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Sports & Spinal Cord Injury: July 28, 2013

Sports concussions may grab the headlines, but many athletes feel the affects of a violent collision, below the helmet - suffering catastrophic spinal cord injuries.

“Usually what’s happens is, you suffer an injury to the bone, to the ligaments of the spine. And that’s what causes direct trauma to the spinal cord. And once the spinal cord has been injured then that person may never ever have that function back again,” says Dr. Dean Lin, neurosurgeon with Lee Memorial Health System.

Eighty percent of spinal cord injuries happen to males, mostly between 16 and 30 years old. Nine percent result from sports.

“Injuries can be suffered from direct compression from torsion, twisting, inflection, extension,” says Dr. Robert O’Connor.

Dr. O’Connor is with Lee Memorial Hospital’s Trauma Center.

“They can happen on the soccer field from hitting the ball the wrong way, they can happen from two people colliding. We’re surprised when we see these injuries, but at the same time in our community, we see them a lot,” says Dr. O’Connor.

In the best cases, symptoms will be temporary.

“Frequently patients will have what’s called ‘stingers’ especially where they have a transient episode of burning pain or partial paralysis. Sometimes that lasts for a brief period of time and then they regain function,” says Dr. Lin.

The spinal cord is about 18 inches long- running from the neck to the pelvis. Generally the higher the injury, the more severe. While a severed or complete spinal cord injury offers little hope to regain movement, a partially damaged spine has a better prognosis.

“If they have an incomplete injury, as in there’s some preserved function of strength or sensation, usually once we decompress the spinal cord they’ll regain some of that. We really won’t know sometimes up to a year how much they’ll get back,” says Dr. Lin.

Symptoms of a spinal cord injury include loss of function below the level of injury. Patients may have: extreme pain in the neck, head or back, tingling or numbness in the extremities, loss of balance or impaired breathing.

“A 17-25 year old football player who suddenly looses function is a terrible shock. Especially someone who doesn’t have any pre-existing injury or malformation of the spine,” says Dr. O’Connor.

Any on-field injury should be given maximum attention.