Serious Injury

Explaining spinal injury in sport

February 29, 2024
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According to the Spinal Injuries Association, the number of people who experience spinal cord injury paralysis is around 2,500 a year. While the causes of many of these accidents vary, a proportion of them will be as the result of participation in sport, whether for leisure or professionally. Thankfully, not all spinal injuries in sport result in paralysis but suffering one can have a profound and lasting impact on your life.

In this article, we’ll explain:

  • What the spinal cord is
  • How injuries to the spinal cord affect us
  • The leading sports where you’re at greatest risk of spinal cord injuries
  • Seeking justice and compensation if your spinal cord injury was not your fault

What is the spinal cord?

The spinal cord is the channel your brain uses to communicate with the rest of your body.

It’s a long, thin bundle of nerve tissues and support cells that run down from the base of your skull to your hips via the vertebral column. This column is made up of 33 vertebrae, bones stacked up on top of each other. Their job is to absorb shock and allow bodily flexibility while protecting the spinal cord.

The two primary roles of your spinal cord are the control of your movements and bodily functions. This key part of the central nervous system connects directly to your brain and it’s the part of your body that gives you the ability to walk, sit, run and even feel sensations like heat or cold. It’s also responsible for your reflexes, an example of which is when your leg jerks up when your knee is tapped.

Types of spinal cord injuries and their effects

A spinal cord injury (SCI) is when the bundle of nerve tissues within your spine suffers damage. That could be harm to the cord itself or the vertebrae and connecting tissues surrounding the cord.

There are two types of spinal cord injury – “complete” and “partial”. A complete SCI means that no signals pass through the injured area at all. A partial injury means that some signals still get through. With a partial injury, you can still feel or move parts of your body below your injury, albeit with difficulty sometimes.

The location of an SCI matters. If you were very badly injured higher up the spinal cord, this could lead to paralysis in most of the body (tetraplegia) in the worst case. If it’s lower down in your sacral or lumbar regions (paraplegia), it might only affect your legs.

For less serious injuries, symptoms range from numbness or tingling in your limbs to the loss of bladder and bowel control. Your ability to walk and breathe may also be affected as could your autonomic functions like blood pressure regulation and heart rate.

How SCIs are treated varies from person to person and injury to injury. The quality and appropriateness of the medical care and rehabilitation regime you experience affects the speed of your recovery and your quality of life post-injury. Recovery, however, is always unpredictable.

The leading sports where you’re at greatest risk of spinal cord injuries

Sports are good for us. It gives us the chance to get fit, take part in healthy competition and make social connections. Physical activity has been shown on many occasions to increase our feeling of emotional and mental well-being.

But sports are also risky. The impacts, falls, and accidents we experience when taking part can have profound consequences, sometimes shaping the course of the rest of our lives.

Below, we take a look at some of the sports where we’re at greatest risk of suffering a spinal cord injury:

1. Horseback riding

Human beings can be as close to their horses as they can their cats and dogs. In many cases, the bond is actually much deeper, given the implicit trust both must have in each other during riding and racing. No matter how close the connection though, there are significant dangers to the rider.

Major risk factors: The major risk for riders is falling from significant heights, especially when jumping, racing, or even casual riding. When a horse is spooked or stumbles, it can move suddenly and violently which further increases the likelihood of severe spinal impact if the rider is thrown off.

Statistics: Across nine countries, around 11.4% of sports-related spinal injuries were attributed to horseback riding. In Ireland, this was an astonishing 41.8%. An American study showed that horseback riding was the sport most likely to result in traumatic lumbar spine injuries across the country.

There are other spinal risks involved with horse riding that can result from falls or just the cumulative effect of regular riding. They include muscle strain, herniated discs, and minor fractures. While these may not lead to long-term disability, they can cause severe discomfort and require a prolonged period of recovery.

2. Football

Football is the country’s most popular sport. Millions of Britons take part in it every week in 5-a-side and Sunday league teams. It’s a core part of schools’ sporting curricula too.

The sport requires fitness, skill, agility and an ability to play as a fully committed member of a team. However, it is a physically demanding sport which puts players at risk of a spectrum of injuries, including injuries to the spinal cord.

Major risk factors: It’s not uncommon during a match or a training session to come into heavily impactful physical contact with other players. Serious injuries are a regular feature of life for even amateur footballers because of the cumulative effects of tackles and collisions on the spine. Rapid changes in speed and direction can also strain back muscles and ligaments, making players more vulnerable to spinal injuries. Uneven playing surfaces and poor weather conditions can also be a factor.

Statistics: As we get older, the risks of spinal injury from playing football increase but the risks start young. One study showed that 3% of the total injuries experienced by youth football players were spinal injuries. For national academy players, there was greater risk of spinal injury in September and January after summer and winter breaks and at later stages of the game. Injuries led to a 14-day recovery period, longer than was required for thigh muscle injuries.

While the risks of paralysing injuries in football are much lower than in other sports, the combination of falls and collisions married to athletic bursts of activity and physical contact with other players increases the chance of sustaining a less serious spinal injury that will require a prolonged period of recovery.

