Object: Transient spinal cord injury (TSCI) in athletes presents one of the most challenging clinical scenarios. Management difficulties in and subsequent return-to-play decisions are especially important in those with cervical canal stenosis.
Methods: Ten athletes (nine male and one female patients) were evaluated for TSCI. The diagnostic survey included physical and neurological examinations, plain radiographs with flexion-extension dynamic studies, computerized tomography, and magnetic resonance (MR) imaging. Clinical courses were followed and, in those who returned to contact sports activities, subsequent experience was noted. Symptoms consisted of paralysis, weakness, or numbness in all four extremities, their duration ranging from 15 minutes to 48 hours. Radiography revealed no evidence of fracture/dislocation or ligamentous instability. Spinal stenosis of 8 to 13 mm in length at three or more levels was evident in all cases. Four patients returned to competition without recurrent TSCI (mean follow-up duration 40 months); six individuals retired. The occurrence of TSCI is not uncommon in athletes involved in contact sports. The diagnostic workup focuses on excluding fracture/dislocation, cord contusion, ligamentous infolding or instability, herniated nucleus pulposus, syrinx, or other surgically correctable lesions. There appear to be two groups of athletes who sustain TSCI: those who experience TSCI yet in whom radiographic studies are normal, and those with cervical stenosis, the most difficult management group.
Conclusions: It does not appear that a single episode of TSCI in an athlete with spinal stenosis will substantially increase the risk of subsequent catastrophic spinal cord injury in those in whom MR imaging demonstrates preservation of cerebrospinal fluid signal.