With just one lap to go in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400, driver Denny Hamlin’s day, took a sudden and violent turn for the worst. As a result of a collision with another driver, Joey Logano, Hamlin’s back was broken and he will likely be sidelined for the next six weeks. Was this accident caused by competition spiraling out of control? Will this crash end the career of one of NASCAR’s top drivers?
The spine experts at Texas Back Institute see the type of injury Hamlin sustained – an L1 compression fracture – with some regularity, but most patients don’t sustain this injury while driving in excess of 200 miles per hour! NASCAR fans want to know the nature of Hamlin’s injury, what’s involved in the surgical treatment for this lumbar region of the spine, possible long-term damage Hamlin might expect and what type of rehab he will likely undergo. So, we asked a specialist.
As a spine surgeon at Texas Back Institute, Dr. Michael Duffy is an expert at dealing with this type of injury and this makes him a great source for explaining the ramifications of Hamlin’s injury. His practice is focused on helping patients overcome chronic back pain, spinal disc damage, Scoliosis and, in the case of an accident like Hamlin’s, spinal surgery. Before getting Dr. Duffy’s thoughts, a brief review of this NASCAR accident is in order.
A Recap of the Race
Hamlin must have been feeling great when the cars lined up to start the race at Auto Club Speedway in California. He had good reason. His qualifying time of 187.5 miles per hour secured the coveted pole position for his #11 car for the race and as such, he was the favorite to win. This early optimism would be shattered a few of hours later.
From the earliest days of stock car racing, NASCAR drivers have had reputations for highly competitive spirits. As the news wire services noted, “In the waning laps of Sunday’s race, the two were battling for the lead when they again made contact. Logano’s Penske Racing Ford slid across the nose of Hamlin’s Toyota before striking the wall. Hamlin’s car spun, then drove straight into the inside wall near the entrance to pit road. The impact lifted the car completely off the ground.”
Although, additional safety equipment has been added to the track as a result of Sunday’s crash. Unfortunately, this new safety equipment will not help Hamlin.
Medical Insights from Texas Back Institute
Twitter seems to be the social media of choice for NASCAR drivers, even those who are in pain. Hamlin’s tweet on March 26 had no good news for his fans. “I wish I got good news today… I didn’t. If me getting back in a car was based on pain tolerance then I would be in the car next week. There’s just more to it that I can’t control.”
Wire reports note that Hamlin was examined Tuesday by Charlotte-area neurologist and spinal specialist Dr. Jerry Petty, who determined that the driver would not need surgery but would have to be out of the car for at least six weeks. NASCAR takes this weekend off, and the Sprint Cup Series returns to action May 7 on the short track at Martinsville. If Hamlin keeps to his recovery timetable, he would miss five races and return May 11 at Darlington.
We asked Texas Back Institute surgeon Dr. Michael Duffy to explain the importance of the L1 vertebra. He said, “There are 5 lumbar vertebras including the L1 and they give the spine stability. The usual patient for this type of compression injury is an elderly female whose L1 vertebra has deteriorated from osteoporosis. In the case of this driver, the force from this collision went up the spine and apparently the L1 took the brunt of the force and failed.”
Since there will apparently be no need for surgery, Dr. Duffy notes that a brace and non-activity are the appropriate treatment for this type of injury. Had this injury been more extensive, the patient could have undergone a more extensive range of procedures, ranging from a corpectomy – removing the damaged bone and replacing it with a fusion cage – to adding screws and rods to increase stability of the spine.
Wire reports noted that Hamlin had a history of back problems – torn and bulging discs. Will these previous problems affect his recovery from this fracture? Dr. Duffy says, “It’s definitely a possibility. Some spine injuries can result in osteoarthritis occurring in the part of the spine. This could result in back pain in the future.”
Does having a repaired vertebra make someone more likely to have other back problems later? For example, can this lead to osteoarthritis? Duffy notes, “Any time there is a compression fracture such as this, it changes the stress on spine and eventually arthritic changes could occur. This might take 10 to 20 years, but Denny could have back pain from this injury in the future.”
It’s been said that the sport of race car driving is simple – you just drive fast and turn left. However, when that speed is combined with even a tiny miscalculation in steering or bump from another driver, the ramifications can be serious.
However, Dr. Michael Duffy is optimistic about Hamlin’s prognosis. “It appears that the spine is stabilized and with the use of the brace and rest, a patient with this injury should recover. Hamlin should be able to climb back in the racecar in 6 to 8 weeks.”
This is good news for NASCAR fans and especially Denny Hamlin.
Photo of Denny Hamlin from NASCAR.com