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Neck Injuries Among Athletes Are Serious. Here’s Why.

Protecting against athletes’ neck injuries is crucial.

WHEN IT COMES TO football-related head injuries, the headline-grabbers are usually about concussion. However, it’s not infrequent that a hard-enough hit to the head can result in both a concussion and a significant injury to the cervical spine, or neck. What’s more, it isn’t the professional players who are sustaining the majority of neck injuries related to football play. It’s mostly collegiate and youth athletes. When a hard enough hit or fall can result in a fracture or paralysis, it’s essential to look at why and how these injuries occur. Then, we must figure out ways to prevent them – or at least reduce the risk.

It might seem delicate on the outside, but your neck is one biological powerhouse on the inside. It must be flexible enough for you to turn your head from side to side, but strong enough to support the head, which weighs about 10 pounds. Neck stability occurs through the intricate arrangement of vertebrae in the cervical spine – the seven vertebrae in the neck. Between each vertebra is shock-absorbing cushions called disks, and surrounding the neck are muscles that provide strength and allow for flexibility.[ 

Though designed for strength, the neck can be gravely injured. Hard football tackles and falls can result in severe neck injury – in much the same way and by the same force that happens with whiplash during a car accident. When the neck is hyperextended (flung too far backward) or hyper-flexed (thrown too far forward), ligament tears, sprains and strains can be the result. On the other hand, a tackle or fall that pushes the head too far to one side can result in a burner or stinger type of injury. Burners and stingers get their name from the electricity-like jolt of pain they can cause, which may also send the sensation down the arm. These injuries are the result of damage to the brachial plexus, a group of nerves that provides feeling to the arms. The incidence of burner or stinger injuries is quite high among collegiate football players, with up to 70% having sustained one.

The risk of neck injuries in football isn’t only high for collegiate or professional players. Sports-related emergency room visits for neck-related fractures number into the thousands each year, with football among the top five sports contributing to these numbers. And the age of incidence is highest in kids who are 15 years old or younger.[ 

Any neck injury as the result of a hard tackle or fall should be evaluated a qualified medical professional, though most will resolve with minimal intervention. However, there are some signs of serious neck injury that warrant an emergency room visit. These include severe, uncontrollable pain; pain that shoots or radiates into the arms or legs; any tingling or numbness sensations; and trouble with bowel or bladder control.

Like any other injured body part, the neck needs time and care to heal properly. Even if a player is seemingly “fine” after the incident, neck injuries should be given at least a few days to recover. Of course, the best neck injury is the one that never happens. So taking proper safety precautions is always a must. If it’s tackle football, ensure that the equipment is functioning correctly. Shoulder pads and helmets should always be worn (in practice and during games) and must fit appropriately based on both the age and size of the player. Proper technique is also crucial. Remember: You should always see what you hit. Just because you wear a helmet does not mean it should be used as a weapon.[ 

Serving as the director of spine trauma at a major metropolitan hospital for several years, I’m heartbroken to see kids come in with catastrophic but preventable neck injuries. For as much time and attention as coaches and team staff put into concussion detection and prevention, I firmly believe there should also be a significant amount dedicated to protection against serious neck injuries.

Neel Anand, M.D., Contributor

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