Last Friday night Houston Texas receiver Harry Williams sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI) during a game against the Dallas Cowboys leaving him temporarily paralyzed. Monday he underwent surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his spinal column, a procedure that will hopefully allow him to lead a normal life, but won’t put him back in the game.
Williams was only 26, an age that would have given him years more on the field had this accident not happened. An estimated 14 percent of SCIs are a direct result of a sports related injury. Considering that there is about ten thousand new SCIs a year, this is a fairly significant number.
Last year Kevin Everett with the Buffalo Bills football team was paralyzed during a game. He has since recovered his ability to move his arms and legs, but he will never play football again. His recovery from paralysis, along with Williams’, is a rare occurrence as most who experience paralysis stay paralyzed.
There are 31 pairs of nerves that spread out from the spinal cord into the arms, chest, legs and abdomen. The nerves that are in charge of upper body movement are in the upper portion of the spine, while the ones that control the legs are in the lower area. Not only are these nerves responsible for limb movement, they also control basic functions such as breathing and heart beat.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research has reported that in 2006 there were 16 indirect deaths and only one fatality in football, and the death was caused by a SCI. In 2007 there were eight cervical cord injuries with incomplete recoveries. Six of these were at the high school level. The majority of the SCIs occurred in games with only two happening during practice.
Considering that in 2007 there were 1,800,000 football players, these statistics aren’t painting too bleak of a picture. While each injury or fatality is a reason for concern, innovative safety gear has greatly decreased the chance of experiencing an unrecoverable injury. We have neurosurgeons such as Richard C. Schneider to thank for the decrease in permanent spine and head injuries. He helped to develop the football helmets our players currently use which have directly influenced this decrease as documented in the National Football Head and Neck Injury Register.
As researchers come up with better and more intuitive protective gear, we will continue to see these traumatic injuries decrease. In the meantime, those who have had their lives irrevocably changed from a brain or spinal cord injury deserve our continued support.