New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce suffered a neck injury during a game on Oct. 25. He was reported to have symptoms of neck pain and a burning sensation radiating to his arm. After his symptoms subsided over the next few days, he returned to his normal activity. When neck pain returned weeks later, an MRI revealed a bulging disc in the cervical spine, placing him on the disabled list.
Pierce’s situation is not that uncommon, especially for a linebacker. The cervical spine consists of a series of seven bony vertebrae designed to protect the fragile spinal cord and nerve roots. This area of the nervous system is responsible for sensation and movement of the upper extremities.
Sandwiched between each of the vertebrae is a cartilaginous disc. The center of the disc consists of soft, moist material to cushion any impact.
In a situation where there is repeated trauma to the head and neck causing compression, the discs become brittle and susceptible to fracture and eventual herniation (bulging). A disc that is out of place can irritate the nerve roots and/or the spinal cord.
Football players who use their heads when blocking and stretch their necks to one side tackling are particularly susceptible to these injuries. An MRI scan of a linebacker’s cervical spine typically shows bony arthritic changes and compressed discs consistent with that seen in an elderly person.
Treatment for these injuries can be conservative with physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications and rest. Surgical intervention may include simply removing the herniated portion of disc alone or in combination with fusing the vertebrae for stability.
Cervical spine injuries can be avoided by strengthening supporting neck muscles, wearing a protective collar and most importantly, utilizing proper blocking and tackling techniques.