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Contact Sports and Progressive Degenerative Changes in the Neck can cause Destructive Changes to the Nervous System, Athletic Ability and Performance - What an Athlete Needs to Know!

We already discussed in our What it takes to become a World Class Athlete - What Most Trainers Do Not Know video how concussive and sub-concussive blows are linked to progressive neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease and other motor degenerative problems .   But there is another less discussed, yet common problem among contact sports athletes (as an indirect  result of blows to the head)  that can cause serious motor related problems that  can also rob an athlete of both their ability to perform: It is called Cervical Spondylosis with Myelopathy.  

So let’s take a look how it can happen to you:

When a contact sport’s athlete (e.g. boxer, football player, wrestler falling to mat) receives a blow to the head, the skull violently rocks back similar to the manner of when someone is rear ended in a car accident.  Consequently, the brain smashes inside the skull as well as being subject to torsional forces thus predisposing it to injury.  Additionally, the sudden whiplash force that knocks the head back also traumatizes the intervertebral discs. This is why it is not uncommon to see a coinciding disc herniation in the neck alongside the presentation of a brain concussion.                                                                                                                         

By Mysid (original by Tristanb) - Vectorized in CorelDraw by Mysid on an existing image at en-wiki by Tristanb., CC BY-SA 3.0

When intervertebral discs herniate, they can put pressure on

1. the ventral roots (see picture above) that come out of the spinal cord. The ventral nerve roots are responsible for motor control, muscle contraction or movement. 

2. the dorsal roots which are responsible for sensation or feeling.  (see picture above)

The ventral nerve root and the dorsal nerve root merge together to form the nerve trunk or spinal nerve and then bifurcate to the dorsal and ventral rami which go on to innervate the muscles.  (see picture above)

Unlike a herniated disc in the lower back which causes pain and loss of sensation in the lower limbs by pressing on these different spinal nerve regions, a degenerated or herniated cervical disc is more insidious and potentially dangerous.  That is because the real problems arise from progressive degenerative changes which are more common in injured cervical discs than they are in injured lumbar discs, which:
1. Cause the injured cervical disc to become calcified, and  
2. Cause the production of osteophytes or uncontrolled growth of bone spurs. 

Both the growth of disc calcification and spurs over time can grow back and not only press on the nerve roots, but also the spinal cord itself.  They can also interrupt cortico-spinal pathways which innervate the lower limbs.  This condition is known as Cervical Spondylosis with Myelopathy and can affect both the cervical joints and discs. 

This one-two punch combination can be disastrous because compression of these delicate structures can cause the upper limbs (arms, hands) to develop lower motor neuron problems (hypotonia, hyporeflexia, flaccidity), and muscle atrophy due to a lack of innervation and, in severe cases, potentially impair cortico-spinal descending tracts which will affect lower motor neurons present in the lumbar area which control the lower limbs (legs, feet) to develop upper motor neuron problems (hypertonia, hyper-reflexia, spasticity).

If this problem persists long enough, permanent nerve damage and consequent muscle atrophy can result. 

A person with Cervical Spondylosis with Myelopathy will typically present with both neck pain and limited range of neck motion due to irritation of motor neurons.  They may also complain of arm pain and eventually arm weakness, if there is extended compression of the ventral roots.  In this video, MMA fighter Holly Holm talks about the loss of tricep strength and arm pain following a cervical disc herniation.


Prevent Injury By Taking These Two Precautionary Steps:

1. Strengthen Neck and Trap Muscles: 
If you are going to participate in contact sports, you better have a strong neck.  Importance of strengthening neck and trapezius muscles are not only important for reducing the incidence of head concussions, but also important for protecting the intervertebral discs of the cervical spine.  However, training neck muscles also carries risk when not performed properly.  When performing strengthening exercises, one must exercise care that they perform exercises properly, so they do not injure the delicate disks or joints that comprise the cervical spine. Therefore, before undertaking any kind of weight training program consult both your doctor and seek the help of a qualified trainer.  

2. Train Smart and minimize hard blows to the head in training.  
Boxers and MMA fighters need to minimize the practice of hard blows to the head in sparring, while wrestlers need to take care how they throw their partners and pressure applied to the cervical region during practice.  By exercising more precaution in contact training, not only will you reduce the amount of head trauma that is linked to progressive neurological disorders, but also degenerative changes to the cervical spine which can occur as well. 


In this video, Boxer GGG performs neck training exercises to help better protect both his neck and brain from concussive blows. 

Cervical Disc Injuries: More than Just a Pain in The Neck!

Neck injuries are a serious matter in contact sports - but not discussed often enough, as we typically pay attention to only those high profile accidents which cause immediate and traumatic quadriplegia or paraplegia such as when Nick Buoniconti’s son Nick Buoniconti Jr. was paralyzed during a practice scrimmage or when actor Christopher Reeves fell off a horse and broke his neck.  However,  even seemingly minor neck injuries should be taken seriously and evaluated by a physician, as degenerative changes can not only rob an athlete of their ability to perform, but also dramatically affect their overall quality of life.

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