While it may not be quite Shakespearean, Aaron Rodgers’ clavicle fracture is certainly a tragedy for the Packers and their fans. With the QB heading under the knife soon, it raises the question- why do some clavicle fractures require surgery while others heal on their own?
As Aaron Rodgers came crashing to the turf on Sunday under the weight of the Vikings’ Anthony Barr, so too, most likely, did the Packers Super Bowl aspirations, as it was later learned that the hit had fractured Rodgers’ right clavicle (“collarbone”). It was announced today that Rodgers’ injury would require surgical fixation, almost definitely ending his season. Rodgers’ injury brings up memories of other NFL quarterbacks with clavicle fractures in recent seasons – Rodgers himself in 2013 and the Cowboys’ Tony Romo in 2015. Both of those injuries resulted in the quarterbacks losing parts of their seasons – both missed 8 weeks but were able to return the same season without surgery. Rodgers was injured in week 9 but was returned for the regular season finale and the postseason, while Romo was hurt in week 2 and came back in week 11, only to re-fracture his clavicle in week 12 and miss the remainder of the season. In both cases, the injured QBs were able to return in the same season without surgery – what was different about these fractures that allowed them to avoid the operating room?
One obvious difference is that Rodgers’ previous fracture and Romo’s fracture were in their left, non-throwing shoulder. That, however, is not the key determinant in whether or not a clavicle fracture benefits from surgery. The primary factor in whether or not to operate on such an injury is “displacement”, or the degree to which the bone fragments have separated. Rodgers’ 2013 injury and Romo’s fracture were both “non-displaced”, meaning that the bone was broken but the pieces had not moved – essentially a crack in the bone.
Fractures such as these, or minimally displaced fractures which have moved only a few millimeters, can almost always be treated without surgery. These still require 6 to 8 weeks to fully heal, as evidenced by Rodgers’ and Romo’s recoveries, with the arm being allowed to rest in a sling for comfort and healing purposes. Essentially all of these will heal without surgery and allow for a full recovery. Given the Packers quick announcement of the need for surgery for Rodgers’ current fracture, it’s safe to infer that this injury falls into another category of clavicle fractures, displaced fractures. In these types of fractures, the fracture fragments have moved apart to such a degree that they are less likely to heal without surgical intervention to re-align the bone.
While surgery is not mandated in these types of clavicle fractures, it is often recommended for a number of reasons. Most noticable for patients, stabilizing this type of fracture makes them much more comfortable in the short term, as the mobile fracture fragments are quite painful. More importantly in the long term, however, is the fact that surgically realigning the fracture improves the function of the shoulder and arm by restoring the proper shape and length of the bone and decreases the chance that the bone might not heal on its own. While non-displaced fractures have a rate of healing that approaches 100%, widely displaced fractures can have a 5-15% rate of non-union (failure to heal) when treated without surgery. While an 85% chance of healing might be enough for the cheesehead in the discount double-check commercial, it’s certainly not high enough for the All-Pro quarterback in the same ad. Primarily for this reason, Rodgers will undergo surgical fixation sometime in the near future, resulting in an x-ray that will likely resemble the following plate-and-screws construct:
Post-operatively Rodgers will likely be in a sling for 4-8 weeks, gradually resuming range of motion and light strengthening before resuming more aggressive workouts. Full contact would likely not be allowed for about four months, and given that this is Rodgers’ throwing shoulder, it will likely take him at least that long if not longer before he is comfortable making the throws he will need to make. The end result of all this is that Rodgers’ season is almost definitely finished, but he should make a good recovery from this injury – the rate of healing after this type of surgery is very high and should allow him to regain full strength and throwing accuracy. Long story short – don’t plan on getting any fantasy points out of Rodgers this season, but if you’re in a keeper league, hold onto him – he should be good to go for 2018.