5 Ways NFL Player Careers Are Impacted by Cervical Spine Diagnoses


A group of researchers examined the impact of cervical spine diagnoses on professional football players and published their results in an issue of Spine.

The researchers evaluated imaging reports from American football athletes from 2003 to 2011 who attended the National Football League combine. There were 2,965 athletes evaluated in the study and 143 who had cervical spine diagnoses.


Study authors include Gregory D. Schroeder, MD, T. Sean Lynch, MD, Daniel B. Lynch, MD, Ian Chow, BS, Mark W. LaBelle, BS, Alphesh A. Patel, MD, FASC, Jason W. Savage, MD, Gordon W. Nuber, MD, and Wellington K. Hsu, MD. Here are five things to know about their research and spinal injuries in the NFL.


1. Athletes without cervical spine diagnoses were more likely drafted than those with cervical spine diagnoses. NFL players who have cervical disc herniations return to play more often after surgical treatment when compared with nonoperative care.


After experiencing cervical disc herniation, about 85 percent of NFL athletes return to play after undergoing lumbar discectomy, compared with 2.86 percent how undergo nonoperative intervention, according to a study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Of those who underwent surgery, 63.5 percent became starters after returning to play. Only 13 percent of the athletes required revision surgery, and 85.7 percent of those patients subsequently returned to play.


2. Throughout their careers, the athletes with cervical spine diagnoses had fewer total games played, but there was no difference in the number of games played or performance score between the two groups.


NFL players who experience lumbar disc herniations are more likely to return to play after surgical treatment when compared with nonoperative treatment, according to a separate study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. The study examined 66 linemen with lumbar disc herniation and 52 were treated surgically. Around 85 percent of the players returned to play after surgery and 63.4 percent of those patients became starters. Only 2.86 percent of the players who underwent nonoperative treatment returned to play.


3. Among the 10 athletes with cervical spine diagnoses who had sagittal canal diameter of less than 10 mm, there was no difference in the number of years in the league, games played, games started or performance scores when compared with athletes who did not have cervical spine diagnoses.


4. There were no neurological injuries during the athletes' careers. However, a separate study of NFL players who reported cervical and lumbar spinal disc herniations from 2000 to 2012 found offensive linemen were most often injured and 76 percent of the disc herniations occurred in the lumbar spine. The athletes sat out for an average of 11 games after the disc herniation.


5. There were seven players in the most recent study reported drafted who previously had cervical spine surgery:


•    Four who underwent anterior cervical discectomy and fusion
•    Two who underwent foraminotomy
•    One who underwent suboccipital craniectomy with C1 laminectomy


The researchers found no difference in career longevity or performance when compared with matched controls.


More Articles on Spine Surgery:
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The Economics of Spine Surgery: How Postsurgical Pain Management Makes a Difference
20 Spine Surgeons Leading ASCs

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