Now accepting Telehealth appointments. Schedule a virtual visit.

Sports-Related Neck Injuries


Sports put one at risk of getting a minor injury to a life threatening injury. Life threatening injuries would include neck fractures or cervical spinal cord injuries. A broken neck is a major injury but the patient usually will completely recover. A neck fracture could lead to an injury of the spinal cord which could cause some paralysis or death.

With better gear, increased awareness, and better coaching, there are much less injuries in sports now. Many injuries still occur in contact and non contact sports.

Cervical injuries resulting from sport participation can be divided into the following syndromes:

  • Cervical fractures and dislocations
  • Nerve root or brachial plexus injuries
  • Intervertebral disc lesions
  • Cervical stenosis
  • Acute cervical sprains or strains including whiplash injury
  • Transient quadriplegia

The spine is part of the axial skeleton and works to support our body structurally. The cervical portion of the spine is the neck region. This consists of C1 to C7 vertebrae which are all separated by intervertebral discs. These discs give the spine motion and work to suburb shock. The spine supports us to move around, bend, and twist. The spinal cord is a very vulnerable nervous tissue. The spinal cord connects the brain to the body and it is located in the cervical spine, protected by vertebral structures.

The cervical spine works to support the weight of the head and to give flexibility. The C1 and C2 vertebrae allow for the movement of our head. These two vertebrae connect to the skull. The C1 vertebrae is known as the atlas. It allows for the nodding movement of the head by articulating along the atlanto occipital joint. The C2 vertebrae is known as the axis. The C2 vertebrae allows for the side to side motion of the head by pivoting along the atlantoaxial joint. 

Cervical Fractures and Dislocation

When one or more cervical bones in the neck are broken is a cervical fracture. A cervical dislocation refers to an injury to a neck ligament that has made multiple cervical vertebrae to separate unusually from one another.

Sudden and traumatic twisting to the neck can cause a neck fracture. A severe blow to the head or neck area can also cause a neck fracture. Sports with more physical contact have a greater risk of cervical fractures. This includes football, hockey, wrestling, rugby. Gymnastics, a noncontact sport, has high risk for cervical fractures. Spearing in football or rugby could cause a cervical fracture. The cervical spine works to absorb the energy from a collision by dissipating forces through the muscles, intervertebral discs, and the bones on the C-spine curve. When the neck is in a vulnerable position, the energy creates an unusual axial load on the support structures. This is how a ligament or a bone could get injured. Injuries to the cervical spine can be subluxations or dislocations with or without neurologic symptoms.

Do not move a person with a neck injury without medical officials. Medical care should be immediately summoned. Without proper stability of the spine, more damage could be made. 


  • Neck pain
  • Stiffness to the neck
  • Pain from neck that reaches arms or shoulders
  • Swelling or bruising
  • Tenderness
  • Decreased sensation in body
  • Paralysis
  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble breathing


The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) pays attention to product-related injuries through its National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). There are about 23,720 neck fractures that were cared for at American hospital emergency rooms in 2018. Of the 23,720 neck fractures there were 3194 due to sports incidents in 2018. The number of neck injuries could actually be higher. From 2000 to 2015, the number of sport related cervical fractures has become 30% higher because of a 300% increase in cycling injuries. It was shown that males cases were 1.7 times greater for neck sprains and 3.6 times greater for fractures compared to females. The main cause of cervical fractures in females was from horseback riding while for males it was cycling.

Source: US Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), 2018.

Cervical Spinal Cord Injury

A major neck injury can affect part or the spinal cord. Depending on the location of the injury on the spinal cord, symptoms can vary. The closer an injury is to the brain, there is a greater chance of affecting body movements or sense of feeling. Of all spinal cord injuries, one to the cervical spinal cord is typically the most severe. This can lead to quadriplegia or tetraplegia. Depending on the injury, the cervical spinal cord can be complete or incomplete.


When a spinal cord injury (SCI) is complete, there will be a complete loss of motor and sensory functions to all levels below the injury. Half of spinal cord injuries are complete and will affect both sides of the body. The spinal cord will rarely ever be cut or completely transected.


An incomplete spinal cord injury can leave some function below the level of injury. One side of the body may be more functional than the other.


There are incomplete and complete spinal concussions. The spinal cord dysfunction is usually transient and can resolve around one or two days. Football players are at high risk of spinal concussions and spinal cord contusions. Spinal concussions can cause some neurological symptoms that include numbness, tingling, shocking sensations, and burning in the extremities.


