Researchers gather rare data on cervical spine injury

Aug 9 2011
Scientists were recently surprised to capture rare if not unprecedented data of a high school football player suffering a cervical spine break during a tackle. While the injury caused significant neck pain, it healed within 12 weeks without spine surgery.

The researchers published their unique data on the cervical spine injury in the New England Journal of Medicine. The information was gathered using the Head Impact Telemetry System, a set of padded sensors in the helmet that recorded the force and direction of the impact.

The scientists were in the process of studying concussions sustained by high school football players at the time, so the event was a surprise. During the four-year research at Unity High School in Illinois, 25 concussions and the one cervical fracture occurred out of 120,000 recorded impacts.

"We now have data that we know caused a serious spine injury in a healthy, 18-year-old strong-bodied athlete," said Erik Swartz, professor of Kinesiology. Swartz, of the University of New Hampshire, was brought into the study due to his experience with cervical spine and athletic injuries.

The research noted that recreational activities such as sports are the second leading cause of cervical spine injuries in those younger than 30. Concussions are a much more common injury among young athletes.

Lead author Steven Broglio, from the University of Michigan's School of Kinesiology, stated he considered the 1.5 million high school football players at risk of concussions to be of public health concern, noting that media attention for athletic injuries frequently focuses on professional athletes, who only number in the thousands. Broglio compared the force required to cause a concussion to hitting a wall headfirst at 20 miles per hour, and pointed out the average high school football player takes 652 impacts in 12 or 13 weeks.

Cervical spine injuries can cause neck pain of varying intensities, and severe ones that damage the spinal cord may restrict mobility or even paralyze someone from the point of injury down. In this athlete's case, a collar was used to immobilize the neck and prevent motion that could cause further injury while he recovered.

This is a common measure in cervical spine injuries, and braces are frequently used for injuries to the back. Injuries that damage the nerves connected to the spinal cord can cause pain in the neck and back, or sometimes in other areas such as the legs. If nerves are not damaged, inflammation and increased pressure on healthy or damaged portions of the spine may still cause acute or chronic pain.