Tiger Woods is likely looking at many months of rehab and recovery to regain his ability to walk after he sustained several severe leg injuries in a car crash on Tuesday.
The championship golfer, 45, suffered "significant orthopedic injuries" to his lower right leg, members of Woods' team said late Tuesday, after it was confirmed that he had flipped his car in a single vehicle crash that morning. Woods, who is now awake and "responsive," had "comminuted open fractures" — meaning his tibia and fibula bones, the two main bones in the leg, had shattered and broken through the skin, requiring immediate surgery, along with smaller injuries to the ankle and foot.
"This is a very, very severe injury," Dr. Kirk A. Campbell, sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NYU Langone Health, tells PEOPLE. "Not only are the bones broken, but they came through the skin, which places one at a high risk of infection."
When a patient comes in with these injuries following a car crash, the first concern is that there is more going on. "We have to make sure that he doesn't have any significant head injury, or vascular injury that may need to be addressed, or abdominal trauma," Campbell, who does not treat Woods, says. "Based on reports, it sounded like an isolated orthopedic injury, so overall he's very, very fortunate."
But a leg injury of this type requires immediate surgery to stabilize the leg with a metal rod, which will likely stay there permanently — "it's not an injury where you can put it in a cast to heal."
One of the more concerning parts of Woods' injury is that he had a fasciotomy due to the amount of swelling in his leg, says Campbell. That means the muscles in his leg were swelling to the point where they could damage the surrounding arteries and nerves, and that area was cut open to reduce the pressure. "The combination of all these injuries is quite significant," says Campbell.
Now that Woods is out of surgery, the next few days will require close monitoring for signs of infection. And due to the severity of Woods' injury, "a high percentage do require additional surgical procedures" over time, Campbell says. "You do have to go back to address the soft tissue injury. You may have to go back to clean out the wound to make sure you're decreasing the risk of infection. He's going to be on antibiotics for a few days at least, based on the other injuries he had. If the blood vessels and nerves in the lower extremities are injured, they may need to be repaired, if they aren't already."
This is also the start of what will likely be "a very, very tough recovery."
"He's going to initially have to get back to the basics of walking, building up strength, and then as he continues on that recovery process, if he chooses to get back to golf, he'll have to see if his body will tolerate the high stresses involved with a golf swing, and the overall level required to get back to playing golf and his type of championship-level golf," Campbell says.
Woods' age and overall fitness will help immensely in that process, but he's looking at "months and months of rehab ahead of him."
"He's also still rehabbing from his lower back injury as well, which is only going to add to his overall recovery," Campbell points out.
The good news, Campbell says, is that "bones typically heal — it's everything else that will determine his overall recovery."
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