Whether you’re a casual fan or a fantasy football junkie, having a working knowledge of the most common national football league injuries can help you understand what is happening on and off the field and anticipate player recovery time. Here is an overview of some of the most common injuries from head to toe:
Concussions can occur when a player sustains a direct blow to the head or when a blow to the body makes the head move rapidly back and forth. Concussions are considered traumatic brain injuries and every concussion injures the brain to some extent. Symptoms may be subtle or not immediately apparent, so it can be difficult to diagnose a concussion. Common symptoms include:
Temporary loss of consciousness
Amnesia surrounding the traumatic event
Ringing in the ears
Delayed response to questions
Concentration and memory complaints
Sensitivity to light and noise
Disorders of taste and smell
Players who may have a concussion should not participate until they have been properly evaluated. Any player who sustains a concussion must rest until all symptoms have resolved because the brain needs time to rest and heal. Untreated concussions can lead to permanent brain damage, especially if the player is subjected to additional head trauma. In short, an NFL player who may have a concussion is likely to be out for the remainder of the game until a thorough evaluation can be completed and a player with a confirmed concussion is likely to miss several games.
Concussions in the NFL have been a hot topic for many years, but a recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University has shed new light on the severity of the issue. According to researchers, 96% of all NFL players tested have the degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is believed to stem from repetitive trauma to the head and can lead to a variety of conditions such as memory loss, depression and dementia. The new research reveals startling information about the seemingly inevitable link between football and serious brain damage, so expect the league to respond with new rules and regulations aimed at protecting players.
A blow to the neck or shoulder can cause a burner or stinger injury. Burners and stingers are nerve injuries that affect the nerves of the upper arm, ultimately causing burning or stinging sensations that spread from the shoulder to the hand. Players often report pain that feels like a jolt of lightning running down the arm and can experience weakness or numbness in the affected limb. If a player has a stinger or burner, he should be removed from the game until all symptoms have resolved. Unfortunately, stingers and burners tend to recur, so athletes might be sidelined quite a bit.
Dislocation: A shoulder dislocation occurs when the upper portion of the arm bone is forced out of the shoulder socket. According to the Mayo Clinic, the shoulder joint is the most frequently dislocated joint of the body and can dislocate forward, backward or downward, completely or partially. Dislocations can be caused by hits or falls and quarterbacks are particularly susceptible. In fact, shoulder injuries are the most common injuries sustained by quarterbacks. If a player has a dislocated shoulder, the joint may be visibly deformed or out of place and the player may complain of pain, weakness, numbness, swelling, or tingling. A dislocated shoulder can take 4-12 months to heal, although healing time is largely dependent upon related complications such as tears and tissue injuries.
AC (acromioclavicular) joint injury/Shoulder Separation: The AC joint is located between the shoulder-blade and collar-bone. When the ligaments that connect the shoulder-blade and collar-bone are stretched or torn, players experience pain, swelling, weakness, and limited range of motion. A minor separation will heal with a few weeks of rest, ice, and physical therapy. More severe separations might require surgery to repair and re-position the damaged ligaments.
Herniated Disc: Herniated discs have plagued some of the NFL’s brightest stars, including Tony Romo and Peyton Manning. Spinal discs are situated between the vertebrae, acting as mini shock absorbers for the bones surrounding them. The discs have a thick outer ring made of cartilage and a soft, jelly-like center. Repetitive motion or trauma can cause the outer ring to weaken, allowing the soft center portion of the disc to herniate. A herniated disk can irritate nearby nerves, resulting in pain, numbness or weakness in an extremity.
Players should not play through the pain associated with a herniated disc. Rest, ice, muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatory medications, and steroid injections can often alleviate the symptoms and promote healing. In more severe cases, surgery is required to treat the problem by removing the herniated disc. These surgeries have high success rates and athletes can generally return to play without lingering complications. Peyton Manning had surgery to repair a cervical herniated disc and has returned to the game with great success!
Spinal Cord Contusion: Spinal cord contusions are kind of like concussions of the spine. Trauma to the spine can cause the spinal cord to become bruised and swollen, resulting in neurological symptoms that range from pain and weakness to paralysis. Players must stop playing while the injury heals to avoid causing addition damage. In some cases, spinal cord contusions are career-ending, either because players have sustained permanent damage or because the injury puts them at an increased risk of future damage. As an example, DeVonte Holloman of the Dallas Cowboys had to retire in 2014 at the age of 23 because of a bruised spinal cord which put him at an increased risk for future paralysis.
