Leave it to Wayne Gretzky, the most exceptional hockey player of his time, to be sidelined by what Los Angeles Kings’ team doctor Robert Watkins called a “one-in-a-million” injury. Some back specialists claim that they never see a single patient suffering from a herniated disc in the thoracic—or middle—region of the spine, where Gretzky’s injury occurred. Movement in that part of the back is limited, and the area is supported by the ribs and chest, making it less vulnerable than the neck and lower spine to injury. Specialists see so few cases that there is no agreement on even how or why such injuries occur. Said Toronto orthopedist Dr. Hamilton Hall, founder of the Canadian Back Institute: “It’s so rare that there’s really no pattern to it.”
Discs are basically the shock absorbers of the spine. Formed of a Plasticine-like material encased in tough fibres, the
discs act as cushions between each of the 24 vertebrae. Dr. James Watkins, executive vice-president of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, explains that when a person with an uninjured spine bends forward, the gelatinous material in the centre is pushed against the retaining fibres. Should the fibres tear and the gelatin protrude—or “herniate”—the pressure may irritate spinal nerves. Depending on the seriousness of the disc injury, the pain can range from slight discomfort to agony.
When the herniated disc is at an advanced stage, back specialists may opt to surgically remove the bulging portion of the disc, often allowing the two vertebrae to fuse together. But Hall says that 85 per cent of disc ruptures with nerve pressure get better on their own. A specialized exercise program can minimize discomfort and promote healing.
But recovery may take up to six months or longer, and even then the incidence of the injury recurring remains high for about two years. If Gretzky’s condition responds to that treatment, after two years he will be no more at risk of a herniated disc than someone who has never had a spinal injury. But if not, then he may find that, sometimes, being one in a million has its down side.
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