Return to play expectations for Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen after surgery for a foot fracture

Only two weeks into the NFL season, and a top player is out with a foot fracture. While we don’t know the exact nature of Greg Olsen’s injury, it’s likely he suffered a fifth metatarsal fracture or navicular fracture. Since these fractures are such common injuries in professional athletes, I thought I would discuss the injuries, surgeries, and return to play for them in my latest newspaper column.

Foot fractures, like the one suffered by Greg Olsen, are common in football.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen suffers a foot fracture

The Carolina Panthers lost one of their top playmakers to injury Sunday. Now an already sluggish offense could struggle even more without its starting tight end.

What can the Panthers and their fans expect with Greg Olsen’s foot injury and recovery?

Olsen suffered the injury in the second quarter against the Buffalo Bills. He ran a routine passing route, planted his foot and felt a pop. He wanted to go back into the game but quickly realized something was wrong. He left the field without a cleat on his foot, only to return in the second half on crutches with his foot in a protective boot.

“I broke my foot pretty straightforward,” the three-time Pro Bowl selection told reporters after the game. “The x-ray was pretty conclusive.”

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Common ankle injuries in sports and exercise

Olsen undergoes foot surgery

According to Jourdan Rodrigue of The Charlotte Observer, Olsen had never missed a start with the Panthers, starting 82 straight games. Now the tight end admitted he will miss “a lot of games” from this injury.

On Monday, the 32-year-old underwent surgery to fix the fracture. Dr. Robert Anderson, a foot and ankle specialist in Charlotte, most likely performed the surgery.

Head coach Ron Rivera declined to give specifics of the procedure or its recovery. “My understanding is things went well, and we’ll see from there,” he told reporters Monday.

Location of common foot fracture in professional athletes

Olsen expected to miss 6 to 8 weeks

Olsen was the first tight end in the NFL to record three straight 1000-yard receiving seasons. The team added incentives to his contract prior to the 2017 season, including a bonus for a fourth 1000-yard season.

He was off to a slow start prior to the injury. He caught two passes for 18 yards in a Week 1 win against San Francisco. He brought down one pass for 10 yards before suffering the injury Sunday.

Olsen could miss 6 to 8 weeks, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. The Panthers could place him on injured reserve with a designation to return later this season.

Also read:
Foot stress fracture: Which stress fractures are the most serious?

Possible explanations of Olsen’s foot fracture and surgery

While the player or the team have not directly explained what his injury is, it seems logical that Olsen suffered a Jones fracture based on his description of the injury. That is a break of the fifth metatarsal, the long bone on the outside of the foot.

A fifth metatarsal fracture is an extremely common injury in professional football, basketball and soccer players. In high-level athletes, orthopedic surgeons usually treat the fracture with a short outpatient surgery. The surgeon places a screw down the center of the bone across the fracture.

Also read:
Sports medicine stats: Jones fractures in NBA basketball players

Screw placed across foot fracture

The risk of returning to play too soon after a foot fracture

Return to play depends on how long it takes the fracture to heal. 6 to 8 weeks is possible, but it could also be a best-case scenario. If an athlete tries to run and play too soon, he risks delaying or stopping the healing process. We have seen Sammy Watkins, Dez Bryant and Julian Edelman struggle after surgery for foot fractures, ultimately needing second operations.

Olsen’s foot fracture casts doubt on his availability for much of this season. Panthers fans should be optimistic, though, about his long-term success.

Also read:
Stress fracture: 5 serious injuries of the foot and ankle

Long-term success after surgery for a foot fracture

A recent study in the journal Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach found a 98.7% return to play rate after surgery to fix foot fractures in NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL players. Athletes returned to preinjury levels of performance and game participation within one season after surgery. For fifth metatarsal fractures specifically, athletes experienced no drop in performance for three seasons after surgery.

Greg Olsen had never missed a game due to injury in his 11 seasons in the NFL. Now an awkward step will cost the tight end about half of this season, if not more.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the September 20, 2017 issue of The Post and Courier.

References:
Panthers TE Olsen has foot surgery; recovery time uncertain. By Steve Reed. The Charlotte Observer. September 18, 2017.

Greg Olsen Underwent Surgery on Foot Injury, Reportedly Could Miss 6-8 Weeks. By Tyler Conway. Bleacher Report. September 18, 2017.

Greg Olsen undergoes surgery on broken foot, to miss 6-8 weeks. ESPN.com news services. ESPN.com. September 18, 2017.

UPDATE: How Panthers TE Greg Olsen broke his foot, plus a source talks timeline. By Jourdan Rodrigue. The Charlotte Observer. September 17, 2017.

Risk Factors for Reoperation and Performance-Based Outcomes After Operative Fixation of Foot Fractures in the Professional Athlete: A Cross-Sport Analysis. Sameer Singh et al. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach. September 15, 2017.

Bills’ Sammy Watkins reportedly needs another surgery on his broken foot. By Sean Wagner-McGough. January 2, 2017.

Julian Edelman has foot surgery, according to report. By Michael Whitmer, The Boston Globe. May 11, 2016.

After second foot surgery, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant eager to hit reset button. By Charean Williams. The Star-Telegram. January 25, 2016.