Spinal Cord - A Head’s Up Injury: February 28, 2014

With so much focus on sports concussions, another athletic injury is striking less of a chord: damage to the upper, or cervical, spine.

“We probably see more cervical spinal cord here than anything,” says Dr. Dean Lin, neurosurgeon with Lee Memorial Health System.

Dr. Lin finds spinal cord injuries among the most catastrophic. While players generally recover from injuries like a broken bone, cervical spine injuries involve collisions of the head and neck and can cause a lifetime of damage.

“The problem with spinal cord is you have a very densely packed structure, about a centimeter in diameter, where a lot of nerves travel. Anything that damages that amount of tissue can result in a catastrophic injury,” says Dr. Lin.

Sports injuries make up about 12% of cases, especially ones involving people between the ages of 15 and 35. If it happens in the field of play, the wrong move could result in paralysis.

“Anytime we all see football injuries, hockey injuries on the field, the first thing they do is clear the field no one moves the patient. They put a collar around their neck before they let them do anything at all,” says Dr. Lin.

In best scenarios, the spinal cord injury is considered ‘incomplete’ as opposed to totally severed, which means there is no chance of function. The partial injury often involves nerve compression swelling. So with treatment, it takes time, often a long time, to gauge the amount of recovery.

“The problem with nerve tissue like spinal cord and brain - that heals very, very slowly. And that’s why I tell people we won’t know for possibly up to a year how much better you’re going to get,” says Dr. Lin.

These injuries, while small in number nationwide, are on the rise. Leading to the importance of being head’s up about the risks.