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The causes and effects of neck and spinal cord injuries

Andrew Quarless talks to teammate Jermichael Finley after the injury. Mark Hoffman/Journal Sentinel

Andrew Quarless talks to teammate Jermichael Finley after the injury. Mark Hoffman/Journal Sentinel

During last weekend’s Cleveland Browns game, Green Bay Packers’ tight end Jermichael Finley suffered a scary neck injury in the second half.

Luckily, his spinal cord was only bruised and not severed, which would have caused permanent damage and paralysis.

Today, I had the chance to speak with WAKR host Ray Horner about this serious injury. Though it’s reported he will be released from the hospital today, I think it’s going to be a long time before we see him on the field again — if at all.

Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion.

0:00

HORNER: That injury in the Browns/Green Bay game, Jermichael Finley, the fine tight end of the Packers, went down after the hit in the second half. And, uh, I guess the word is he may be released from a hospital today, but it doesn’t look like he’s playing football anytime soon.

Let’s bring in Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital. Joe, about this injury itself and Mr. Finley, get into it a little bit for me. How’s he able to get released and [what is] the significance of this injury?

DR. CONGENI: Yeah, I think, Ray, one of the things that you hear in the news coming out, first of all, is really very good news. It seems like he probably dodged a bullet. It’s a [neck] injury that is very concerning though about football. It occasionally occurs in other sports.

People confuse it with stingers and burners. Stinger/burner injury, I talked about that a few weeks ago, is a real common football injury where the nerves on one side of the body that go down in the arm get pinched and stretched and cause symptoms on one side.

This is a more serious injury to the spinal cord. What happens is the spinal cord gets pinched and bruised and swollen in this type of injury — [the one] like Jermichael Finley had.

Dr. Joe Congeni

Dr. Joe Congeni

But, when you’re down on the field as a sports medicine personnel, as a doctor or trainer, you don’t know if the spinal cord is torn, ruptured or just badly bruised because people lose strength and feeling in the rest of their body below the spinal cord injury. So, it’s very scary.

When you’re down there, you don’t know if it’s short-term transient or if it’s a permanent injury.

So, of course, you have to take all the precautions of getting out a spine board and not moving the spine because if it’s only partially damaged and you move that athlete around and they sever the spinal cord or tear it completely, then that person is paralyzed for the rest of their life.

What they found out with Jermichael Finley is that his spinal cord was badly bruised and pinched. [During his stay] in the hospital, 24 hours later, the spinal cord and the function of the spine nerves started to come back.

So, you knew that his was badly bruised, and apparently the MRI showed it was badly bruised and not torn.

But, this happens, Ray, for three reasons.

One is people who have played football for a long time get narrowing and spurring and arthritis in their neck from tackling a lot — it’s called spear tackler’s spine. That can narrow the spine a little and lead to this type of injury.

In younger athletes, we wouldn’t normally see the arthritis part. So, in younger athletes, if they get this pinched or bruised spinal cord, it’s usually because they were born with a narrowing [of the spine] or born with an abnormality in the neck vertebrae that put them at risk.

Or, the third reason is you could have a disc injury that could put the spine at risk [for] bruising and injury.

The problem is if you have any of these things that narrow the spine and you go back to playing a sport like football, you run the risk that next time it may not just be a bruise of the spine. It could end up being where you actually tear or sever the spine and have permanent damage. So, it’s a really big deal.

I heard even Bill Belichick, of all people, weighing in on the fact that, you know, with this kind of injury you don’t want to go to a worse injury next time. Probably, some time off is needed.

I think it’s gonna be a long time before we see Jermichael Finley back playing.

HORNER: Is this a case by case on how the body reacts or are there guidelines to follow, Joe?

DR. CONGENI: Uh, it is case by case and that’s what makes it a little controversial. Several years ago when they studied neck injuries from the ‘70s to the ‘80s, [they found] it isn’t an absolute contraindication that if you get one of these, you’re done with your career.

There are some things that are absolute contraindication, but this is not one of them. It’s case by case. So, if he totally recovers all nerve function, there’s [nothing that says] definitively [he can’t] play anymore.

However, if there is, and they know this, we don’t know, significant narrowing like that arthritis thing that I was talking about, then it really becomes one of those tough decisions of hey, there’s really a chance this could happen again. And you start looking at the risk/benefit ratio of whether it is worth playing this game.

HORNER: Alright, Joe. Good information. Thanks for the visit as always. We’ll catch up with you next week.

DR. CONGENI: Okay. Have a great week, Ray.

HORNER: You too. Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital, joining us.

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.