Among the most terrifying injuries in sports is when an athlete becomes paralyzed after a collision or fall. If the impact is focused on the cervical spine, the result is a temporary or permanent paralysis of all extremities. This pattern of paralysis is referred to as quadriplegia. Identifying athletes who may be susceptible to this type of injury can be lifesaving.
The cervical spine consists of seven bony vertebrae that surround and protect the spinal cord.
Cartilaginous discs that cushion and protect the bones from friction and impact separate the vertebrae. The individual vertebral segments are connected by a series of ligaments giving this portion of the spine flexibility to allow a certain degree of bending and twisting.
The cervical spinal cord is located in a central canal. The spinal cord at this level contains a network of motor and sensory nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain. The higher levels also coordinate essential functions such as respiration, temperature and cardiac function.
The most common injury is known as neurapraxia of the cervical spinal cord. This is best described as transient numbness, tingling and/or weakness of the extremities after cervical cord injury. It typically occurs with hyperextension, flexion or axial loading of the spine. Episodes last anywhere from 15 minutes to 36 hours. Axial loading injuries are common in football when tackling with the head down.
Subsequent radiologic studies often reveal congenital narrowing of the cervical canal causing these athletes to be vulnerable to this type of injury.
“Initial treatment for congenital cervical stenosis is often observation,” reports Dr. Isaac Moss, Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Neurosurgery at the University of Connecticut. “However, if patients become symptomatic, surgical treatment is an option. This is often in the form of a procedure called laminoplasty, which involves increasing the space available for the spinal cord within the spinal canal.”
A thorough neurologic evaluation for episodes of weakness and numbness in athletes can avoid catastrophe.
Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org