During the 16th minute of FC Barcelona’s eventual 4-2 win over La Liga leading Sevilla over the weekend, Barca’s effervescent, mercurial (Ray Hudson on line one) Lionel Messi fell awkwardly onto the ground, reaching out to brace his fall with his right hand:
He was in immediate pain, writhing around on the ground and clutching at his right upper forearm and elbow area. The team physio immediately came onto the field to to assess, wrapped his right elbow, and took him off the pitch.
After testing, the club medical staff diagnosed the injury as a “fracture of the radial bone in his right arm” and ruled Lionel Messi out for approximately three weeks. In the following piece, I’ll explain:
- What exactly that diagnosis means
- If that timeline adds up
- What to expect when Lionel Messi does get back
So lets go.
I. Lionel Messi Elbow Fracture
The radial bone (radius) is one of the two bones in your forearm and one of the three bones that comprises your elbow joint:
The most common way to injure the radius is falling onto an outstretched hand – in fact, this mechanism of injury is so common that it has its own abbreviation, a FOOSH injury. The contact with the ground sends a shockwave rippling up through the wrist, forearm, and into the elbow. When that arm is outstretched and pronated (think forearm and palm down) like Messi’s was, it specifically sends force into the radius.
With enough force, the radius will break and the arm buckles. Here’s that specific moment during the Lionel Messi injury:
Further, the timetable given by Barcelona’s medical staff leads me to believe Lionel Messi suffered a relatively mild fracture of his radius, specifically a Mason Type I radial head fracture. This a hairline fracture at the top (head) of the radius with low severity – the bone hasn’t displaced (no change in shape) and there’s rarely concomitant damage to the surrounding ligaments or soft tissue (click here, here, here, and here for more info).
The Mason type I can be healed conservatively without surgery and that aides in a quicker timeline of recovery and return. That being said, Barcelona’s three week timeline may involve some rose colored glasses….
II. Lionel Messi Timeline For Return
The timeframe for return after a Mason type I radial fracture is generally four to six weeks. The elbow is initially immobilized in a sling for two to three weeks, like this one Messi was wearing on Wednesday while watching Barcelona’s 2-0 defeat over Inter in their Champions League group stage game:
After the immobilization period, gentle active range of motion exercises are introduced, followed by strengthening exercises. This process and general timeline may be expedited for professional athletes due to the immediacy and consistency of care that they receive, such as on demand team doctors and medical staff, daily 1 on 1 access to physios, and so on. For Lionel Messi, it’s within the realm of possibility to return in three weeks time but it’s an optimistic take.
I tried to find data for professional players returning from a Mason type I radial fracture but couldn’t find anything specific. I reached out to Ben Dinnery and PhysioRoom.com (make sure to follow Ben and physioroom if you don’t already, great resources for updates) for some help and he couldn’t find a specific return to play for this exact type of fracture either. What he did give me is that outfield players who suffered a radial fracture returned in an average of 41 days. Howver, and this is very important, that number is an average for all radial fractures, not just the mild type I that I believe Messi has.
Regardless, based on the timeline given by Barcelona, they seem to be targeting the game against Real Betis on November 11th for Messi’s return to play. If there’s any doubt about his recovery or fitness heading into the Real Betis game, I’d let him recover over the November international break and set his sights on November 24th against Athletico Madrid. Sure he misses one more game but he gains nearly two more weeks in recovery and rehab.
Even if Lionel Messi does return in three weeks, he’s set to miss key games including their next Champions League group game against Inter Milan at the San Siro and this weekend’s Clasico. The last Clasico sans Lionel Messi was nearly 11 years ago with Real Madrid winning 1-0 at the Nou Camp in December of ’07.
When Lionel Messi does make that return, what can we expect…
III. What To Expect When Lionel Messi Gets Back
Obviously Lionel Messi missing any games isn’t ideal but the critical positive is that his injury seems to be relatively mild and it’s not a body part that is constantly stressed in football. The elbow is still needed for leverage and contact but it’s far less stressed than the lower body, core, or even the shoulder. Additionally, an elbow injury doesn’t stop Messi from keeping up his cardiovascular fitness.
For these reasons, I fully expect Lionel Messi to hit the ground running when he returns. It may take him a few games to get his sea legs back and re-acclimate his touch because nothing can replace the mental and physical context of actual games but he should be back to the dynamic, bewildering, game-changing Lionel Messi quite quickly.