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'The NFL Beat': Spinal Stenosis

What will this condition mean for Jarvis Jones' career?

By Alex Dunlap, 12:03PM, Wed. Jan. 23, 2013

'The NFL Beat': Spinal Stenosis

Jarvis Jones may be the best player in the 2013 NFL Draft. He also has spinal stenosis.

The Georgia outisde linebacker known by teammates as "Dawg-Bones Jones" is an absolute menace. The kind of presence on a college defense that is clearly transcendent.

Jones, a six-foot-two, 240-pound monster on the edge of the defensive line, was one of the most productive players in college football during the 2012 season. He plays with an extremely mean spirit and can rip, bend, dip, and twist past opposing linemen en route to the quarterback.

He's a wrecking ball.

Why would the University of Southern California tell a player like this that he was no longer allowed to play football for their school's team?

Because he has spinal stenosis.

Jones was highly recruited as a high school prospect out of Columbus, Ga., who decided to head for the bright lights of the left coast. He only played eight games as a USC Trojan, however.

In 2009, playing mainly in reserve and special-teams duty as a freshman, Jones collided with a teammate in a game against Oregon and "sprained" his neck.

Subsequent medical evaluations by the USC medical staff and independent neurologists revealed what has been widely reported to be congenital cervical spinal stenosis. With this news, Jones had played his last snap at USC.

In a statement to the media following the 2009 season, USC head coach Lane Kiffin addressed Jones' future by saying, "I don’t know how to describe it from a medical perspective. There’s a serious concern that hits or a number of hits could lead to permanent damage. Obviously, Jarvis’ safety is the No. 1 issue.”

Obviously.

So Jones moved home. He was quickly cleared by his home state Georgia Bulldogs to play football for the university despite the condition, and the rest is history.

History riddled with the busted bodies and badly-thrown balls of opposing quarterbacks.

As we enter the 2013 NFL Draft season, the single biggest question mark resides squarely in/on/around the neck of Jarvis Jones:

What will this condition mean for his career, and for the team that uses an early first-round pick to acquire his services?

The Chronicle caught up this week with Dr. Andrew Hecht, co-director of spine surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, spine surgical consultant for the New York Jets and New York Islanders, and a member of the NFL Brain and Spine Committee.

Dr. Hecht described the condition as a congenitally narrow spinal canal that is usually identified upon investigation of neck sprains, "stingers," or "burners."

Various imaging tests such as MRIs are often taken when patients are given these less-severe diagnoses to make sure that stenosis, fracture, or a disc herniation is not to blame as a possible cause.

According to Dr. Hecht, approximately half of all NFL players will suffer a stinger at some point in their career. A stinger is a minor irritation to one of the nerve roots or brachial plexus that branch out from the spinal cord at the levels of various vertebrae.

This occurs when players take hits to the head, shoulder, and neck area, and results in a jolt of burning, tingling, weakness, and even possible temporary paralysis through the shoulder down the arm. A stinger only affects a unilateral arm and is usually temporary.

It isn't pleasant, but it is common. Congential spinal stenosis is not.

According to Dr. Hecht, players with spinal stenosis are at increased risk of stingers. However, they are also at risk for a more serious condition called cervical cord neuropraxia. Dr. Hecht had much to say about cervical cord neuropraxia, but the main distinguishing difference in this condition and a stinger is the presence of these symptoms in multiple limbs; both arms, both legs, or an arm and a leg.

With all this said, Dr. Hecht was extremely clear about one thing. "Congenital spinal stenosis is not a contraindication of playing football."

In other words, you can play with it. Nothing about spinal stenosis indicates that you can't.

In fact, research shows that players with spinal stenosis are at no greater risk of devastating spinal cord injury than any other player with a normal-sized spinal canal. This flies in the face of what one could logically expect, but it is indeed the case.

"There's no warning shot for devastating spinal injuries," Hecht said. "Most of the reported cases of devastating spinal cord injuries did not have a heralding warning shot or episode."

Every player that steps onto the football field is equally likely of suffering spinal trauma that may result in devastating neurological damage, paralysis, and even possible death.

But, this comes with a caveat. A caveat that Dr. Hecht calls a "relative contraindication." Players who suffer "multiple" instances of cervical cord neuropraxia will get freaked out.

The condition is anything but comfortable, and we have seen that players with the ailment generally decide that football is simply not worth it at some point.

While Dr. Hecht says that it goes against what the research and literature universally support, it just seems logical to expect that with each instance of neuropraxia, there may be an increased risk of a more serious spinal cord injury at some point.

If "multiple" instances of neuropraxia do occur, players are best advised to give serious consideration to their respective futures playing the sport.

And Dr. Hecht has had that conversation with numerous NFL players. While he could not give names because of doctor-patient confidentiality regulations, Dr. Hecht has helped to guide the post-football lives of numerous players who have hung up their cleats after finally giving in to the sobering reality that begins to accompany each hit with a tingle, jolt, or weakness through their extremities.

Most commonly, football players (at any level) that have suffered more than one or two cervical cord neuropraxias will typically stop playing contact football.

So what does this mean for Jarvis Jones?

It means the same thing it meant for Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe, Marcus McNeill, and Chris Samuels. Pro Bowlers whose careers were ultimately cut short by the condition.

The most important part of that last sentence is "Pro Bowlers," however. When thinking back on the Dallas Cowboys championship runs of the 1990s, one may conjure up images of a black Mercedes SL-500 with gold trim and personalized Texas plates reading "PLY MKR."

In other words, former Cowboys WR Michael Irvin is remembered for many things, but never as "the player who had spinal stenosis."

When you have the opportunity to draft a "playmaker," you take it.

[Alex Dunlap is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.]

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