neck, ribs and back: case reports from the NFL

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Every Sunday, the NFL can teach us about the philosophy of treating patients. While textbooks give doctors and nurses, the background to understand anatomy, physiology and disease processes, case reports help teach how to care for patients. Case reports are a quick review of specific topic regarding a patient’s presentation, diagnosis or treatment. Medicine is learned through experience, and this week it is provided by Cliff Avril’s neck, Ty Montgomery’s ribs and Derek Carr’s back.

Neck injury

Cliff Avril, of the Seattle Seahawks, fell awkwardly while making a tackle and then sat on the ground, vigorously shaking both hands. The announcers suggested that he might have a stinger, an electric shock that radiates down the arm from the shoulder. It often arises from irritation to the brachial plexus, the complex of nerves that is the junction box of nerves located in the (axilla)armpit of the neck to those in the arm. It sometimes can arise from a narrowed spinal canal (spinal stenosis). But stingers are usually one-sided and Mr. Avril was shaking both hands. Stinger on both sides? Or perhaps the injury wasn’t from the brachial plexus but rather in the spinal cord.

Now it’s time to decide how to image the neck. Plain x-rays might be alright but they just look at bone and in muscular people, it’s hard to see all seven vertebrae of the neck. CT is great for looking at bone, and if there is an injury or narrowing, one can infer what might be happening inside the spinal cord itself. In trauma, CT tends to be the way to go to get the best views of the bony anatomy. But x-ray and CT can be normal and a spinal cord injury may still exist; this is SCIWORA (spinal cord injury without radiographic abnormality). For patients with neurologic concerns, an MRI may be needed.

Teaching point: the patient’s condition and physical exam determines the best test to order.

Chest wall injury

The Green Bay Packers running back, Ty Montgomery, took a hit to his right ribs and immediately was taken out of the game. Subsequently, he was found to have rib fractures. The test of choice for him was a plain chest x-ray, looking for lung contusion (bruising) or collapse (pneumothorax). If broken ribs are seen…great…but ordering numerous rib views does not help in the treatment of the patient.

Whether ribs are broken or bruised doesn’t really matter. Once the chest wall has been damaged, the breathing mechanism has been compromised and it’s all about pain control. It’s difficult to rest ribs because 24-14 times a minute, a breath causes the injured area to become irritated. For that reason, the recovery time frame is measured in weeks, not days and the goal of therapy is to make certain deep breaths occur, even though they hurt. The major complication to fear is pneumonia, when areas of the lung do not expand and aerate, making them prime targets for infection. Another issue has to do with damage to the abdomen. The lower ribs protect the spleen on the left and the liver on the right. Physical exam needs to include the upper abdomen to make certain there is no concern for organ damage. If there is a CT is the next step.

Teaching point: Don’t worry about looking for broken ribs. Make certain that the organs underneath, the lungs, liver and spleen, are normal.

Back injury

Derek Carr, the Oakland Raider quarterback was hit in the lower back and came off the field with spasms. Subsequent x-rays found a fracture of the transverse process of the lumbar spine. This is an area that does not involve the spinal cord or the nerves that come out of the back; this is where the major muscles of the back attach to help with movement. But this is part of the back that is well protected by those muscles and it takes significant force to fracture a transverse process.

Plain x-rays can make the diagnosis and there can be just one process fractured because of a direct blow, or multiple may be fractured, if the psoas muscle goes into spasm and the pull of the muscle is stronger than the integrity of the bone. The treatment for Mr. Carr is time to heal the injury and his return to play depends upon pain tolerance and the ability to perform on the field.

It takes significant force to break a transverse process (remember that break, crack, fracture all mean the same thing), and it seems to reason that there can be associated other injuries. Studies suggest that more than 10% of patients with transverse process fractures have other lumbar spine injuries and CT may be a reasonable test to look for other bony injuries. As well, in major trauma, not necessarily Mr. Carr’s football injury but think car accidents, almost 50% of those with transverse process fractures had abdominal organ injuries.

Teaching point: Minor appearing injuries can have major associated hidden injuries. Look for them when assessing the patient.

Three case reports, Does it makes watching NFL games all weekend educational television?

