Don't Miss
Subscribe to Mackie Mail and get a coupon for $10 off your next purchase of $30 or more at Mackie's local GNC franchise locations!

Optimum Performance: NFL players are prone to trauma to the spine

According to the medical dictionary, the vertebral column, also called the spinal column or spine, consists of a series of vertebrae connected by ligaments. It provides a supporting axis for the body and protects the spinal cord.  The vertebral column consists of seven cervical vertebrae in the neck, followed by 12 thoracic vertebrae that connect to the ribs, five lumbar vertebrae in the lower back, the sacrum, and the coccyx.

With the NFL full regular season just one week away, it is important to understand just how at-risk these gridiron greats are to spinal injuries. It’s no secret that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has had multiple cervical (neck) surgeries, as a result of his tenure in the NFL. A research paper — “Spine and Axial Injuries in the National Football League – reported by the U.S. Library of Medicine in August of 2012 commented that player, “Injuries to the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine; pelvis; ribs; and spinal cord were retrospectively analyzed using the NFL’s injury surveillance database over a period of 11 seasons from 2000 through 2010.”

The data, the report stated, were analyzed by the number of injuries per athlete-exposure, the anatomic location and type of injury, player position, mechanism of injury, and number of days missed per injury.”

The trauma to the spine from the physical contact experienced by NFL players was not unexpected. A total of 2208 injuries occurred to the spine or axial skeleton over an 11-season interval in the NFL, with a mean loss of 25.7 days per injury. This represented 7 percent of the total injuries during this time period. Of these 2,208 injuries, 987 (44.7 percent) occurred in the cervical spine.

Time missed from play was greatest for thoracic disc herniations (189 days/injury). It appears that offensive linemen were the most likely to suffer a spinal injury, followed by defensive backs, defensive linemen, and linebackers. Blocking and tackling were the 2 most frequent injury mechanisms reported.

According to Dr. Gerry Provance, medical director of the Provance Sports and Family Chiropractic Center in Metairie, who has treated NFL players (both active and retired) for thirty-two years, “Blocking can result in greater potential for injury to the lumbar (low back) spine, while being tackled has the potential to create more cervical (neck) trauma.” Notes Provance, “The greater the movement (hypermobility) within a spinal joint, the easier it is to create an injury in that joint.”  Too much torsion – the action of twisting or the state of being twisted – in an area of a spinal joint, which has the capacity to move in six different directions, can create the potential for trouble. “If one side of a joint is moving too much”, says Provance, “Then the other side is not moving enough (restricted).” As such, “The greater stress will be on the joint in the direction that is moving too much – which can occur during tackling and blocking, or any other force that is applied to this joint.”

The real question should be “was the human body made to tolerate such trauma to the spine associated with high level contact, such as in the NFL?” Provance’s answer is “No, because bigger, faster, stronger has made the impact (in pro football) much greater than ever, except when joints are moving normally in all six different directions.”  In order to correct the restriction of a joint that is not moving enough, Provance says, “You must apply an impulse to the joint in the direction of the restriction by manual adjustment (manipulation). Needless to say, we will continue see more players go down as a result of trauma to the spine. Rest assured there always will be someone to take that injured athletes place, because the game and the commercials must go on.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams, has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s Fitness and Wellness expert. Contact him at