3. Cycling

13.1% of the UK population cycle at least once a month. The UK is arguably the most successful cycling sporting nation in the world which gives you a sense of just how popular the sport is here.

Whether in sport or as a means of transportation or exercise, cycling has supremely beneficial impacts on our cardiovascular health. However, depending on the experience of the biker and the type of terrain they’re navigating, there is a risk of severe spinal cord injury.

Major risk factors: The most worrying danger to cyclists is from high-speed falls when road or mountain racing and from collisions with cars, buses and other objects. These incidents can result in life-changing spinal cord trauma. Off-road cycling’s uneven terrains makes the risk of experiencing a fall greater on harsher surfaces leading to acute spinal wounds.

Statistics: The figures on spinal cord injuries in cycling are alarming. Cycling is responsible for 8% of all sports-related spinal cord injuries, with that figure at 19% in the U.S. and 30% in Scotland. A study in 2015 showed that, in the previous 15 years, the number of cervical spine injuries experienced when cycling shot up by 300%.

Cycling, in general, is a cause for severe concern, even if a rider doesn’t suffer an accident. Long-distance cyclists often strain their cervical and lumbar spinal regions because they’re in a static posture for prolonged periods. Less-than-ideal riding positions can lead to herniated discs, muscle strains and minor vertebral fractures. While not life-altering, these injuries can be the cause of sustained discomfort and require medical intervention.

4. Swimming and diving

Even more popular than cycling is swimming. One third of us have gone swimming in the last 12 months. Springboard and platform diving isn’t as popular but it has a core band of participants and devotees.

For amateurs and professionals alike, the benefits of swimming in particular are significant but both carry higher risks of spinal cord injuries than many other sporting activities.

Major risk factors: Both swimmers and divers are at risk of slipping on wet surfaces around pools and unknowingly diving into shallow water. Diving, especially into shallow waters, can cause individuals to hit their heads on the side or bottom of the pool, leading to severe neck and head trauma that could damage the spinal cord, potentially resulting in quadriplegia.

Statistics: Activities in and around swimming pools are among the main causes of spinal injuries. One study found that 15.8% of national calibre female swimmers had spinal abnormalities, potentially caused by repetitive motion and overuse of certain muscle groups when swimming. Diving is the fifth leading overall cause of spinal cord injuries in America and the second leading cause for men, particularly to the cervical spine. In China, that figure reaches 64.9% of all sports-related spinal cord injuries. Children under 15 are in particular danger with around 25% of recreational spine injuries caused in swimming pools.

Swimming puts a strain on the whole body, part of the reason why it’s so successful in helping people keep fit. However, it’s still possible to injure your spinal cord in less severe ways through extended swimming sessions that can cause prolonged and focused stress on spinal discs, strains and other injuries.

5. Gymnastics

Gymnastics is a hard sport to master as it requires grace, precision, flexibility, and strength. Getting good at it requires extreme commitment over many years and a willingness to expose yourself to pain injuries, including spinal cord injuries.

Major risk factors: The whole body is under strain in gymnastics. The complex aerial manoeuvres, landings, flips, turns, and twists place a great deal of pressure on the body, especially the spine. On apparatus like uneven bars and the vault which subject athletes to quickly-recurring high-impact moves can cause acute spinal injuries. Also, given the need to focus on strengthening particular muscles, gymnasts are prone to chronic spine conditions caused by overuse of those muscle groups.

Statistics: The effect of such intense training is borne out by the statistics. Across nine countries surveyed, gymnastics was the cause of 5% of sport-related spinal injuries. That was even higher in Denmark at 10%. The longer a person’s exposure to gymnastics, the greater their risk. In a survey on the statistical prevalence of spinal abnormalities in the sport, 9% experienced injuries at pre-elite level, 43% at elite level and 63% at Olympic level.

Gymnasts are also more prone to muscle strains, spondylosis and stress fractures. Although they’re not as serious, failure to treat them without a break in training to allow healing can cause long-term spinal health issues.

6. Snowsports

Snowsports can be thrilling participation events. The agility and speed demonstrated by skiers and snowboarders take years to learn. It could currently be considered a minority pursuit outside some areas of Northern Scotland but there is an enthusiastic base of amateurs, professionals and spectators who appreciate the adrenaline and the skill of snowsports athletes.

The high speeds, challenging terrain and almost non-existent margin for error do present real injury risks to participants however, including spinal cord injuries.

Major risk factors: As with cycling, much of the risk in snowsports comes from high-velocity falls or collisions with other participants or objects on the course. Snowsports involving jumps and trick manoeuvres also present risk. Added to the uneven terrain in snowsports are hidden icy patches that come too quickly for even a skilled professional to be able to avoid. Downhill skiers are also subject to significant torsional forces when doing sharp turns which, when coupled with the frequent landings and jumps on a course, can lead to compression of the spine.

