Brady Injury: When Knee Surgery Backfires

Tom Brady was perhaps the most celebrated football player in the country -- the golden boy. 

But during the New England Patriots' season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, with one hit, his left knee broke down.  

The superstar quarterback's luck on the football field did not follow him to the operating room. Surgeons repaired Brady's two torn knee ligaments on Oct. 6, but within days discovered that the knee had become infected to the point that it threatened his recovery.   

"Infections in a joint can lead to permanent damage, eventually permanent stiffness and permanent pain, or even permanent arthritis of the knee," said Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph, a sports medicine and knee specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.  

Brady reportedly has had two more operations to clean out the infection.  He's also been placed on extensive antibiotics.

"Joint infection is an emergency," said Andrew Gregory, an assistant professor of orthopedics and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "It's something that needs to be seen to right away. The longer it's left alone, the more damage it can do."  

There are at least 1.1 million joint surgeries in the United States each year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.  The risk of infection, while less than 1 percent, is one of the complications doctors worry about most.  

But, what threat does an infection really pose?

"Infection in a joint causes damage ... because the bacteria actually chews up the tissue inside the joint, which is really important," Gregory said. "You have cartilage both on the end of the bone and then cartilage in between the bone called the meniscus and the ligaments. So if you destroy that tissue that really affects your knee, [it] causes scar tissue build-up in your knees, joint stiffness and then, later on, arthritis."

If this can happen to Brady, who can afford the best doctors anywhere in the country (Brady actually flew to Los Angeles for his operation), it can happen to anyone. It's a point not lost on some patients awaiting their turn on the operating table.   

"No one has talked to me about infections, and that's the first thing I will ask my doctor about," said Edgar Martin, who was awaiting hip surgery at Rush University Medical Center.  

Post-operative infection is often the one thing patients never ask about, but should.  

Bush-Joseph suggested "asking physicians, 'What are their complication rates?' 'What is their infection rate?' and, 'Is it a global problem in the hospital?'"  

As for Brady, in a message posted on his Web site, he sounded optimistic about returning next season: "I am excited to begin rehabbing my knee and will continue preparing for 2009."  

But now with the added issues of infection, his rehabilitation likely will be months longer and more painful.