Mario Lemieux, the NHL's leading scorer, probably will miss the rest of the regular season while undergoing six weeks of therapy for a herniated disc in his lower back, his doctor said Monday. "Realistically, we're hoping to get him back for the playoffs if the (Pittsburgh) Penguins make the playoffs," Dr. Charles Burke said. "Hopefully, he won't need surgery."
Lemieux flew to Los Angeles last Saturday to consult with Dr. Robert Watkins, a spine specialist, and will remain there for four weeks of isometric exercises, rest and therapy.
At best, Burke said the two-time NHL scoring champion might play again in six weeks, following 10 days to two weeks of additional rehabilitation after he returns to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles.
Lemieux will have an epidural cortisone injection Tuesday to "calm down the irritation in the spine and to help him tolerate the exercises," Burke said.
"This program has worked with baseball players and golfers. There are a lot of people walking around with herniated discs that have learned to live with it."
Burke wouldn't estimate Lemieux's chances of returning this season "because this is an individual thing and I can't even speculate," he said.
Burke, Watkins and Dr. Arthur White, a San Francisco spine specialist consulted by phone, have agreed surgery to remove the disc is a last resort because of a secondary, arthritis-like condition that is causing complications.
Lemieux's back is so painful he has problems bending down, leaning over and simply tying his skates. Because of the complicating arthritis, his problem is so unusual that doctors have few other cases involving athletes to compare it against, Burke said.
Last week, Burke said surgery wouldn't be career-threatening because of Lemieux's age and physicial condition, but qualified that Monday by saying the arthritis is an additional worry.
"There's a small chance that surgery could be career-threatening," Burke said. "That's why surgery, as far as we are concerned, is the last option."
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