A PGA Tour Physician on Tiger Woods’ Injury and His Road to Recovery

tiger woods

Dr Ara Suppiah says it’s ‘most likely’ a career-ending injury

Tiger Woods suffered severe injuries to his legs in a single-car crash in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. Officials say the golf star was pulled from the wreckage and taken to the hospital, where a rod, screws, and pins were inserted to stabilize his leg. For Molner’s Table, John speaks with Dr. Ara Suppiah, founder of the Functional Sports Medicine Institute and a leading physician on the PGA Tour, about Woods’ injury and what his road to recovery will look like. 

John Molner: What do we know so far about Tiger Woods’ injury? 

Dr. Ara Suppiah: We know that he has an opencommunited tibia fracture, fractures of the bones of the foot and underwent surgical release to the covering of the muscle to relieve pressure. Let me explain this: 

Open: This means that there is a wound or break in the skin overlying the fracture. This theoretically increases the risk of infection.   

Comminuted: This means the fracture left the bones in multiple pieces, like an eggshell, as opposed to a clean snap leaving the bone in 2 pieces — like when you break a dried twig.

Tibia: This is the weight-bearing bone that connects the knee to the ankle. This is a thick strong bone that forms both the knee and ankle joint.

Release of the covering of the muscle to relieve pressure: When the tibia fractures, blood leaks to the surrounding tissues. The leg is a closed compartment meaning it can only expand to a certain size, after which pressure starts building up.Think of a balloon that is filling. When the pressure gets beyond a critical point, it resists blood flow. This puts the leg at risk of not getting blood. They make cuts at key points on the lower leg, by the shin, to relieve the pressure and allow the compartment to expand freely.  

What do the next few weeks look like for Tiger? 

Physically: A Lot of pain, maybe more surgery for the bones and tissues, wound care, prevention of blood clots and monitoring overall health. We don’t know if the back was injured which will influence his recovery. 

Emotionally: Post traumatic, near death experience, uncertainty about his future. As tough as he is mentally, Tiger is deeply human and isn’t immune to emotions.

What does Tiger’s road to recovery look like? 

Long and complex. Rehab will be challenging as foot and ankle fractures limit weight bearing. The large surgical wounds will need to heal and the scars may need to be revised. Back fusion limits movement compensation. He’ll feel chronic pain, sleep disturbance and there’s a possibility of depression and anxiety. 

With this type of injury, what constitutes a ‘full recovery’? Is this injury more likely than not career-ending? 

Full recovery for anyone with these injuries is the ability to walk independently. In terms of this being a career-ending injury, yes, most likely. I cannot see how he can compete on the PGA tour. He can always tee it up, but if he knows he cannot compete or win, would he want to? He might decide not to. Champions have enormous pride in their work. Showing up for the sake of it, isn’t in his nature.  

Tiger Woods’ injury is being compared to golf legend’s Ben Hogan, who nearly lost his life when a greyhound bus smashed into the Cadillac he was driving. Doctors at the time thought Hogan might not survive these injuries but he was back playing competitive golf within a year. From what you know, do you think Hogan’s injuries were less severe than Woods’?

There is no way at looking at Ben Hogan’s list of injuries and saying with any precision if it’s more severe. If the ribs punctured the lungs, the ankle was broken in multiple places, pelvis fracture caused major hemorrhage, I would say it’s far more serious as they are immediately life threatening. If however fractures weren’t complicated, the injuries are potentially less severe. Tiger’s injuries are severe but I wouldn’t compare his to Ben Hogan’s who was 9 years younger at that stage. 

Is there something about elite athletes “will to recover” and competitive nature that further separate them from others? 

Elite athletes are people that can push through mental boundaries. They have greater capacity and a willingness to endure hardship for a clearly defined goal. Over the years, my testing has shown that these athletes are physiologically more resilient, meaning they can withstand more trauma and recover from it. That’s one of the many reasons why they excel in sports.