 WSOU FM.

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