WEDNESDAY, Jan. 26 (HealthDay News) -- The fact that NFL linemen can recover from back surgery and resume their playing careers proves that average people can be active after they have an operation for a herniated disc, say U.S. researchers.

"Many times after the surgery, people are afraid to go back and live their lives. They don't want to hurt themselves and have another herniation, " Dr. Joseph Weistroffer, an assistant professor of orthopedic and neurological surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a spine surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said in a university news release.

"If a football player can get back to playing football again, you, too, can resume normal life. Just because you had disc surgery doesn't mean you are going to be broken for life," he said.

Spinal discs are the cushioning between the bones of the spine, and they tend to wear out with age, Weistroffer explained. Sometimes material from them can even pop out from between the bones and squeeze the nerve root, causing severe back and leg pain, for which surgery can be the best option. Patients need to go easy and not lift more than 10 pounds for up to three months after surgery, he added.

Weistroffer and his colleagues analyzed the records of 52 NFL offensive and defensive linemen who underwent herniated disc surgery during their careers. Eighty percent of the players returned to the game and played an average of 33 games during the three years after their surgery.

"The numbers show they were able to get back to the extreme and sustained activity of playing football on an NFL level. That's significant," Weistroffer said.

The study will be published in the March issue of the Journal of American Sports Medicine.

More information

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons has more about herniated discs.