Football is a violent sport. For many fans, this is part of its appeal. For the players, however, the violence inherent in the game poses a serious health risk. With this year's football season already begun, there's no time like the present to focus on the potential for spinal cord injury, measures for prevention, and methods of treatment.
Spinal Cord Injuries
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body. It is protected by the vertebrae and extends into the lumbar spine. The signals that pass between the brain and the body via the spinal cord are responsible for regulating our most essential functions: bowel and bladder control, blood pressure, body temperature regulation and sensation.
Injury to the spinal cord can occur as the result of tumors, developmental disorders, disease, and what I'll be focusing on in this article trauma. A physical trauma can cause strain on the spinal cord, compression of the spinal cord, or fracture of the vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord, resulting in damage to the cord itself. Oftentimes, when the spinal cord is injured, the messages cannot pass between the brain and the body. When this is the case, essential bodily functions can fail causing paralysis or even death.
Head, neck, and spine injuries are common in football; this stands to reason as falls and hard hits are an everyday occurrence for all players no matter what position they play or level of play (high school, college, or the NFL). If the angle and velocity of these impacts are just right, spinal cord injury is a natural result. Various sources offer statistics regarding football-related injuries. Although the exact figures in these reports may vary, all sources agree that even just a single severe spinal cord injury is too many.
To be fair, I believe equal attention should be paid to the athletes on the sidelines: cheerleaders. These men and women have progressed to complex acrobatics that send them hurtling through the air. Stunts like these can result in cheerleaders falling on their heads or backs, or with other cheerleaders landing on top of them. Clearly, these scenarios can result in head trauma or spinal cord injury, and these types of injuries are also an unfortunate reality of the sport of cheerleading.
At my practice, we use several methods for treating our patients with spinal cord injuries on Long Island. The ultimate goal of these therapies is to decompress the spinal cord and stabilize the spinal column.
After surgery, most of our spinal cord injury patients in the NYC metro also undergo physical therapy and other ancillary therapies. Thanks to advanced treatment methods, life expectancy and quality of life for these patients may be significantly improved. Victims of spinal cord injuries can go on to lead full lives, even if they have lost the use of their arms and legs.
While improving treatment for football-related spinal cord injuries is a worthy goal, equal emphasis needs to be placed on preventing the injuries from occurring in the first place. I can offer several suggestions.
Coaches and trainers: Perform thorough physical exams to ensure that no athletes are playing injured. Encourage training for coaches and staff so that they are prepared to respond to a spine injury. Coach players to use methods of blocking and tackling that do not use the head as a "battering ram." Arrange for a physician to be on the field during practice or a game in case of emergencies. Make sure that helmets are well-fitted and that straps are tight.
Officials: Continue to enforce penalties against helmet-to-helmet contact.
Players: Focus on keeping the head up, even when blocking and tackling. Trainers should work with players to strengthen neck muscles so that they can maintain proper posture during the game. Players need to immediately report "warning signs" of a spinal cord injury (such as numbness or tingling, pain or pressure in the head/neck/back, weakness or uncoordination, and difficulty breathing) and should not return to the game.
Measures can also be taken to prevent cheerleading injuries. Experts suggest improving the facilities where stunts are performed (for example, requiring floor mats and avoiding wet surfaces), limiting the participants who can perform more dangerous stunts to those with more experience, and requiring coaches to undergo specialized safety training. It's important to note that cheerleading is not considered a sport by some schools, and thus is not as heavily-regulated as other athletics. Many have suggested that, until cheerleading is sufficiently regulated by all schools, sufficient safety improvements cannot be made.