In football, the arms and hands are not covered by any sort of protective padding and are consequently vulnerable to injuries including sprains, fractures, and dislocations. According to a study out of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, offensive and defensive linemen are the most likely players to sustain hand injuries. About 80% of hand injuries involve broken fingers, but finger sprains, jams, and dislocations are also common injuries. Linemen also sustain wrist, forearm, and elbow injuries more often than other players. While injuries to the hand and fingers can often be played through and don’t typically cost the player much game time, injuries to the wrist, forearm, and elbow can be more troublesome and sideline a player for longer periods of time.
Hip Pointer: A hip pointer is a contusion to the iliac crest, the surrounding soft-tissue structures, or the greater trochanter of the femur bone. This injury is typically caused by a direct hit or a fall. Players will complain of pain localized to the hip and may have bruising, swelling, and a limited range of motion. Hip pointers can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to heal, depending upon the severity of the case. Rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medications, and compression can help with initial pain relief. When motion and weight-bearing are tolerated, players can begin physical therapy and work toward resuming play.
Hamstring Strain: Football players are at an increased risk for hamstring injuries because they do a lot of sprinting with sudden starts and stops. These bursts of activity can strain the muscles that make up the hamstrings, causing them to stretch beyond their limits or even tear. Players most often notice a sharp, sudden pain in the back of the thigh, occasionally accompanied by a popping or tearing sensation. Bruising, swelling, tenderness, and weakness may also be present. Rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medications, and compression are all important in the treatment of hamstring injuries. In fact, most hamstring injuries are resolved within a few weeks with these measures alone. More serious tears may require surgery to repair the muscles.
Ligament Injuries: There are four ligaments in the knee: the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the lateral collateral ligament (LCL), and the medial collateral ligament (MCL). All of these ligaments work to connect the bones of the upper leg to the bones of the lower leg and all are susceptible to injury in football players. When one (or more) of these ligaments tear, players usually notice a distinct popping sound accompanied by severe pain, swelling, and weakness.
ACL and PCL injuries just about always require surgery to reconstruct the torn ligament because these ligaments are not good at healing themselves. Expect players to miss the rest of the season as they undergo surgery and then several months of physical therapy.
MCL injuries usually result from blows to the outside of the knee joint, causing the ligament to stretch or tear. Rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications are generally sufficient for treating MCL tears because this ligament is fairly good at self-healing. Surgery isn’t usually required unless the tear is severe and other parts of the knee such as the ACL or meniscus are involved. LCL injuries are fairly rare, as they tend to result from blows to the inside of the knee joint.
Meniscus Injuries: Each knee has two menisci – small, C-shaped pieces of cartilage that serve as a cushion between the bones of the shin and thigh. These menisci can tear if the knee is rotated too forcefully, especially if the joint is bearing weight when the twisting occurs. Pain, swelling, and stiffness are all symptoms of a torn meniscus. Additionally, players might feel like the injured knee is locked in place. Minor injuries can be treated with rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications, but severe tears require surgery and physical therapy.
According to an analysis by The Washington Post, lower-leg, ankle, and foot injuries are the most common injuries sustained by all positions except the quarterback.
Sprained Ankle: The ligaments that hold the ankle in position are flexible and stretch within limits during regular use. When the ligaments are stretched too far during an aggressive twist, roll, or turn of the foot, a sprain occurs. Pain and swelling frequently accompany a sprained ankle and a player may complain of joint instability if the sprain is severe. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation along with anti-inflammatory medications are usually all that is needed to treat a sprained ankle. Players should rest until the pain and swelling are resolved because playing on an ankle that has not completely healed increases the likelihood of re-injury and chronic sprains.
Turf Toe: Although the name may sound kind of silly and suggest that the injury is rather inconsequential, turf toe is actually a painful condition that can sideline a player for several weeks. Turf toe is essentially a sprain of the big toe and occurs when the digit is hyperextended. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons explains that sprains of the big toe became especially prevalent in football players after artificial turf became the standard playing surface – hence the term “turf toe.” Artificial turf is a harder surface than grass and does not give as much when players push off into a sprint. As with most sprains, a regiment of rest, ice, compression, is the gold standard of treatment and anti-inflammatory medications can ease the pain and swelling. Players might be able to play through turf toe if the sprain is not too severe, but the toe may need to be taped to the other toes for support and the player should switch to a stiff-soled shoe for increased support.
Hopefully this head-to-toe overview of common NFL injuries gives you a better understanding of the injury reports this football season.