The Concussion Discussion: Cervical Spine Injuries

With all the talk surrounding concussions, many other trauma-induced sports injuries have gone woefully overlooked.  Among them, cervical spine injuries are especially problematic. While head injuries tend to grab the headlines, injuries to the cervical spine injuries pose an equally hazardous risk to young athletes.

The cervical spine is located between the first and seventh vertebrae and protects the area of the spinal cord connecting the brain to the rest of the body.  This area of the spine is highly vulnerable to injury, especially in contact sports such as football, ice hockey, and the like.

When an athlete suffers an injury to the cervical spine, the severity of the damage is not always immediately evident.  As aches and pains are an inherent part of any athletic endeavor, many participants think little of the injury and continue to play as if nothing had happened.  Unfortunately, this decision can have catastrophic consequences, as the wrong move can cause further damage to the spinal cord.  Such damage can lead to paralysis—or even death.

While these injuries remain less common than concussions, the number of reported paralysis-inducing cervical spine injuries appears to be on the rise.  After dropping into the single digits throughout much of the 1990’s, the number of catastrophic cervical spine injuries has leapt into the teens in four of the last ten years.

In light of this growing problem, efforts are being made to educate athletes, parents, and coaches about the dangers of cervical spine injuries.  In sports like football, coaches are being asked to stress the fundamentals of proper tackling, as a majority of the sport’s most devastating injuries occur when a player lowers his head prior to impact.  Moreover, there has been a strong push among activist groups for schools to employ a greater number of certified athletic trainers, as such individuals are best-qualified to recognize and respond to cervical spine injuries as they occur.

With much of the national attention focused on concussions, it is imperative that the critical lens be augmented to include cervical-spine injuries.  While the danger of concussions lie in their cumulative effect, complete or partial paralysis is but a single blow to the spine away.  As evidence of this danger continues to mount, parents and coaches alike must begin to educate their athletes about the vulnerable nature of the cervical spine.  Should they fail, promising young lives will continue to be decimated by these otherwise preventable injuries.