Statistics: Also as with cycling, snowsports is responsible for many spinal injuries. A survey across nine countries, referenced earlier in this piece, found that 11.3% of sports-related spinal injuries were snowsports related, that figure climbing to 48.3% in Norway. Snowboarders also face extreme risks although less than skiers. Traumatic brain and vertebral injuries are the most common injuries for skiers and snowboarders who have experienced severe bodily trauma.

Snowboarders and skiers, like many sports participants, also put a tremendous level of strain on their backs, particularly if they do not follow recommended techniques.

7. Rugby

Rugby Union and Rugby League are hugely popular amateur and professional sports here in the UK and much of the world. Key to the success of any team is not just the skills and physicality of its players but also the camaraderie on the team.

Even with recent safety developments in place on high tackles, the sport is very dangerous given the high level of extreme contact during a match.

Major risk factors: Given the scrums, tackles, lineouts, and mauls in the game, rugby is confrontational, aggressive and set up to match players in regular physical combat with each other. These contacts can exert severe pressure on the spine, whether they’re sudden jolts when being tackled or forceful impacts when you’re tackling.

Statistics: It will not come as a surprise about the high levels of spinal and other injuries in rugby. In rugby-mad New Zealand, 74% of all sports-related spinal injuries are through rugby with that figure being 23.4% across nine other countries. Another New Zealand study found that 11.8% of elite rugby players had experienced spinal injuries or neck fractures. In Britain, for every 1,000 hours played of rugby in the Premier League, there are an average of 10.9 spinal injuries.

Catastrophic injuries in rugby rightly grab the headlines and lead to calls to make the sport safer. However, given the intensely physical nature of the sport, players are at risk of vertebral fractures, ligament tears and muscle strains that could badly affect spinal health over time.

8. Motorsports

Motorsports commands huge audiences keen to see daredevils risk life and limb to cross the finishing line first. At all levels of the sport, there has been a concerted effort towards making drivers safer over the past few decades but the high speeds and risk-taking attitude the sport encourages means that participants are still at heightened danger of spinal cord injuries.

Major risk factors: The primary threat in motorsports are high-velocity impacts whether they are crashes into the track barriers or into other vehicles. In motocross, the uneven and unpredictable terrain taken at breakneck speed adds a further level of risk. All drivers, even go-kart drivers, are subject to excess “G” forces placing significant stress on the spine and neck, making injury common even when participants are not involved in a crash.

Statistics: Spinal cord injuries in motorsports are endemic. In Canada, around 9% of all sports-related spinal injuries are as a result of motorsports – the average is 5% across nine countries. Here in the UK, motocross is growing in popularity and participation and studies have noticed a spike in injuries at the start of the season as riders adapt to ground conditions in the dark and during the rainy Winter and Spring.

As with all sports where the body is subject to high velocity and sudden changes in direction, less severe spinal cord injuries like herniated discs and chronic back pain are a cause of concern for racers.

When someone else is to blame for a spinal cord injury in sport

In sport, you have to follow the rules. This ensures fair play but it also protects the participants involved.

Sports coaches and sporting clubs have to observe the law in addition to following the rules. They need to make sure that they take all conceivable measures to avoid their clients or members being subject to injury, including spinal cord injuries.

If you suffered from a spinal cord injury and that can be linked back to someone else’s negligence or a general disregard for your safety, you may have legal grounds to seek compensation.

Your injury may have been the result of poor coaching, inadequately-maintained facilities, a lack of safety gear or non-adherence to the health and safety standards the law expects.

The British legal system ensures that anyone harmed under these circumstances can get justice and compensation for their suffering and financial losses. Even though there was no intent on the person involved to cause you harm, it’s about being fair to you.

Charlotte Mackulin, Partner & Serious Injury Solicitor, has commented on the relationship between serious injury and organised sports:

“Experiencing a serious injury, such as spinal cord injury, as a direct result of participating in sport, is thankfully quite rare in this country. Our laws mean that businesses have a duty of care towards those who are playing sports– whether that be a cycling velodrome, a gymnastics hall or football pitch. If facilities are not kept to a suitable standard, that could pose a risk of injury and represent a breach of legal duty.

“Sporting equipment, if provided by the business in question, should also be properly maintained and tested for safety. When taking horse-riding lessons, for example; the stirrups, saddle and reigns are as much for the rider’s safety, as his or her ability to control the horse. If equipment is found to be defective, this can contribute to the likelihood of injury.

“Regrettably whilst rare, a number of popular sports have contributed to spinal cord injury over the years. Cycling, gymnastics and snowsports by way of example can pose some danger – particularly when precautions are not followed, or when health and safety procedures are not correctly adhered to.”

The law, Fletchers, and spinal cord injuries in sport

For over 30 years, Fletchers’ serious injuries solicitors have worked with thousands of UK clients to identify the negligence or lack of care that led to their injury.

We understand just how profound the impact of spinal cord injuries can be on your quality of life. We have particular experience in working with clients who have experienced sports injuries, including spinal cord injuries relating to participation in sport.

To speak with one of our solicitors about our no-win, no-fee services, please get in touch with our spinal injury claims team today.

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