Spinal cord injuries in football and other sports: An interview with Dr. Frederick Mueller

One of the chapters of my book, That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever, discusses a catastrophic cervical spine injury that left a prominent athlete quadriplegic. I wanted to learn more about how common these spinal cord injuries were and what has and can be done to decrease the incidence of these events. I reached out to Dr. Frederick Mueller, the former director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is an excerpt from our interview.

Dr. David Geier:     Have catastrophic cervical spine injuries, in sports at least, decreased in the last twenty or thirty years?

Dr. Fred Mueller:     Yes, they’ve decreased dramatically since the early 1960s when coaches were teaching different methods for tackling and blocking. In the ’60s and ’70s there were twenty-five or thirty a year. And that’s not counting fractures with no disability. The numbers are great. And then things change. There are a lot of lawsuits against coaches and helmet manufacturers. There actually were probably twenty or twenty-five helmet manufacturers at the time, and they were just sued out of existence during that period of time. So coaches and the athletic directors said, “Something has to be done.” So those changes were made, which you probably know what happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s. When that rule change when into effect …

Dr. David Geier:     The spear tackling rule.

Dr. Fred Mueller:     Yes, the spear tackling rule. Not using the head or face in the contact with an opponent in tackling and blocking. That was in 1976. And the numbers went down pretty dramatically after that rule went into effect, but they’ve stayed actually pretty steady from that time on. There are still people out there teaching wrong methods of blocking and tackling. And of course now there is a lot of emphasis on concussions. But there are still serious head injuries and serious neck injuries. And the numbers are under ten and sometimes they go under five a year, but they’re still happening.

Dr. David Geier:     Do you think it’s possible to completely eliminate – let’s just take football for a second – is it possible to completely eliminate these cervical spine injuries?

Dr. Fred Mueller:     I don’t think so, even if the kids are being taught properly. At the last minute, they might not be sure what they want to do and then they drop their head possibly, or the running back changes direction and they change direction, they do have contact with the head or face.

Dr. David Geier:     Accidental… not that any of these are ever intentional, but is that what you’re describing?

Dr. Fred Mueller:     Right. At the last minute, the running back changes directions, or at the last minute you’re not too sure you want to stick your head in there. You know, most of these high school kids, a lot of them, haven’t been playing very often or very much. And, you know, they’re supposed to put their head in the chest of this big fullback coming at them and they say, “I’m not too sure I want to do that.”

Dr. David Geier:     I’ve looked at some of your institution’s data – and there were years when it got down to three of these events per year. Are we being overprotective? Are we going a long way for just a few injuries?

Spinal cord injuries occur several times a year in football.

Dr. Fred Mueller:     I don’t think so. When you think about a fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year-old kid with permanent paralysis from playing football, it’s a sad story. You have to think about safety. Maybe all this stuff going on with concussions now, that’s a big story now. But back then, when you’re talking about the paralysis injuries, they were in addition to a great number of deaths during that period of time. Those were all head and neck injuries at that time. And I think parents have to be informed. Many parents think they can send their kid off to play football in school and everything’s going to be fine. But a good coach will invite parents in before the year and explain to the parents and show the parents what kind of helmets they’re going to wear, what kind of shoulder pads they’re going to wear, what happens if their kid gets injured on the field; all those things. And parents should know that stuff.

Dr. David Geier:     At the end of the day, no matter what the number, that’s just a statistic. That’s still a human being with a life-long, permanent injury, potentially.

Dr. Fred Mueller:     That’s right. You know, when you look at the incidence rate for a hundred thousand or more, you look at that and say, “Oh, it’s not too bad.” But then you see that kid in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and it’s pretty bad.

Get more terrific information from Dr. Mueller and other experts about catastrophic injuries in football and what athletes can do to stay healthy in That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever!

Also read:
Catastrophic cervical spine injury