Can Green Bay Packers’ Sean Richardson Return After Spine Surgeries?

Sean Richardson has already made football history. Having started out as an undrafted free agent, he has worked his way into fame on the Green Bay Packers special teams squad since his 2012 rookie year. Now, he’s trying to etch his name into the record books once more by gaining medical clearance to play with a 2-level cervical fusion for a herniated disc sustained in his rookie season.1

See Comparison of 2-Level Cervical Artificial Disc vs. 2 Level ACDF

Cervical Herniated Disc VideoWatch this animated 2-minute video to clearly visualize how a cervical disc can herniate.
Cervical Herniated Disc Video

If Richardson gets the green light from the Packers’ medical staff, he’ll be the first player ever to return to play with a 2-level fusion.

Understanding cervical herniated discs

Each of the vertebrae in your spine is separated by spinal discs. These discs allow for flexibility and mobility of your spine and also act as ligaments, holding your vertebrae together.

A herniated disc occurs when the soft, gel-like core of your spinal disc—the nucleus pulposus—leaks through the tough outer layers of your disc—the annulus fibrosus—and irritates or puts pressure on a nearby nerve.

See What's a Herniated Disc, Pinched Nerve, Bulging Disc...?

When a herniated disc occurs in your cervical spine (your neck), the pressure it may put on one of your adjacent nerves can cause pain that moves through your neck, shoulder, arm, and hand— cervical radiculopathy.

See Cervical Herniated Disc Symptoms and Treatment Options

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Understanding cervical fusion surgery

When nonsurgical treatment—such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or physical therapy—for a cervical herniated disc fails, a doctor may recommend pursuing surgery. A cervical spinal fusion—the procedure Richardson underwent—involves removing most of the disc and fusing together the vertebrae above and below the affected disc space to create one long, stable bone that replaces the motion segment. The surgery is almost always done as an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF).

See Spine Surgery for a Cervical Herniated Disc

Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion VideoThis 2-minute animated video shows how ACDF surgery can relieve pressure on a nerve root in your neck. Watch: Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF) Video

Following his first disc herniation in 2012, it was recommended by Packers’ team doctors for Richardson’s C4-C5 segment and C5-C6 segment to be fused together. While this 2-level fusion would have offered additional protection for Richardson’s cervical spinal discs, it would have also made it unlikely for him to play again. Hoping for a quick return, Richardson had only his C5-C6 segment fused. Following his surgery, the Packers’ safety was able to return to the field, playing a combined 19 games in 2013 and 2014.

See Cervical Vertebrae

While Richardson’s success returning from his first cervical fusion was remarkable, early in the 2015 season he was diagnosed with another herniated disc after experiencing a tingling sensation in his arm. This time, Richardson’s C4-C5 disc had herniated. After careful consideration, Richardson underwent a second fusion at the C4-C5 level, leaving him with a 2-level fusion.

See Potential Risks and Complications of ACDF Surgery

Since undergoing his second fusion, Richardson has gained clearance to lift weights and participate in non-contact workouts. While there’s no official word yet on whether or not he will play in an NFL game again, Richardson is continuing his training and rehabilitation and looking forward to next fall.

Learn more:

Cervical Spine Anatomy and Neck Pain

ACDF Surgery Procedure


  1. Silverstein T. Packers safety Sean Richardson determined to play again. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Published 2016. Accessed March 1, 2016..
Post written by Daniel Perret