 

 

 

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concussions; what we don’t know

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Carson Palmer: concussion

Cam Newton- concussion

Sydney Crosby: concussion

NHL: new concussion screening policy.

Donald Trump- NFL need to toughen up; concussions around so bad.

And then there’s the knowledge gap.

“I don’t know.” Not the best thing to hear from your doctor after you’ve been examined. The expectation is that you go to the doc, get examined, you’re told what’s wrong, how you’re going to be fixed and when you’ll get better. That drill breaks down when the doc says “I don’t know”. Welcome to world of concussion.

Players and fans appreciate a potential head injury may occur with every play, but nothing is worse for the fan when the commentator announces that your favorite player is being evaluated for a concussion or in the concussion protocol. Those words are probably worse for the player. Whether it’s the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA or MLS, the concussion protocol usually means that the player is gone for the game and perhaps, at least another week. The good news is that it may protect athletes after a concussion (regardless of Trump’s medical expertise), but the bad news is that nobody knows exactly how long to protect an athlete. Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, Sydney Crosby and the many other players who get hit in the head every week need to be protected, sometimes even from themselves, but how that’s done is up for debate.

Diagnosis

Concussion diagnosis is defined as brain injury and it’s easy to diagnose easy if the athlete is knocked unconscious, has visible signs of confusion or behavior changes. But the Zurich consensus on concussion in sports doesn’t require head trauma to make the diagnosis. Instead, the diagnosis only requires the head to be shaken, and just one symptom. That symptom might be as non-specific as not feeling right, being tired and fatigued, or becoming more emotional or irritable. There is no finding on physical exam, brain imaging (CT/MRI) or psychologic testing that can confirm or rule out the diagnosis. It is all based on self-reported symptoms.

Treatment

Concussion treatment is not necessarily evidence based. We don’t know how long it takes for the brain to heal after being concussed and the assessment decisions to allow sport participation often depend upon the athlete self-reporting symptoms and healing. And since many elite athletes are motivated to play, there are no tests available to confirm that the athlete is telling the truth and the brain is actually better. Anecdotes exist that suggest some athletes try to do poorly on preseason brain testing, so that if a concussion occurs, they can “pass” a test that compare brain performance before and after the injury. They set the bar low early to be able to clear it later.

Return to Play

The protocols that allow return to play protocol are arbitrary and while most concussion may resolve within 7-10 days, there is no objective test to know whether complete healing of the brain has occurred. According to the Zurich consensus, after a concussion, the athlete moves from one activity level to the next, as long as they are symptom free. If symptoms occur, then the progression through the protocol is delayed:

  • Day 1     No activity
  • Day 2     Walking, swimming or stat8ionary bike to increase the heart rate but no too much (just 70% of max)
  • Day 3     Sport specific exercise but no head impact activities, like heading a ball in soccer, or leading with the head or tackle in football
  • Day 4     Noncontact training drills that require increase information processing of the brian like passing drills in football or hockey
  • Day 5     If medically cleared, full contact practice
  • Day 6     Return to play

The long term effects of a concussion are still unknown. Does it take just one? Are lots of “small” concussions as ominous as one “big’ concussion? Can the effects of concussion be reversed?

In the real world of concussion, there is a lot of “I don’t know”. While the NFL and the NHL have empowered referees to pull players out of the game and have independent spotters monitoring replay video, it’s important to remember that concussion symptoms can be delayed. The Zurich consensus states it plainly, “…that the appearance of symptoms or cognitive deficit might be delayed several hours following a concussive episode and that concussion should be seen as an evolving injury in the acute stage.”

The logical application should be that if a player is pulled out of a game for fear of concussion, regardless of the sideline testing result, that player should be done for the day, since the sideline medical crew “won’t know” if symptoms will progress over time and in medicine, erring on the side of caution is never a bad thing.

But logic and pro sports don’t always go hand in hand. What we see on any given Sunday tends to filter down to the college, high school and even middle school levels. Pro athletes get paid to abuse their body and should know the inherent risks of their profession. Amateurs are trying to grab the brass ring to compete at the highest level of their sport. Most won’t get there and it’s the medical and coaching communities’ responsibility to protect younger, more fragile brains from long term damage. The problem is that we don’t just don’t know how.

 

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