I see patients in my practice with conditions ranging from neck and lower back pain to spinal fractures. From one patient to the next, the injury is never the same. This is most certainly the case with spinal stenosis, a condition that I often see and treat.
Let’s start with what spinal stenosis is. It is a narrowing of the spinal canal that can occur anywhere along the length of the spine. The symptoms depend on what part of the spinal cord or nerve roots that are affected. Although spinal stenosis is more common in older patients due to the natural aging process, some people are born with a narrow spinal canal that lead to symptoms at a younger age. There are also patients who suffer from spinal stenosis because of other factors, such as trauma, which is common in athletes after sports-related injuries.
With the NFL Draft quickly approaching, there’s a lot of conversation surrounding individual players. Conversations run the gamut of athletic strengths and weaknesses to individual character and football IQ. Injuries are a hot topic, as the media always wants to find a player’s weakness. Spinal injuries are always highlighted, as they are categorized as huge disadvantages. For instance, many scouts have been focused on former University of Georgia linebacker, Jarvis Jones. Although injuries are common in football, Jones is unlike other NFL draft picks because of his condition, cervical (neck) spinal stenosis.
After a tackle during a game his freshman year of college, Jones felt his shoulders go numb (a common symptom of spinal stenosis in the neck) and was diagnosed with a neck sprain. Upon further evaluation, Jones was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and doctors at the University of Southern California would not clear him to play. His career was over. He then transferred to the University of Georgia to be closer to home and take care of his condition. Here, he was soon cleared for full activity.
Athletes like Jones are more susceptible to “stingers,” instances of weakness or numbness in the arms making it very difficult to continue playing a contact sport. Occasionally players can have temporary paralysis, after a hard impact or tackle, lasting a few seconds to several minutes. Sometimes permanent injury occurs. The diagnosis of neck stenosis is confirmed with a careful physical exam and an MRI. The prognosis depends on the severity of the stenosis and stability of the neck. As I noted in the beginning, every injury is different for each patient. Where some athletes would not return to the field, others can. Although I have never treated Jones, we can’t lose sight of the fact he is potentially at greater risk of developing more severe injuries and even permanent damage. An independent doctor cleared Jones to play for the NFL in March, with the fate of his professional football career still unknown.
For more information on spinal stenosis, please visit my website’s “Conditions” page at http://mccancemd.com/conditions/spinal-stenosis/.