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The Downside of Sports: Spinal Injuries

Sports are fabulous ways to socialize, be physically active, and have fun. They also come with some downsides. Regardless of your age, you may experience severe injuries to your spine. You may feel it will never happen to you, but, from the injuries we’ve seen, we know the reality can be much different. As spine specialists in Dallas, the 360 Back & Spine Center sees many patients who once felt that way.

Did you know that, in the past 30 years, disastrous cervical spine injuries due to sports have dropped? This positive change has occurred because many rules in football and other sports have been changed, acknowledging the hazards need to be mitigated.

What Types of Spinal Injuries Happen Most?

Playing sports can cause a variety of injuries, but some are more frequent than others. As we all know, sprains, breaks, and ligament tears are all part of the risk. One major danger that has garnered plenty of attention in recent years has been neurological injuries. These are permanent and life-changing.

Traumatic brain injury may be the neurologic disease that attracts the most attention, but, when it comes to spinal injuries, the specifics are often left out. Any part of the spine can be damaged by hits, tackling, checking, or other types of physical contact, but, hands-down, cervical spine injuries in sports are the most frequently seen by doctors.

Preventing Injury While Staying Active

The chance of injury throughout your life is possible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do the things you enjoy. It’s the same with sports. Taking precautions is the best way to prevent an injury from ever happening. Some prevention methods are basic common sense, but others aren’t something we think about every day.

Protective Gear

When playing a sport, particularly a full-contact one, protective gear is essential. The designated equipment has been deemed necessary for a reason. Helmets and pads keep players safe. They’ve been tried and tested by professionals for the express purpose of player protection.

While wearing them is essential, wearing them appropriately is even more critical. Helmets and the various protective equipment should fit as intended. If they are too loose or worn improperly, they fail to protect the head and spine. Beyond this, all equipment should be used as the manufacturer dictates and what they have dictated its use for, and it needs to be maintained regularly. Broken or excessively worn gear is ineffective as well.

Football Player on Bench

Playing the Game the Right Way

Having a safety-first attitude about any sport is probably one of the best ways to cut down on injuries. Encourage everyone to play by the rules and ensure a suitable punishment is in place for breaking said rules. Sportsmanship and safety should always come before winning.

Have a Plan

The last step in preventing a permanent and disabling spinal injury is to have an emergency plan. While this doesn’t stop the initial injury from happening, this can mean the difference between a severe injury and a recoverable one. Your plan should include having appropriately trained medical staff on the sidelines, keeping important emergency equipment close by, and designating someone to call for emergency medical treatment.

The plan should also include education for everyone on what they should and shouldn’t do during an emergency. For instance, only properly trained staff should move a player if neck, back, or head injuries are suspected.

Swimmer Swimming

How Common Are They, Really?

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “Approximately 8.7% of all new cases of spinal cord injuries in the United States are related to sports activities.” The NCBI also lists the sports with the highest instances of severe injury as rugby, wrestling, football, cheerleading, snowboarding, ice hockey, diving, and snowboarding.

The Injuries and Long-Term Implications

There’s been a lot of discussion about how to prevent injuries and how dangerous they can be, but what are they and what are the long-term ramifications? As discussed before, the cervical spine is one of the most-often injured parts of the spine. Certainly, it would be difficult to produce an exhaustive list of all possible injuries, but we’ll discuss ones regularly seen.

Cervical Spine Dislocations and Fractures

It happens when a force is applied lengthwise to the neck area. The force is greater than the ligaments and other supporting bodies can withstand. The force results in a fracture or dislocation of one of the discs. It also irritates or can seriously injure the nerve roots and/or spinal cord.

These fractures and dislocations range from relatively minor to fatal, depending on where the fracture occurs, what type it is, and other structures involved. More serious injuries could require a halo brace, c-collar, or another form of stabilization. Sometimes cervical fusion surgery is required to repair the damage. In the long-term, there is the risk for reinjury and chronic pain.

Brachial Plexus Injury

The brachial plexus is the nerve root located in the cervical spine and flowing down the shoulder into the arm. These injuries occur from stretching—when the head/neck is forced away from the opposite arm or the neck is compressed and rotated toward one of the arms. The result is tingling and numbness in one of the arms.

Football players refer to the resultant symptoms of this injury as stingers or burners. The injury tends to be self-limiting, but should always be investigated with x-rays and other imaging to ensure there is no fracture or another injury causing the symptoms.

Hockey Goalie

Disc Herniation

This injury can happen at any level of the spine and will tend to have different results depending on the affected area. This acute cervical herniation is seen more in sports other than football but can happen in any sport. Cervical disc herniation can cause anything from numbness to paralysis.

Other herniations, such as lumbar herniations, have different implications. For instance, lumbar herniations cause sufferers to experience sciatica. Treatment for lumbar herniation can vary from conservative treatment to surgical intervention. Several studies have found that microdiscectomy and conventional open discectomy had the highest instance of return to play. One study even showed that 85.1% of microdiscectomy patients returned to play versus the 78.9% who were treated conservatively.

Other treatments can include lumbar spinal fusion, though treatment is dependent on the extent of injuries, previous treatments, and circumstances of the injury. It’s important to speak with your Texas spine and joint specialist to develop a treatment plan that works best for you.

Sprains and Strains of the Cervical Spine

Strains and sprains occur with a compression or jamming-type force. The pain is limited to the neck area and affects the range of motion of just the neck. Typical treatment is with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) after ruling out more serious injuries. In a strain, the insult is to the paraspinal muscles rather than nerves, tendons, or ligaments. However, a sprain is an insult to the entire paraspinal musculotendinous unit.

Stenosis of the Cervical Spine

Stenosis means a narrowing. In this case, it’s the narrowing of the spinal canal in the cervical area. It’s usually the result of growing older and developing arthritis, but repetitive motion and injuries can speed along the process. Not only does stenosis cause its own chronic discomfort, it also puts players at risk for spinal cord injuries because the spinal cord sits closer to the bones.

Treatments vary from anti-inflammatory medications to surgery. Generally, the primary surgical option is a spinal compression, but other methods may be used, depending on the overall extent of the damage.

Sports are amazing for forming lifelong friendships, keeping in shape, and getting outdoors. They can also lead to chronic pain and significant, even life-threatening injury if appropriate prevention methods are not in place. Of course, there will always be accidents, but we should all take care to make them happen as infrequently as we can.

If you or a loved one suffer from pain or have been injured, you should be treated by a physician who understands your condition. Call 360 Back and Spine Center, your South Texas spinal clinic, at 682-223-1406 for an appointment today!


  1. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1264627-overview
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18295084
  3. https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/cervical-spinal-fusion
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3781879/
  5. https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/guide/spinal-stenosis#1