Make no mistake about it, the injury was a crushing blow for Stewart and his race team. But looking at the big picture, Tony Stewart is a very lucky man.
Medical experts familiar with burst fractures – though not Stewart’s particular case – say his injury was extremely severe. The result of high-energy vertical loads, burst fractures compress the vertebra and cause it – quite literally – to explode. Fragments of bone can then penetrate the surrounding soft tissues and spinal canal, often causing permanent damage to the spinal cord and irreversible paralysis.
Stewart reportedly has both feeling and function in all four extremities, meaning that he – quite literally – dodged a bullet. He has undergone surgery to stabilize the break, and now begins a lengthy process of healing and rehabilitation.
Wednesday’s surgery likely involved removal of bone fragments, along with stabilization of the affected vertebra. This is accomplished in one of two ways; the first being spinal fusion surgery, where two or more vertebra are permanently immobilized with titanium plates or implants. In rarer cases, the fractured vertebra is completely replaced with artificial or cadaver bone. Experts say that type of procedure is less likely to be performed on a person as young and active as Stewart, since no long-term studies have been done to determine the long-term stability of that type of repair.
Stewart’s timeline for recovery will be measured in months, rather than weeks. Patients typically spend 2-3 months in a lumbar brace, before being cleared to return to light duty. “Light duty” for an office worker might include spending half days in the cubicle for a week or two.
Unfortunately, there is no “light duty” in NASCAR.
Stewart’s shattered vertebra must be allowed to fully and completely heal before he even thinks of climbing back through the window of a race car, lest a bump in traffic, a sudden stop or – God forbid – a high-speed crash leave him with permanent, paralyzing injuries.
Stewart will almost certainly be treated aggressively, by the foremost experts in the field. Even with the best possible treatment, however, he is unlikely to see the inside of a racecar again for many weeks.
The good news is, when he’s ready to leave the hospital, he’ll walk out on his own two feet, rather than in a wheelchair.