Carolina Panthers’ QB Cam Newton’s Car Accident Shines Light on Transverse Process Fractures

The recent news of Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton suffering two transverse process fractures in his spine may not surprise anyone who watches the high-contact sport of football. But the fact that Newton sustained those spine injuries during a car accident might surprise some. Stories of these injuries have regularly consumed many a sports-media headline this season.
Thoracic vertebra (side view) labeledFrom Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo’s transverse process fracture at the outset of the season, to Baylor University’s star quarterback Bryce Petty’s fracture of two transverse processes during a particularly physical play, this type of traumatic spine injury may seem commonplace on the football field today. The truth about traumatic spine injuries, which is what transverse process fractures are, is that they can happen to anyone and at anytime. And if you’re an otherwise healthy man under the age of 35, you’re at an even greater risk. Let’s explore.

Located on each side of every vertebra in the spine is a bony “knob” that protrudes from the back of the vertebrae. These bony projections have a purpose. They function as the platforms that muscles and ligaments of the spine attach to. Though these bony structures are pretty well insulated from injury by the thick and protective muscle structures that attach to and surround them, they aren’t invincible. A fracture of the transverse process usually occurs one of two ways. The first is by sudden extreme side-bending or twisting movements. The second is due to a direct impact to the process itself. In Newton’s case, it is likely that the impact of the car crash resulted in his body twisting to protect itself in a way that his spine was not prepared for. When that happened, the muscle contracture against the spine was forceful enough to “chip off” or break a piece of bone from the transverse process.

No matter the cause of a transverse process fracture, healing and recovery time depend (as they do with any spine condition or injury) on the severity of the injury. For most transverse process fractures, treatment typically consists of appropriate pain management with medication, rest and in some cases, a brace to stabilize the spine and promote healing. When transverse process fractures are more serious, immediate concern shifts to whether any internal organs have been damaged as a result of the trauma. Since MRI is the modality typically used to diagnose these types of spine injury, investigation of surrounding organs is usually done and harm to them diagnosed or ruled out rather quickly. For the most part, this type of injury takes from four to six weeks to achieve complete healing. And because a transverse process fracture is what is considered a “stable” injury, it doesn’t carry risk of injury to the spinal cord or surrounding nerves.

Now back to that mention of “spine trauma can happen to anyone.” It’s true. And the reason young men are typically at greater risk of sustaining a traumatic spine injury has mostly to do with the fact that they are the ones who usually engage in more dangerous physical activities, like extreme sports. While it may be impossible to completely eliminate your risk of sustaining a spine injury, making certain that you’re always wearing the right protective gear for whatever activity you’re engaging in is a great place to start. Play it safe. The risk is never worth the potential for more serious injury.