Spinal cord injuries often involve young people but few teens and college students understand the potentially life threatening risks that come with playing many popular sports. Unfortunately, with their youth often comes a feeling of invulnerability, and the belief that they are impervious to injury. It’s all part of being young, but all it only takes is one fall, or one bad tackle to turn a cheerleading stunt or football game into a literal nightmare. Spinal cord injury awareness is often overlooked during training, possibly because concussions and other more common injuries take the forefront. Recently, the Center for Disease Control has provided some specifics with regards to spinal injuries. According to their statistics, as many as 20,000 spinal cord injuries occur every year, with 12% resulting from sports, and most new cases involve 15-35 year olds. In 2008, 14 injuries resulting in some degree of paralysis were reported, and over the past ten years, the double-digit trend has continued to escalate. Though the numbers may seem small in comparison to other sports injuries, these life-changing and life-threatening injuries could happen at any time to anyone.
The cervical spine is a crucial, highly vulnerable area that safeguards the spinal cord connecting the body to the brain. Spinal cord injuries often occur when athletes tuck or bend their heads towards their chests during a fall. When the head makes contact with the ground or other obstacle, the sensitive cervical vertebrae are jarred, resulting in most commonly in sprains, or stingers (a temporary injury where the head or neck is jerked to one side with the shoulder going in the opposite direction), from which most young people recover. Other spinal cord injuries are much more serious and permanent. A ruptured disk is a long-term and very painful injury, while a fractured vertebra, more commonly known as a broken neck, is life threatening. If the spinal cord is severed, paralysis or even death may result.
In light of the increased numbers of spinal cord injuries, many schools are trying to institute more safety regulations and are training more highly certified athletic trainers in proper safety techniques to prevent cervical spinal injuries. Coaches are teaching their football players to tackle with the head up, instead of tucked,. A program to prevent “spearing”-headfirst contact in football- has been around since 1976, but it hasn’t been enforced consistently. Most colleges and two-thirds of secondary schools have hired highly trained, qualified athletic trainers who are specially trained to quickly recognize and detect spinal cord injuries. Some schools even run emergency-response drills on the field with players, first-responders, and athletic trainers in case of a spinal cord injury to learn proper techniques in removing helmets, face gear, and shoulder pads, and immobilizing techniques to prevent further injuries. A few high schools are also allowing parents to sit in on coach and athletic trainer training sessions to increase awareness on spinal cord injuries. If your teen’s school offers these programs, try to attend a session so you can have a one-on-one talk with your teen about the dangers and all of the available safety techniques. If your teen’s school has yet to implement these programs, let administrators know that spinal cord injuries are real and that prevention programs are important. Increasing awareness is the key to beginning the important task of prevention of spinal injuries.
Written collaboratively by Keri Register and Paul Smolen M.D.