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Can spinal stenosis take a player off the field for good?

University of Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones (Photo by Bleacher Report)

University of Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones (Photo by Bleacher Report)

Though the recent NFL combine is spotlighting exceptional talent across the country, there’s a lot of talk and concern about one player in particular, University of Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones.

Dr. Joe Congeni

Dr. Joe Congeni

After coming off this past year where he led the country in sacks, some NFL teams are saying they won’t even consider him due to a condition he has called spinal stenosis. It’s a condition where the spinal channel is narrowed and can increase the risk of injury to the spinal cord.

Yesterday, I had the chance to speak to WAKR’s Ray Horner about spinal stenosis and the gray area surrounding the upcoming NFL draft. Below is a transcript and an audio file of our discussion.

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Horner: Let’s bring in Dr. Joe Congeni from Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital. Joe, a lot has been talked about this past week with the NFL combine: players participating and not, and some were not participating because of a spinal condition that they needed to get checked out. I think that’s the direction you’d like to educate us on this morning.

Dr. Congeni: Yeah, I want to talk about that because what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to talk about any injuries in Goodyear, Arizona. So one task for you, Ray, from a sports medicine standpoint is to come home with no injuries to talk about so that manager Francona can have this team start the season healthy. That would be a good thing out there. So, we’ll move in the way of football injuries from the combine.

Probably the biggest gray area that leaves a lot of people scratching their heads is a condition known as spinal stenosis, Ray. Stenosis, medically, that word always means narrowing, and spinal stenosis is narrowing of, either in the neck or the low back, the channel or spinal canal that the spinal cord rides in.

The spinal cord/spinal canal [runs] down your back and it is surrounded by the vertebrae, [which] are there to protect the spinal cord. But in some people, that spinal canal is narrowed.

People ask, “What are the causes of this? Isn’t this an old person thing?” And they are right: Aging is the No. 1 cause of narrowing of that spinal canal.

So, in older people we see them walk hunched over, or when they walk through the grocery store, they have to hold on to their carts. That’s aging stenosis. Some people get arthritis that narrows that channel or canal, and that’s another population. But, some people are born with narrowing of that canal, and that’s where it becomes an issue in high school and college players.

If these people are born with a narrowing of the canal, the big risk is they can have injury to the spinal cord or the nerves that come off [of it], particularly in the neck. So, they can have nerve damage, or neck injuries that damage the nerves. It is a big deal, and it’s something that sports medicine people talk a lot about.

So, let’s go to the case of this gentleman by the name of Jarvis Jones at the combine. A lot of people were saying he may be the No. 1 player or certainly in the top five of the draft — all these draft gurus are saying that.

But, here’s the story. At USC (University of Southern California) as a freshman in 2009, he played a few games, had a neck injury with nerve injury, and they checked him out and he had narrowing of the spinal canal. At USC, they said, “Your career is over. You can’t play anymore with this.”

But, he transferred to Georgia (University of Georgia) and immediately the next year, the Georgia medical staff said he could play. And in the final two years of his career, he led the country in sacks — and he’s one of the best players in the country.

Now this weekend, 32 NFL teams checked him out. Some teams said they think medically he’s okay and they might draft him, while other teams said we’re not gonna touch him because he has this narrowing of the spinal canal.

So, people are surprised to hear that, even in the year 2013, there’s such a gray area with this condition, and that some NFL teams with the same MRI and the same neurologists and neurosurgeons would say you can’t play with it, [yet others say you can]. So, it’s really very controversial; it’s a very big gray area.

It’ll be interesting when we see — ‘cause the Browns draft early and could sure use someone that sacks the quarterback — whether this guy Jarvis Jones with spinal stenosis will be [drafted].

Horner: I imagine it puts up a big red flag for many organizations though, doesn’t it, Joe?

Dr. Congeni: It does, but isn’t it interesting the whole variation from some teams who say they would not draft him at all — or USC who said, your career is over — and other teams who may use a pick in the first five or 10 picks of the draft [to get him]. So, it really is very much up in the air.

Horner: Alright. Thank you, Joe, always appreciate the time, my friend.

Dr. Congeni: Have a good time out there in Arizona, Ray, and we’ll see you when you get back to town.

Horner: You got it.

About Dr. Joe Congeni - Director of Sports Medicine

Dr. Joe Congeni is the Director, Sports Medicine; Clinical Co-Director, Center for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at Akron Children's Hospital. For the past 25 years, Dr. Congeni has been the “go to” source for national and local media looking for information about pediatric sports medicine.