Canadian biathlete Brendan Green has had back problems before, but things came to a head in Oslo in February when he herniated a disc warming up for a World Cup race. It was a bittersweet weekend: Green finished 10th in the sprint, 13th in the pursuit, and then 9th in the mass start – the last with the herniated disc – but then faced excruciating pain that necessitated a harrowing trip back to Canada and an abrupt end to his season. Green was Canada’s top-ranked male biathlete at the time and missed World Championships.
At the end of February, FasterSkier talked to Green about his trip home and how he was trying to heal his back. He was trying to decide whether to go in for surgery, which is a tough decision for patients with herniations. About half those patients typically recover within a month, and the vast majority can get healthy in six months by doing non-operative treatment and rehabilitation.
There was also the question of whether surgery would aid Green’s recovery. Discectomy, which is the medical term for the removal of herniated disc material that is pressing on nerves or the spinal cord, sometimes solves a patient’s problems, and sometimes doesn’t. There is limited research on long-term outcomes of discectomies and plenty of questions about their efficacy; their potential benefit depends on the extent of the herniation, but despite advances in medical imaging, even an MRI often cannot tell doctors exactly what is going on in a patient’s back.
In February, Green was hoping that he could recover without surgery. Last week, we checked back in to see how things were going.
FasterSkier: The last time we talked to you, you were trying to decide whether to get surgery at the end of the winter. What did you end up doing?
Brendan Green: I ended up having to get surgery at the end of April. I had a discectomy. I was a little hesitant going in because, you know, the pain was tolerable, and I think I had been making really small gains, so I thought maybe I was moving in the right direction, just really slowly. But it turned out that it was definitely the right thing to do. The surgeon was even a little bit surprised at how big the herniation was and how much pressure was going on my nerve, so it was good to get that cleaned out. But recovery from that surgery has been going really, really slowly, and even right after the surgery I was still having a lot of neurological problems.
FS: Are you back able to train at all?
BG: I was hoping that by now I’d be back to training pretty much full-on, but unfortunately that’s not the case. I just got another MRI a couple of weeks ago, and it turns out that the disc has re-herniated, so I’ll be going in for another surgery in two weeks. It’s a huge bummer. The surgery gets a little more complicated this time around, but it’s essentially the same surgery, and we’ll try it again and hopefully this time it works. It comes down to bad luck I think – there’s a ten percent chance that a disc will re-herniate within six months post-surgery, and I just kind of fall within that category, which is unfortunate, but just kind of the way it is.
So, yeah, I haven’t really been doing too much because all of the neurological gains have been really slow. I have gained a bit of strength back in my legs, but apart from that I haven’t really seen too much improvement. It’s been sort of a bummer summer of not being able to train. I started shooting again, which is kind of nice to give me a bit of something to focus on other than the constant rehab. But other than that I’m doing a bit of water running in the pool, and a bit of strength in the gym, but really mostly still a lot of rehab.
FS: Have you been able to do anything with your teammates, or is all of the rehab and training on your own?
BG: I guess for the most part it has been solo, although I have been shooting a little more recently. That’s been nice to shoot most mornings and connect with the team then. It’s been really good in that regard. But apart from that I’ve just been by myself doing rehab activities and swimming and that kind of stuff.
FS: Are you still dealing with a pretty high level of pain on a daily basis?
BG: Yeah. It’s definitely– they pain is a lot more tolerable now, but there’s still that awareness that something is not quite right. Things are still feeling kind of vulnerable. So it kind of sucks to have to go in for surgery again, but on the other hand it’s sort of somewhat reassuring to have an answer as to why things have been progressing so slowly since the surgery.
FS: Mentally, are you trying just not to think about biathlon so it’s less frustrating not to be doing anything, or is it good to have something to focus on?
BG: It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride with ups and downs. Some days I’m a little more motivated, and other days it’s a little harder to get out of bed knowing that I’m facing the same daily routine of rehab. It’s been a pretty monotonous cycle. But I’m trying my best to stay positive. I’m not thinking too much about the race season right now.
After this next surgery, I’ll just be totally focused on trying to recover 100 percent. As far as the race season goes, I’m definitely not making things too easy for myself, but maybe if the rehab goes perfectly according to plan this time around then maybe towards the end of the season I could be back to doing some racing. At what level, who knows. At this point I’m just trying to go into surgery in the best shape I can be in given the training that I can do.