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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fracture times three: the shoulder, the back and the ankle

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In the past few days, what we’ve learned from football is that not all fractures are created equally. From Nick Foles’ collarbone to Laquon Treadwell’s ankle and Tony Romo’s back, all broken bones are not the same and the approach to treatment is tailored to not only the bone but also to where in the bone the damage has occurred and what surrounding structures are damaged. Perhaps the first lesson is a reminder that broken, fractured, cracked all mean the same thing. One word does not make an injury more or less significant. It’s uncomfortable to watch the replay of an injury but those slow motion images can help explain the mechanism of injury and the stress that is put on the skeleton of the body.

Eagle quarterback Nick Foles was sacked and as he was being tackled and taken to the ground, lands directly on the point of his shoulder. This force of the fall is transmitted to the clavicle or collarbone and can cause the fracture or a separated shoulder where the AC (acromio- clavicular) joint is torn. The damage depends upon which structure cannot withstand the force applied. For Mr. Foles, his collarbone injury will be allowed to heal without surgery since the bone is not displaced, meaning that it aligns reasonably well and nature will fix it over time. That will take weeks and cannot be rushed. Last year, Aaron Rodgers same injury took a little less than two months to recover and return to play.

ac joint

For Dallas’ Tony Romo, a knee to the back caused the psoas muscle to go into spasm. The force of that spasm avulsed or tore off the transverse processes of two vertebrae in his lumbar spine. Muscles and tendons attach to bone to help support and move the body. In Mr. Romo’s case, the muscle attachments were stronger than bone and when the injury occurred, the tendon didn’t tear which would be a strain, instead, the bone tore away. The purpose of eh back, aside from allowing the body to be erect, is to protect the spinal cord and when the words broken vertebrae are spoken, the fear is that there is damage to the cord or the nerves. In this situation, the injury is far removed anatomically and functionally from the spine canal and while painful, is treated like a contusion or bruise. Return to play happens when the muscle spasm and pain can be control to allow the player to run, twist and bend over.

psoasTP fracture

Psoas muscle insertion                                  Transverse process fractures



Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell is not as lucky. A twisting injury to his leg cause a fracture dislocation of the ankle and is a reminder that the body cannot easily tolerate a torsion or twisting force. As he reached for the end zone, Mr. Treadwell’s lower leg was caught up in the pile. Not only did his fibula fracture but the ligaments that held his ankle stable were torn (a sprain). The tibia and fibula that connect the knee to the ankle form a circle and like trying to breaking a pretzel in just one place, a twist will always have two injury sites. In the ankle, it is either two bones or one bone and a ligament that give way. Either way, the stability of the ankle joint is compromised and the muscles that cross the joint cause it to dislocate. In most cases, surgery is required to stabilize the bone and fix the ligament to keep everything in place to allow healing to occur.

ankle ankle dislocation


Three fractures, three different mechanisms of injury, three different treatments and three different healing times. It’s a reminder that the body does a good job of self-healing but sometimes it needs a little help. The bottom line is that like in real estate, the key to injury diagnosis, treatment and outcome has to do with location. Understanding the mechanism and anatomy can help decide what treatment will best help Mother Nature repair the body.

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