David Wright’s career will come to a close on Saturday as he suits up for the New York Mets, the only organization he’s known since 2001, for the final time. Spinal injuries accompanied by hamstring and shoulder problems are forcing the 35-year-old, who hasn’t played an MLB game since 2016, into early retirement. (Though he’s never used the word retirement.)
“Physically, the way I feel right now and everything the doctors have told me, there’s not going to be any improvement,” said Wright at a mid-September press conference. The team’s captain and third baseman finally, after years of surgeries and physical therapy, came to the conclusion that this was it for him.
Wright, one of the franchise’s best all-time players, suffers from spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, that was revealed in 2015. “If you think of a tube of water,” Charla Fischer, MD, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone’s Spine Center says, “the spinal stenosis is the kink in the tube of water or kink in the hose.”
The degenerative disease is usually seen in older men and women, not an athlete at the height of his career, and a comeback was always hazy. Wright was determined to bounce back, but it never came to fruition.
Dr. Fischer highlights what exactly spinal stenosis is, how it’s healed, what made Wright’s comeback so difficult, and if there’s ever hope he can return to the field.
What is spinal stenosis, the disease which ended David Wright’s Hall of Fame career?
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal. It typically occurs in the neck (cervical spine) and the lower back (lumbar spine), both areas in which Wright has suffered injuries over the past few years.
“If you think of a tube of water,” Fischer says, “the spinal stenosis is the kink in the tube of water or kink in the hose. The signals go though, and as it starts to get less and less room and the nerves get pinched in that area and then they open up below.”
According to Fischer, disk degeneration or arthritis serve as ways of narrowing the canal.
What age groups does this disease mostly effect?
Spinal stenosis is most commonly found in adults, and not in athletes in their young 30s like Wright. Fischer has, though, treated patients who are active in baseball or golf before who suffer from spinal stenosis.
“Some people just have early breakdown of the disk spaces and that’s mostly based on genetics,” she says.
What are the symptoms?
There’s something called the “shopping cart sign”, according to Fischer, where if a patient is seen bent forward while pushing a cart to ease back pain, that’s a signal they may be suffering from stenosis.
“The classic symptoms of lumbar spinal stenosis is that you feel pretty good when you’re flexed forward,” she says. “When you lean forward, you’re opening up the spinal canal, making more room for the nerve roots.
“When you stand up and walk, you’re in extension, and that closes down space for the spinal canal. So that worsens with whatever stenosis you have. As you walk and you’re in extension, all the nerve roots from that level and down are getting compressed a bit, and getting less blood supply.” These are the kinks in the hose. “So then you start to get numbness, tingling and pain in the distribution of those nerve roots.”
Spinal stenosis can effect a player’s ability to swing a bat.
“If you have stenosis, it’s going to aggravate you,” says Fischer, “and you’re going to feel like you want to lean forward, and that’s going to throw off your swing mechanics.”
That tendency to lean forward, keep shoulders high, knees bent and your butt out makes it difficult to hold a batting stance. It’s a position a body with stenosis wants no part of.
What kind of baseball motions can cause the disk degeneration?
According to Fischer, it’s mostly the swinging of the bat that causes rotational force in the back. The motion of pushing a bat through the air to create contact with 100 mph pitches for decades takes a toll on the body. It’s possible, she says, that his disk spaces could’ve begun to be tweaked from a young age.
The degeneration isn’t exclusive to the offensive end of the sport, though. Pitchers and catchers are at risk, too.
“I have treated young pitchers with back problems from the hyperextension and increased lean back they get when they’re winding up,” says Fischer. “It’s the cocking motion. Sometimes catchers can also from squatting and flexing forward for hours on end.”
Is there a chance for someone with lumbar spinal stenosis to never feel pain again?
“If you do a good decompression (surgery) and the source of the stenosis is correctly treated,” Fischer says, “the leg symptoms improve significantly at least 85-90 percent and the back and buttock pain may improve the same amount.”
But back pain has a lot of contributing factors, and there’s no guarantee just relieving the stenosis will cure all. There’s also a possibility that symptoms can return in the future.
Will Wright see any setbacks in normal daily life post-baseball?
“As long as he isn’t having leg numbness with walking,” says Fischer, “he should be able to walk and drive and normal activities of daily activity he should be fine with. But the extreme stress of being a professional athlete that may not be possible.”
Fischer suggests her patients take anti-inflammatories, or learn forms of physical therapy to improve pain levels in their back. “You can do pelvic tucks,” says Fischer. “Any person who has done yoga and the instructor says to drop your tailbone or tuck your pelvis, you’re basically taking your pelvis and instead of sticking your butt out, you’re tucking it in. And that puts your lumbar spine in relative flexion. You’re using your pelvis to flex and bend your spine without sitting down.”
Is there a chance Wright can get back and heal?
Wright never used the words “retiring” at his press conference, though this feels like the end of his career. Still, he’s only 35 years old.
“Before Tiger Woods’ comeback I would’ve said ‘Yeah, he’s probably done,’” says Fischer. “But I think there is something to time that a lot of athletes aren’t able to take because they’re being paid to a lot of money to do something and if they can’t immediately do it then they’re not being helpful.
“I think with time and healing and rest, things could improve. If he got into a specific physical therapy program and really worked at his mechanics to change how he does things to not put stress across his back, then it’s always a possibility. He’s still pretty young.”