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Spinal Injuries in Football

A Closer Look at Ryan Shazier’s Injury

By: Dr. Michael Rimlawi, Board-Certified, Fellowship-Trained spine surgeon and founder of Minimally Invasive Spine Institute in Dallas

Concussions and football are (and will continue to be) hot topics – especially in youth football. However, it’s important to note the other risks associated with the sport. Take for example the Pittsburgh’s linebacker Ryan Shazier who made a head-first tackle in Monday’s game against Cincinnati. Shazier was taken off the field, seemingly unable to move his legs at the time.

On Dec. 7, a press announcement was issued, “Last night, UPMC neurosurgeons and Pittsburgh Steelers team physicians Drs. David Okonkwo and Joseph Maroon performed spinal stabilization surgery on Ryan Shazier to address his spinal injury.”

While the exact type and extent of the injury and subsequent procedure has not been made public, from the video it appears as if Shazier hyper-extended his back. As noted by the grabbing motion to his back immediately after the hit, he may have also fractured, broken or possibly dislocated one or more bones in his lumbar spine. The injury likely centered in his lumbar spine region because he was seen moving his upper extremities immediately after the injury. If the injury extended to his cervical (neck) region, he likely wouldn’t be able to move either his arms or his legs.

When this type of injury occurs, the key concern is the stabilization of the patient’s spine. In cases where the spine is broken and unstable, even the slightest movement can cause the spine to shift, putting pressure on the spinal cord. Pressure on the spinal cord increases the risk of permanent paralysis.

One way to stabilize a spinal break is to fuse the spine together using instrumentation (also known as spinal screws and titanium rods). In laymen’s terms, let’s assume L2 is the injured area, the surgeon will fuse L1 to L3 with screws and rods to hold it in place, creating spinal stabilization. Prior to the fusion, the surgeon will examine the spinal cord for loose bone fragments that could be pressing on spinal cord nerves and remove them. This procedure is called decompression.

Will Shazier recover fully? No one can know the answer right now. His recovery is dependent upon the size and severity of the bone or tissue damage that may have impacted his spinal cord. 

It is important to note that not all spinal fractures require spinal stabilization surgery. Various non-surgical treatments are available, depending on the type of spinal fracture. For less serious spinal fractures, non-surgical treatments can include bracing, pain management, physical therapy, medication therapy, activity modification and rest.

If you would like to learn more about minimally invasive spinal procedures to treat spinal fractures, contact us today.


Michael Rimlawi

Minimally Invasive Spine Surgeon, Board Certified, Fellowship-Trained

Spine Surgeon Dr. Michael Rimlawi is director and founder of the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute’s team. Dr. Rimlawi is a board-certified, fellowship-trained spine surgeon who completed unique training in both orthopedic-spine and neurosurgery-spine at the renowned University of California San Diego. Dr. Michael Rimlawi treats all aspects of spinal disease including degenerative and traumatic conditions of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine. More than just a back doctor, he is a leader in the field of minimally invasive spine surgery and a pioneer in endoscopic laser spine surgery.

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