The Impact of a Cervical Spine Diagnosis on the Careers of National Football League Athletes

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Abstract

Study Design.

Cohort study.

Objective.

To determine the effect of cervical spine pathology on athletes entering the National Football League.

Summary of Background Data.

The association of symptomatic cervical spine pathology with American football athletes has been described; however, it is unknown how preexisting cervical spine pathology affects career performance of a National Football League player.

Methods.

The medical evaluations and imaging reports of American football athletes from 2003 to 2011 during the combine were evaluated. Athletes with a cervical spine diagnosis were matched to controls and career statistics were compiled.

Results.

Of a total of 2965 evaluated athletes, 143 players met the inclusion criteria. Athletes who attended the National Football League combine without a cervical spine diagnosis were more likely to be drafted than those with a diagnosis (P = 0.001). Players with a cervical spine diagnosis had a decreased total games played (P = 0.01). There was no difference in the number of games started (P = 0.08) or performance score (P = 0.38). In 10 athletes with a sagittal canal diameter of less than 10 mm, there was no difference in years, games played, games started, or performance score (P > 0.24). No neurological injury occurred during their careers. In 7 players who were drafted with a history of cervical spine surgery (4 anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, 2 foraminotomy, and 1 suboccipital craniectomy with a C1 laminectomy), there was no difference in career longevity or performance when compared with matched controls.

Conclusion.

This study suggests that athletes with preexisting cervical spine pathology were less likely to be drafted than controls. Players with preexisting cervical spine pathology demonstrated a shorter career than those without; however, statistically based performance and numbers of games started were not different. Players with cervical spinal stenosis and those with a history of previous surgery demonstrated no difference in performance-based outcomes and no reports of neurological injury during their careers.

Conclusion.

Level of Evidence: 3

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