Sports and Entertainment

Spine Injuries in Football

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It’s that time again; football season! This American pastime ignites the competitive spirit in many of us year, after year. While, others can only cringe as they hear the players collide during Sunday afternoon battles. Despite the extensive training and extraordinary athleticism, an injury can sideline professional football players at any time.

The spine is an intricate structure composed of bones known as vertebrae, the vertebral disc, the spinal cord, and spinal nerves. Football, a full contact and a high velocity sport, places increased demands on the spine. This combination has the potential to result in a neck and or back injury.

Researchers continue to investigate spine injuries from various angles, including those associated with professional sports. One publication examined all spinal injuries incurred by professional football players over the course of 11 years. The authors concluded that the degree of injuries can range from a back muscle sprain to a more serious injury. This study was able to further demonstrate that offensive linemen are the players most likely to suffer a spine injury.1

Research is expanding to look at not only the who, what, when, and where of football injuries but also their safety practices. One recent study took a closer look at current safety practices for those players requiring helmet removal do to a neck injury. It is currently the standard of care to remove only the face mask of an injured player’s helmet. However, what if it were deemed necessary to remove the entire helmet for treatment? Researchers, after reviewing cervical x-rays of participants, concluded that if a player’s helmet must be removed for emergency care, occipital padding along with full body and head immobilization are essential. This combination was found to maintain cervical alignment while allowing for a delay in shoulder pad removal. Shoulder pad removal requires additional unwanted movement of a player’s body. 2 Player safety is of utmost importance from the moment they step onto the field to the moment they step off. The goal of all emergency care is to prevent further injury; additional studies like this one are needed in the future.

Sports injuries are very complicated in nature. Things such as treatment outcomes, return to play rates, and career longevity following an injury are all factors.3,4 We as spectators, thrive on the energy during each and every second of play. What we see on the field is what keeps us entertained. What we don’t see off the field should keep us coming back. It is important to appreciate what these players are up against all for the love of the game.


Mall, N., Buchowski, J., Zebala, L., Brophy, R., Wright, R., & Matava, M. (2012). Spine and Axial Skeleton Injuries in the National Football League. The American journal of Sports Medicine , 40 (8), 1755-1761.

Decoster, L., Burns, M., Swartz, E., Murthi, D., Hernandez, A., Vailas, J., et al. (2012). Maintaining Neutral Sagital Cervical Alignment After Football Helmet Removal During Emergency Spine Injury Management. Spine , 37 (8), 654-659.

Hsu, W. (2011). Outcomes Following Nonoperative and operative Treatment for Cervical Disc Herniations in National Football League Athletes. Spine , 36 (10), 800-805.

Hsu, W., McCarthy, K., savage, J., Roberets, D., Roc, G., Micev, A., et al. (2011). The Professional Athlete Spine Initiative: outcomes after lumbar disc herniation in 342 elite professional athletes. The Spine Journal , 11, 180-186.

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