The Falcons are counting on a cutting-edge medical procedure — a stem cell technique — to help heal wide receiver Julio Jones’ right foot and the rest of the league’s medical community is closely watching.
Despite having a second and bigger screw inserted into the fifth metatarsal of his right foot, Jones believes that he can continue his mercurial climb to elite status in the NFL in 2014. He reports for training camp Thursday with the veterans and may be available when the team takes the field for its first practice Friday.
“I feel very confident in everything that I’m going through and with what I’ve been doing as far as with (team trainer) Marty (Lauzon),” Jones said. “They are not going to put me in (any) situation or rush me back or do anything that’s going to hurt me.”
The Falcons offseason program ended with Jones, off to the side, running 40-yard dashes under the watchful eye of Lauzon and strength coach A.J. Neibel. He appeared to be moving very well as he’s trying to comeback from the second major surgery on the same foot.
Jones’ right foot will be a major topic on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” reality show, which will chronicle the team’s rebuilding efforts this season. While his training-camp practice schedule will be limited, Jones plans to be in the starting lineup when the Falcons open the regular season against the New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Georgia Dome.
As things started to unravel for the Falcons last season, Jones’ departure after the fifth game of the season unceremoniously ended all of the Super Bowl talk.
A rash of injuries, which included Jones again breaking the bone that was fixed with a smaller screw in February 2011, coupled with poor play along the offensive and defensive lines, led to a 4-12 season.
A lot will ride on Jones’ ability to return from the surgery, which also included renowned foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson of Charlotte, N.C., taking bone marrow — fluid and cells — from his hip and injecting it into his foot to hopefully aide the healing process.
The Falcons and Jones are in unchartered medical territory.
Jones’ surgery was the talk of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) convention which was held July 10-13 in Seattle. Several NFL team doctors, who were at the convention, plan to watch his recovery closely as a “test case” for using stem-cell research in the recovery from a broken fifth metatarsal bone.
“The adding of the bone aspiration is something that is not necessarily done all of the time,” said Dr. Phillip Kwong, a foot and ankle surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles. “The idea of putting the largest screw that will fit inside canal of the bone has always been an established principle.”
Jones’ problem was first noticed at the scouting combine in 2011. Jones had the original surgery and Anderson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, predicted a full recovery.
Jones was solid as a rookie in 2011 and went to the Pro Bowl after his second season in 2012. Last season, Jones caught 41 passes and was on a record-setting pace for a monster campaign before he suffered the broken foot.
It has not been studied if an elite athlete can recovery from second surgery on the same foot with a bigger screw and bone-marrow treatment, according to Dr. Alexis Colvin, an associate professor of sports medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
The second screw that was re-inserted is 6 millimeters in diameter.
“If he bent the screw … you would try to put a bigger screw in there because that would help with the fixation between the broken bones,” said Colvin, who has cared for players from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Penguins. “The bone marrow is going to help bring all of those critical factors together to help try to get that area to heal.”
Jones’ hip should not be affected by the removal of the bone marrow.
“The marrow is inside the bone, so there shouldn’t be any long-term problem for it,” Colvin said.
The worst-case scenario for the Falcons is that Jones’ foot woes turn in a chronic problem.
“This break should heal with the treatment that they gave,” Kwong said. “It’s still tied to other factors involved in why it broke again. Sometimes, it maybe the way his foot structure is made. Like for instance, some people … tend to put more pressure out there on that fifth metatarsal rather than evenly across the foot.
“Sometimes the load goes more to one area. The fact that he has broken this twice, would suggest that there is something in his structure that puts more of a load on that fifth metatarsal.”
Medically, the fifth metatarsal is a problematic bone for doctors.
“This bone has a bad reputation because it takes longer to heal and sometimes it doesn’t heal at all,” said Dr. Sameh Labib, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at Emory’s School of Medicine. “The reason for that is that the bone has a tenuous blood supply.
“We tell our patients when you break this bone it may take you four months to heal. Even after the four months, we know that some elite athletes can have the bone operated on and it can heal, but then get re-injured.
“It is a tough bone to deal with. It’s a tough bone to heal. That’s why we worry about it.”
Anderson, who is the Carolina Panthers’ team physician and a doctor at OrthoCarolina in Charlotte, is considered one of the nation’s leading foot and ankle specialist.
Anderson has treated or made recommendations for some of the biggest names in sports, including former Braves star Chipper Jones, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and former NFL tight end Jeremy Shockey. He also performed a fifth metatarsal surgery on wide receiver Hakeem Nicks in May.
Jones surgery was performed Oct. 14.
Over the offseason, the Falcons had to slow Jones’ return. He wanted to push things a little faster.
“Everything is going good,” Jones said. “I am ahead of schedule, but we are still taking it day-by-day. Whatever they’ve got planned for me, I’m doing it.”