Despite breaking his arm in the NFC championship game, Carolina Panthers All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. plans to suit up for Super Bowl 50. The revelation that he had a plate and 12 screws surgically inserted in his arm on the day after the game left us all wondering how he could possibly play in an NFL game a mere 13 days later.
To gain a deeper understanding of what the experience will be like for Davis Sr., we spoke with Dr. Rocco Monto, an award-winning orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist.
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STACK: Describe the type of injury that Davis Sr. sustained?
Dr. Rocco Monto: You have two forearm bones. The ulna runs along the pinky side of your forearm, and the radius is on the thumb side of your forearm. The radius is the bigger of the two bones and is more of a pivoting bone—there’s a lot of motion, so it’s a much trickier bone to deal with and almost always requires a plate.
This appears to be an ulnar fracture, which is commonly referred to as a “nightstick fracture,” because the bone was often broken when people were attempting to block a blow from a nightstick. The ulna doesn’t move as much, so sometimes we can go without a plate.
STACK: How is this injury repaired?
RM: We call this type of surgery Open Reduction Internal Fixation, or ORIF. We make an incision the length of the plate, which is about 6 inches long, or the length of a dollar bill. If it’s an ulnar fracture, there’s a direct incision because the bone is right there.
The surgeon the tries to put the plate on so it won’t bother [the patient]. Once you put plates on, you don’t want to take them off. If you do, there’s a risk of a break, because when you drill screw holes through the bone, the stress risers leave weakness in the bone. So this is a permanent plate.
The plate is made of titanium about an eighth of an inch thick. You cannot bend it with your hands. It’s a strong metal. Once the bone heals, the plate is really only superficial. We only put a plate in to add some immediate strength to the bone.
Forearm fractures are very painful. If you look at the data, there’s not a lot of difference between how these fractures heal with plating or without plating. It’s more of a pain management technique—unless there was a significant bone displacement.
STACK: How do patients feel after the surgery, and what’s the typical recovery time?
RM: When I do this operation, my patients tell me it feels like there’s a vice grip on their arm. However, lot of times people feel better after the plate goes on. I bet that’s part of the reason they decided to have the operation. He is likely in a lot of pain. That is a reasonable reason to wait a few days for the swelling to calm down and then put a plate on.
The fracture is going to take 6 to 12 weeks to heal. A bone can only heal so fast.
STACK: What type of pain will Davis Sr. experience?
RM: This guy is tough as nails, but I can’t even tell you how much it’s going to hurt if he takes a couple of hits. He will likely be on some pain medication. If he takes a hit on that, he’s going to feel it.
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STACK: What’s the risk of reinjury?
RM: Can you do it? Is it safe? Playing without reinjuring the area is certainly plausible. Just look at how many guys have played this year with broken hands and other injuries.
There are guys who can hit like crazy. But no one can hit hard enough to break that plate. It’s nearly impossible. In a car accident, maybe. However, I can see where it could break above the plate. The plate-bone construct is stiffer than bone alone. If you get hit hard enough, it would probably break above the plate closer to the elbow. That’s what I would be worried about.
Also, you need to be concerned about the wound. There’s a danger that the wound will bust open, so they will put a lot of padding on it.
You have to worry about a situation similar to what Gronk went through. When he broke his arm, it was a two-bone injury. They threw two plates in and said, “OK, you can go back to playing,” and it was an absolute nightmare. He had refractures, infection and experienced all sorts of mayhem because of he went back to playing too soon.
STACK: How do you think Davis will play?
RM: His performance level is going to be severely impaired, because he’s basically going to be one-armed. A linebacker in the NFL with one arm isn’t going to be very effective. It takes away a lot of his game.
He’s a great athlete and [Davis] with one arm is probably better than a lot of guys. I guess that’s also what they are thinking. You have to think about the whole picture. I can’t imagine any situation where he’s effective. He’s going to be there, but I can’t imagine that it’s going to be an every-down situation. It’s going to be killing him.
STACK: What do you think was the logic behind the decision to play?
RM: For a lot of these guys, they only have one trip to the show, and I understand there’s a lot on the line. In any other situation, we wouldn’t be talking about this guy coming back.
He’s an important member of the team and he’s a leader. Davis has had multiple operations—he’s a tough guy. But he’s also no spring chicken, and he knows this may be his only shot. He wants to suit up, and this is a big-time player so he wants to make sure he’s there.
It’s a great case to illustrate what goes on in pro sports with the pressures on the players to play.
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