Mark W. McFarland, DO
A recent sports injury to a Pittsburgh Steelers’ middle linebacker Ryan Shazier made headlines due to his spinal cord injury which left him paralyzed and unable to walk. On December 4, during the week 13 game against the Bengals, Ryan went in for a tackle with his head too low. He fell to the ground, face down, flopped his upper body over and his immobile legs followed. Millions of Americans watched in anguish as it became obvious to Ryan that he could not move his legs. His panic at what had happened came right through the TV into our living rooms. His Steelers’ teammates openly sobbed as Ryan was carted off the field. Ryan was transported back to Pittsburgh where he underwent emergency spine stabilization surgery as football fans around the country prayed for his recovery.
Ryan is currently on the injured reserve list. After his surgery, he was transferred to an inpatient rehab center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Mercy. Although unable to walk and using a wheelchair, Ryan started working with Physical Therapists and Athletic Trainers to build his strength and to help his body heal. It was stated that Ryan worked as hard at his Rehab as he did when playing football. As of about two weeks ago, Ryan was reporting that some feeling was returning to his legs, which was a promising sign.
Yesterday, February 1, Ryan released a photo of himself smiling and standing with the Steeler’s Quarterback, Ben Rothlisberger. He was also released from the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Mercy, where he had been inpatient. He will now continue his recovery in outpatient rehabilitation. While his condition has greatly improved, no one is sure if he will walk unassisted or be able to return to the football field. However, his recovery thus far is cause for celebration and a hope for a full return of function for this talented young athlete.
Although no one has publicly commented on Ryan’s definitive diagnosis, early reports said he had a spinal contusion. A contusion is a bruise that causes swelling and/or bleeding. Spinal cord contusions are particularly dangerous due to the fact that the spinal cord cannot carry information and communicate with the rest of the body if it has been compromised, resulting in full or partial paralysis, which may or may not be permanent. Inflammation of any kind is bad news for the spinal cord and spinal nerves.
In Ryan’s case, where two very large and muscular football players collided, a great amount of force was generated which flowed through Ryan’s head and neck into his spine. This force certainly would have been enough to fracture, shatter or compress his spinal vertebrae. Based on the fact that Ryan is paralyzed below his waist, his injury most likely occurred in the thoracic or lumbar region of the spine and could have involved a fracture or multiple fractures.
Spinal stabilization surgery is typically done in the case of traumatic spinal fractures, using screws, plates or rods to hold the spinal bones together and in place. During stabilization surgery, spinal fusions are often done to further strengthen the spinal bones and to remove spinal disc material which may have ruptured into the spinal canal during the injury. Steroids may be introduced into the area to reduce the swelling and inflammation. If blood has accumulated and formed a hematoma, this can be surgically drained so as to also relieve pressure on the spinal cord and spinal nerves.
After spine stabilization surgery, time is needed for healing to occur to the spinal cord. Injuries can take over one year (or more) to heal and for sensation and function to be restored, if they return at all. Ryan is working closely with Physical Therapists, as well as his Spine Specialist, to improve his chances for a full recovery. It is important that Ryan take time to get adequate rest, but also work to improve the strength of his body while recovering for his injury and surgery. With the best medical care available and Ryan’s dedication to getting well, we all wish for him the fullest recovery possible.