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Spinal Injuries in Sports

Spinal injuries in sports are one of the most serious types of injuries for athletes. Sports medicine doctors, athletic trainers, and safety equipment designers work to continuously reduce the number of injuries to the spine.

spinal cord injuries in sports

Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries are extremely serious and can be deadly. Less than 1% of patients who experience spinal cord injuries have completely recovered by the time they are discharged from the hospital. In addition, once someone experiences a spinal cord injury (SCI), their life expectancy is significantly reduced.  Death rates are much higher during the first year following a SCI. Unfortunately, these death rates haven’t changed significantly in over 30 years. The medical and research communities continue to work toward improving their response and treatment of these injuries.

Spinal Injuries in Sports

About 8% of spinal cord injuries are caused by sports. A 2016 international research study compared the frequency of SCI’s for different sports. The data showed that the sports which caused the most spinal cord injuries were: diving, football, cycling, horseback riding, and wrestling. In other countries, SCI’s in rugby, skiing, and snowboarding were also common.

Diving and football spinal cord injuries occur, almost exclusively, in the cervical, or neck region. Horseback riding injuries occur throughout the spinal cord from the cervical (neck) to the lumbar (lower back) region.

See Also: 5 Ways to Prevent Sports Injuries

Preventing SCI’s in Sports

The medical, research, and sports communities are all working toward preventing spinal cord injuries in sports. Here are some examples.


In rugby, studies showed that the majority of spinal cord injuries occur during the scrum. During this play the players stand in a circle and push against each other in an attempt to win control of the ball. The players at the center of this circle are the most likely to experience an injury to their neck. As a result of this finding, new rules were added to rugby in some countries, reducing the frequency of neck injuries by almost half!


Back in 1976, changes to tackling rules in football resulted in a decline in the number of quadriplegics among high school and college football players. Neck strengthening exercises and the practice of proper tackling techniques also help prevent neck injuries in football. In addition, the National Football League and safety equipment manufacturers continuously work to improve the effectiveness of helmets and protective equipment the players wear.

See Also: 5 Famous Athletes Who’ve Had Spinal Injuries

Ice Hockey

During a study of SCI’s in ice hockey it was discovered that almost 60% of these injuries occurred when a player was checked, or hit, from behind.  This resulted in many leagues adopting new rules preventing this behavior. Recent data has shown this rule has effectively reduced the number of spinal cord injuries.


Spinal cord injuries in sports are extremely serious and can be fatal. Continuous improvement through reporting and research is critical in reducing the number of these injuries.




*Please Note: Information on this site or any recommended sites should not be used as a diagnosis or a substitute for talking with your doctor. Always talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment information.
Blue Distinction Center for Spine Surgery