- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When Mathias Kiwanuka learned of devastating injuries to Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand and Detroit's Zack Follett this weekend on the New Meadowlands turf, it only reinforced his thinking on taking a patient approach to his neck injury.
Kiwanuka saw West Coast specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who changed the diagnosis of his injury from a bulging disk to a herniated disk. Still, that's not the end of the world compared to what could happen.
"They're very optimistic that it will heal on its own, but it's going to take time for that to happen," Kiwanuka said.
Kiwanuka said the only course at this point is to be patient, and he has no timetable for his return. At some point he may opt to find out about a surgical solution but Kiwanuka said now the game plan is to wait.
Not that it's been easy.
"When I first heard it was a herniation, I'm a football player, I'm thinking 'Players play with it all the time. Let's just go out there and play,'" Kiwanuka said. "When I really sat down and thought, I was maybe a hit away from being paralyzed or from never playing again, it makes me me No. 1, thankful that ... we have a staff here that understood the severity of the situation from the first time I went in there with a complaint, because they legitimately could've saved my career and possibly could have saved my limbs and my life."
If a spinal injury such as a herniation or a spinal stenosis goes untreated, Watkins, orthopaedic spine surgeon at Marina Del Rey Hospital in Marina Del Rey, Calif., said that there is the risk of paralysis. It varies from case to case, said Watkins, who has treated numerous NFL players such as the late Steve McNair and Troy Aikman.
"Everyone is trying to protect the players and trying to treat the players appropriately," Watkins said.
Kiwanuka still isn't feeling any pain in his neck, which is part of the reason he said his doctors are optimistic, and he described the herniation as "slight." Although stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column, is possible, Kiwanuka said it hasn't been diagnosed in him. Kiwanuka said he will continue to get second opinions, and is on his sixth specialist. Fellow Giant Antonio Pierce retired in the wake of a similar injury.
Kiwanuka is frustrated with the fact that he can't play, a fact that coach Tom Coughlin can understand, especially when his versatile defensive player feels good.
"The frustration is that it's not something you can see with the naked eye," Coughlin said.
Kiwanuka said he is not sure what the front office is thinking when it comes to a longer-term wait, but that he truly believes he will play this season.
"Absolutely," Kiwanuka said. "It might be a stretch but I think it's very possible, and as long as I'm medically cleared to play that's what I'm going to do."
Watkins has worked on research to lessen the impact of hits to players' spines, and part of that has to do with getting players to see what they are about to hit, rather than leading with the crown of the head. In some ways, the advice is similar to that given to avoid concussions.
"Players get hurt because of the head as a blocking and tackling technique," Watkins said. "That's why they have rules against it."
Kiwanuka sees spinal injuries as the next forefront in NFL medicine, just as concussions are a current focus. He woke up with a sore neck and had team doctors check out the problem, and he doesn't want future players to unknowingly risk the injury.
"It's unacceptable with all the technology we have and all the bases we cover as far as health to let something like that go undetected," Kiwanuka said.
Kiwanuka is in the last year of his contract with the Giants, and his future is very much in his thinking, both with the team and off the field.
"That makes me very proud and happy that I'm here with this team and that they caught it early enough and it's going to give me a chance to play again," Kiwanuka said.
Jane McManus is a reporter and columnist for ESPNNewYork.com.
Mathias Kiwanuka has a herniated disk, not a bulging disk, and must wait to see if it heals.