Spine and axial skeleton injuries in the national football league

Nathan A. Mall, Jacob Buchowski, Lukas Zebala, Robert H. Brophy, Rick W. Wright, Matthew J. Matava

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


Background: The majority of previous literature focusing on spinal injuries in American football players is centered around catastrophic injuries; however, this may underestimate the true number of these injuries in this athletic cohort. Purpose: The goals of this study were to (1) report the incidence of spinal and axial skeleton injuries, both minor and severe, in the National Football League (NFL) over an 11-year period; (2) determine the incidence of spinal injury by injury type, anatomic location, player position, mechanism of injury, and type of exposure (practice vs game); and (3) determine the average number of practices and days missed because of injury for each injury type. Study Design: Descriptive epidemiological study. Methods: All documented injuries to the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine; pelvis; ribs; and spinal cord were retrospectively analyzed using the NFLs injury surveillance database over a period of 11 seasons from 2000 through 2010. The data 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. Results: 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%of the total injuries during this time period. Of these 2208 injuries, 987 (44.7%) occurred in the cervical spine. Time missed from play was greatest for thoracic disc herniations (189 days/injury). Other injuries that had a mean time missed greater than 30 days included (in descending order) cervical fracture (120 days/injury), cervical disc degeneration/herniation (85 days/injury), spinal cord injury (77 days/injury), lumbar disc degeneration/herniation (52 days/injury), thoracic fracture (34 days/injury), and thoracic nerve injury (30 days/injury). 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. Conclusion: Spinal and axial skeleton injuries occur frequently in the NFL and can result in significant time missed from practices and games. Tackling and blocking result in the greatest number of injuries, and players performing these activities are the most likely to sustain a spinal injury. The results of this study may be used as an impetus to formulate strategies to prevent spinal injuries in American football players.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1755-1761
Number of pages7
JournalAmerican Journal of Sports Medicine
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2012


  • NFL
  • axial skeleton
  • professional football
  • spinal cord injury
  • spine


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