Cervical spine injury typically occur in football as a result of axial loading that stems from head-first contact and spearing tackle moves.
“Football leagues from the NFL to local youth leagues have gone to great lengths to try and protect the athlete,” says Bryan L. Reuss, M.D., a double board-certified orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Orlando Orthopaedic Center. “And one of the ways to do that is to eliminate the head-first tackling or spearing.”
A spearing tackle occurs when football players use their torso like a spear; they lunge head first at their opponent, arms out to the side. Spearing can be utilized by players on both offense and defense.
In 1976, due to an increasing fatality rate among football players suffering from closed head injuries in the 1960s and early 70s, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA) revised their football rules to widen the scope of a spearing tackle. The definition was changed to include “any intentional use of the helmet as the initial point of contact against an opponent.”
What is Axial Loading?
Axial loading is the term used to define a large compressive force applied to the crown of the head. Axial loading of the cervical spine from head-down contact is the main factor behind spinal cord injuries. In football and other contact sports, the cervical spine can regularly be exposed to hazardous forces from an impact. Most of the time, these forces are mitigated by the contractions and undulations of the cervical paravertebral muscles and intervertebral discs.
However, when the neck is flexed and contact is initiated through the top of the helmet and the head, the cervical spine loses its pliability and absorptive capacity so that the forces are violently transmitted throughout its axis. This results in considerable compression between the cervical and thoracic spine, which can eventually lead to spinal fracture and dislocation.
“First and foremost spearing tackles can create a serious cervical spine injury resulting in paralysis,” says Dr. Reuss. “It also can cause concussions; and it can injure both the athlete delivering or receiving the blow.”
Prevention of Spearing Tackle Injuries
Proper technique and instruction are critical to preventing cervical spine injury. Coaches and trainers in contact sports such as football, hockey, and wrestling can educate players and demonstrate efficient and safe contact methods to athletes. Officials typically penalize players when they utilize the spearing tackle method in games as well.
Football coaches, in particular, have a key role to play in teaching correct blocking and tackling positioning and technique to avoid direct contact with the head. Keeping the head up and initiating contact with the shoulder or chest decreases the risk of cervical spine injuries.
Continued enforcement of league rules regarding spearing can further limit the incidence of spinal and head trauma.
“In an effort to avoid those injuries which are quite devastating,” says Dr. Reuss, “most football leagues are now preventing or eliminating the effects of spear tackling.”