Long road back for 49ers' Eric Heitmann

The neck surgery center Eric Heitmann underwent makes it tough to envision the longtime starter returning to the San Francisco 49ers.

HeitmannHeitmannWithout it, though, the odds against him were longer.

"The symptoms were not changing and the doctor said, 'This was what you need to do,' " agent Kenny Zuckerman said by phone Wednesday.

Heitmann was experiencing tingling and shooting pains down his lower back and extremities. The neck issues prevented him from returning last season even after Heitmann recovered from a broken fibula. The 49ers placed him on injured reserve in early November.

The procedure, performed about four weeks ago by Dr. Robert Watkins, entailed going into the neck, pushing aside the throat and larynx and fusing together vertebrae. It's the sort of procedure players undergo as a last resort.

"You don’t just say, 'Oh, you are having pain? Let’s operate on it,' " ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell said. "It used to be that when guys had fusions, they did not come back. But Max Starks had one and the Steelers put him on IR."

Heitmann is heading into the final year of his contract and most likely will have gone two full seasons without playing by the time he's healthy enough to consider playing. Recovery time is six months.

David Baas took over for Heitmann last season and fared well enough to project as the starter for 2011. The team also addressed its offensive line in the draft, selecting Appalachian State's Daniel Kilgore in the fifth round.

The lockout prevented Heitmann from having surgery under terms of standard player medical insurance policies. He was insured through one of the COBRA policies available to him during the lockout.