Cervical spine injuries in American football

Sports Med. 2009;39(9):697-708. doi: 10.2165/11315190-000000000-00000.


American football is a high-energy contact sport that places players at risk for cervical spine injuries with potential neurological deficits. Advances in tackling and blocking techniques, rules of the game and medical care of the athlete have been made throughout the past few decades to minimize the risk of cervical injury and improve the management of injuries that do occur. Nonetheless, cervical spine injuries remain a serious concern in the game of American football. Injuries have a wide spectrum of severity. The relatively common 'stinger' is a neuropraxia of a cervical nerve root(s) or brachial plexus and represents a reversible peripheral nerve injury. Less common and more serious an injury, cervical cord neuropraxia is the clinical manifestation of neuropraxia of the cervical spinal cord due to hyperextension, hyperflexion or axial loading. Recent data on American football suggest that approximately 0.2 per 100,000 participants at the high school level and 2 per 100,000 participants at the collegiate level are diagnosed with cervical cord neuropraxia. Characterized by temporary pain, paraesthesias and/or motor weakness in more than one extremity, there is a rapid and complete resolution of symptoms and a normal physical examination within 10 minutes to 48 hours after the initial injury. Stenosis of the spinal canal, whether congenital or acquired, is thought to predispose the athlete to cervical cord neuropraxia. Although quite rare, catastrophic neurological injury is a devastating entity referring to permanent neurological injury or death. The mechanism is most often a forced hyperflexion injury, as occurs when 'spear tackling'. The mean incidence of catastrophic neurological injury over the past 30 years has been approximately 0.5 per 100,000 participants at high school level and 1.5 per 100,000 at the collegiate level. This incidence has decreased significantly when compared with the incidence in the early 1970s. This decrease in the incidence of catastrophic injury is felt to be the result of changes in the rules in the mid-1970s that prohibited the use of the head as the initial contact point when blocking and tackling. Evaluation of patients with suspected cervical spine injury includes a complete neurological examination while on the field or the sidelines. Immobilization on a hard board may also be necessary. The decision to obtain radiographs can be made on the basis of the history and physical examination. Treatment depends on severity of diagnosed injury and can range from an individualized cervical spine rehabilitation programme for a 'stinger' to cervical spine decompression and fusion for more serious bony or ligamentous injury. Still under constant debate is the decision to return to play for the athlete.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brachial Plexus Neuropathies / epidemiology
  • Brachial Plexus Neuropathies / etiology
  • Causality
  • Cervical Vertebrae / injuries*
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Football / injuries*
  • Humans
  • Neurologic Examination
  • Paresis / epidemiology
  • Paresis / etiology
  • Recovery of Function
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / epidemiology*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / etiology
  • Spinal Stenosis / epidemiology