- New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles during his first game of the 2023 season.
- He’s since had surgery and done rehab, and now he’s preparing for a potential return to the field.
- His quick comeback may not be as crazy as it seems, two orthopedic surgeons told Business Insider.
Superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles tendon just four plays into the 2023 season, seemingly ending his first year with the New York Jets before it even really began.
According to research published in Foot & Ankle International, professional athletes take 11 months, on average, to return to play after sustaining this type of injury. But now, Rodgers is mulling a return to the field less than three months after rupturing his Achilles.
The news that the Jets had cleared the four-time NFL MVP to return to practice for the last week of November — just 11 weeks post surgery — came as a shock to many. The move gives the franchise until December 20 to determine whether to move Rodgers from the injured reserve list to the active roster.
Should the team opt to do so, the 40-year-old star could find himself back under the bright lights of MetLife Stadium on December 24 — the very date he’s long been targeting for a potential return. And while Rodgers’ timeline may be considered “aggressive” by many — including Dr. Derek Ochiai, an orthopedic surgeon with fellowship training in sports medicine and arthroscopic surgery — it may not be as crazy as it seems.
“We’re constantly making advances in sports medicine and orthopedic surgery in general, and cases like this are important,” Ochiai, who is not involved with Rodgers’ treatment, told Business Insider. “Not for everybody, but to see ‘Okay, well this is a little out of the realm of usual. Let’s see how this one does.’ And if they do well, then you start doing studies.”
“Rehab for Achilles tendon repairs already accelerated relative to what it was 10 to 15 years ago, so maybe we say, look, we can actually accelerate the rehab even further,” he added.
The ‘speed bridge’ surgery Rodgers underwent helped expedite his rehab process
Just three days after tearing his Achilles, Rodgers went under the knife to repair the tendon. Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the renowned orthopedic surgeon who performed Rodgers’ operation in Los Angeles, opted to use a “speed bridge repair.”
Dr. Rahul Shah, an orthopedic surgeon based in New Jersey, told Business Insider that the procedure involves not only stitching the tear back together, but also offloading stress on the tendon. Ochiai further explained that the extra support offered by the “speed bridge” typically allows patients to “accelerate the rehab.”
“It’s not like the speed bridge is taking the place of Aaron Rodgers healing his Achilles tendon, but initially, because it’s such a strong construct, you can bear weight and walk quicker,” Ochiai said. “You’re not holding the patient back as much because you are confident that repair is going to hold up.”
Shah, who is not involved in Rodger’s’ treatment, said that, typically, a patient’s care team will allow the tendon to bear weight without aid and focus on range of motion in the impacted leg “about four to six weeks” after surgery. From there, they’ll use “feedback from your environment” to determine how the tendon is responding to the increased load.
“There are multiple ways that these things are being tested,” Shah said. “One is how much strength does he have? How much is he able to do in the weight room? How much is he able to stand and walk?”
The fact that Rodgers was walking without crutches or a boot just eight weeks after tearing his Achilles seemed to indicate that the tendon was healing well. He credited his speed bridge procedure, intensive rehab, and strict diet featuring “high levels of curcumin, high levels of collagen, and drinking freakin’ bone broth every single day” for his speedy recovery, according to the Associated Press.
Ochiai said he’s “almost positive there’s no peer reviewed evidence” that curcumin, collagen, and bone broth have properties that improve the healing of an Achilles tear. Shah said there’s no “legitimacy I can measure” to such a claim.
“But it doesn’t mean that it’s not doing something,” Ochiai added.
Rodgers’ care team is using imaging to assess his progress, but ‘the utility of that’ is unproven
Typically, patients recovering from a torn Achilles determine how far along they’ve come in their recovery simply by evaluating their ongoing symptoms and hindrances. Medical studies have established standard timelines for certain healing benchmarks, Shah said, and doctors can rely on “physical examination, the patient’s ability to get through the day, and what they’re complaining of” to determine how they’re progressing.
Rodgers and his doctors have been assessing his recovery using such criteria, according to the AP, but the quarterback has also regularly gotten ultrasounds of his Achilles in an attempt to assess how much his tendon has healed. Ochiai said such follow-up imaging is fairly atypical.
“You could do ultrasounds or follow-up MRIs, but the utility of that is not well studied,” Ochiai said. “If you see what you see on an MRI, how much does that actually correlate with where an athlete is in their healing process? It’s not universally well-known how you can correlate that.”
Shah agreed that the best way to gauge a patient’s progress is to test their limits and “go through periods where you stretch, but literally don’t snap.”
But the consequences of pushing those limits — and that timeline — too far are, unsurprisingly, dire.
“It’s not unique to Aaron Rodgers,” Ochiai said. “I mean, they’ll have people who have Achilles tendon repairs and they don’t listen to their surgeon and they do things a lot more quickly than the surgeon tells them to.”
“And some of those people do fine, but not everybody,” he added.
There’s always a risk of re-rupture, and the consequences of a second injury can be more severe
No matter how good your surgeon or how diligent your rehab, an Achilles that has previously been injured and operated on is always more vulnerable to re-injury.
“When you reconstruct it, it’s never reconstructed as it was before,” Shah explained.
Should the worst case scenario come to pass — a re-rupture — the consequences are considerably more severe than they are with the first injury.
“The risk is if you re-rupture your Achilles, it’s not just going to the shop and just redoing it,” Ochiai said. “It is a longer recovery. It is a greater chance of not having a 100% Achilles tendon going forward if you re-rupture a repair. It’s worse than the first injury if you re-rupture.”
But that’s merely a risk, not a guarantee. And Rodgers may very well be of the opinion that the risk is worth the reward.
At 40 years old, Rodgers has undoubtedly reached the twilight of his career. He likely wants to make the most of his final years on the gridiron and he appears eager to prove himself with a new team in a new market.
The urgency of his return only grows if New York somehow finds itself in a position to make the playoffs. After losing to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 13, the Jets have a less than 1% chance of punching their ticket to the postseason.
If Rodgers feels compelled to influence those odds under center, Ochiai says “there’s a chance that his Achilles is fine, that the construct was strong enough and that he didn’t overload the repair.”
But what happens if it’s not fine? It could be “career threatening,” Ochiai warns.