  • Severe pain in neck, head, or back
  • Tingling or sensation loss in hands, fingers, feet, toes
  • Partial or complete loss of control of body parts
  • Urinary or bowel urgency
  • Trouble with balance or walking
  • Unusual band-like feelings in the thorax:pain or pressure
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abnormal lumps on spine or head


The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center and the University of Alabama tracks statistics regarding spinal cord injuries


  • Diving: 1,772 males, 160 females = 1932
  • Bicycling: 496 males, 68 females = 564
  • All Terrain-Vehicle/All Terrain-Cycle (ATV/ATC): 218 males, 37 females = 255
  • Football: 153 males = 153
  • Snow Skiing: 170 males, 19 females = 189
  • Horseback Riding: 76 males, 77 females = 153
  • Winter Sports: 135 males, 30 females = 165
  • Other Sports: 126 males, 29 females = 155
  • Surfing (including body surfing): 140 males, 6 females = 146
  • Wrestling: 94 males, 2 females = 96
  • Trampoline: 68 males, 8 females = 76
  • Gymnastics: 38 males, 21 females = 59
  • Snowmobiles: 48 males, 9 females = 57
  • Field Sports: 44 males, 2 female = 46
  • Hang Gliding: 40 males, 2 females = 42
  • Baseball: 23 males, 1 female = 24
  • Basketball: 15 males = 15
  • Skateboard = 8 males, 1 female = 9
  • Track and field: 6 males = 6


  • 1% of all SCI are related to sports
  • Of the 33,406 reported SCIs, a combined total of 3,367 were sports-related
  • 3,003 cases occurred in males while 364 cases occurred in females
  • 9% of all sports-related SCIs resulted in tetraplegia


  • Ages 0-15: 24.1%
  • Ages 16-30: 14.2%
  • Ages 31-45: 7.3%
  • Ages 46-60: 4.5%
  • Ages 61-75: 2.8%
  • Ages 76-98: 0.9%

Source: The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, University of Alabama at Birmingham, NSCISC 2018. Annual Statistical Report and Facts at a Glance, January 2019.


Any injury to the neck sustained during a sporting activity should be dealt with a high concern for a severe condition. Any injury to the spinal cord or to the neck is a medical emergency. An athlete should not return to playing their sport until they have been cleared by a medical official. The patient should receive a neurological exam as quickly as possible. CT scans, MRI, or an X-ray can be used.


The treatment plan will differ depending on the severity of the injury, if there is dislocation or instability, the injury to the cervical bones, and whether there is injury to the nerves or spinal cord.

Minor fractures can typically be treated with a neck collar or brace worn for six to eight weeks until the bones have healed. More severe injuries may require traction or surgery such as a spinal fusion with or without decompression.

After an injury has occured in the spinal cord, surgical decompression will be performed. The surgery will remove the tissue or bone pieces that are affecting the spinal cord. Decompression can be approached from the front or back of the body. Decompression and stabilization should be done as soon as possible following a spinal cord injury.


Cycling accidents often result in head injuries but a head and neck injury can occur often too. Of 2692 sports-related neck fractures treated in United States hospital emergency rooms in 2009, 536 were from cycling. Around 80% of deathly bicycle accidents involve motor cars among children under the age of 14.  

Source: US Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), 2009.


Of 2692 sports-related neck fractures treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2009, 268 were caused by football accidents. Acceleration of the head on the neck can cause whiplash. Deceleration of the head on the neck from a collision between players can result in flexion forces.

Cervical spine injuries occur most often in lineman and defensive football players. A cervical spine injury is estimated to happen to 10-15% of all football players. The main problem is tackling and blocking.

In the last 33 years there were 307 football players with incomplete neurological recovery due to a cervical spinal cord injury. The majority of the players were playing defense. Around 10% of cervical spinal injuries take place during the tackling phase.

Water sports

  • 47 year old male fell off board while surfing which resulted in a compression fracture at C1 and a thoracic compression fracture at T1
  • an 11 year old boy was hit while on an inner tube at a water park which resulted in a deathly neck fracture
  • A 6 year old boy hit head on concrete pool floor and fractured neck at C2 and C3
  • 32 year old male hit head on pool and fractured neck

Source: US Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), 2009.


701 E. 28th St., Suite 117
Long Beach, CA 90806
Phone: 562-270-4849
Fax: (806) 482-1659

Office Hours

Get in touch