It may be too optimistic to say Saints safety Jairus Byrd will resume his full duties when training camp practice starts July 25.
But it’s realistic to expect the back issue that prompted the three-time Pro Bowler to have surgery last week will not be a lingering problem when he returns to the field, according to a few prominent orthopedic doctors.
Byrd, whom the Saints acquired in free agency this offseason on a six-year deal worth up to $56 million, has missed just seven of 80 possible career games since joining the NFL as a second-round pick by the Buffalo Bills in 2009.
Five of those absences were at the beginning of 2013 and were attributed to a foot injury. So it doesn’t sound like Byrd’s decision to undergo surgery was a result of a serious or chronic back problem, said Dr. Frank Phillips, director of Rush University Medical Center’s Section of Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery in Chicago; Dr. Kern Singh, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Rush; and Dr. Michael Hartman, an assistant professor of orthopedic sports medicine at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.
None of those doctors has treated Byrd. But they agreed that Byrd’s 72 career appearances lend credibility to the version of events that Saints coach Sean Payton has shared with reporters: Byrd did not have any serious symptoms but instead Thursday had a procedure that would address a problematic disk to prevent any complications that could arise during the season.
Neither the Saints nor Byrd have said much about the situation publicly. But “he would’ve had surgery before Thursday” if Byrd, who has led NFL safeties with 22 interceptions since his rookie year, had a back problem that would have long-term effects in the future, Hartman said.
Singh, who often works with athletes in baseball and basketball at Rush, concurred that it’s reasonable to believe Byrd’s disk-related problems wouldn’t persist, at least from a distance.
“I don’t think this is indicative of a chronic issue,” he said.
Byrd left January’s Pro Bowl early with a back injury, but it’s unclear whether that’s the cause for the surgery. The Saints have only said that Byrd’s disk issue came up during offseason weight-lifting.
Hartman, Singh and Phillips all said a microdiscectomy — one treatment that Byrd may have opted for — is a common and non-invasive procedure in orthopedics to treat a problematic disk. In that procedure, a portion of the disk is removed with a laser or other surgical tool and the help of an operating microscope.
Usually, patients who choose that approach have a bulging disk, which would be identified via magnetic resonance imaging. Hartman, without referring to Byrd specifically, said some patients with a bulging disk aren’t in much pain, if any — but they get a routine MRI done after a minor injury and find the disk that way.
It usually takes about three months for people who had microdiscectomies to return to their full activities, Phillips said. Patients can cycle, jog lightly, do upper body weightlifting such as bench presses and bicep curls on the path to a full recovery but must avoid exercises such as squats or leg presses that stress the back, Hartman said.
If it’s a microdiscectomy that Byrd had, Hartman and Singh said it was feasible he could be back by late July or early August. Phillips differed there, saying it’d be unrealistic to expect a microdiscectomy patient to be back at “full tilt” before a minimum of three months.
The Saints’ final preseason exhibition is Aug. 28. Week 1 of the regular season is Sept. 7.
Phillips said some microdiscectomy patients could take as long as six months to recover. But, when they do fully heal, “there’s not a high risk of re-injury,” he said. “There’s a low risk it becomes recurrent.”