Buffalo Bills’ Damien Harris was hospitalized after a neck injury at Sunday’s football game.
Based on Harris’s movement and recent hospital discharge, doctors suspect he will not suffer major complications from the hit.
Head and neck injuries in football can range from soft tissue injuries to life-altering events and should be treated and assessed critically.
Damien Harris, a Buffalo Bills running back, suffered a neck injury on Sunday during a game against the New York Giants. While Harris was immediately assessed for movement and was reported able to move his arms and legs, he was taken to the hospital for further evaluation. He has since been discharged.
Neel Anand, MD, MCh Orth, Orthopedic Surgeon and Director of Spine Trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, CA, says that Harris’s quick discharge, combined with the assessed mobility, is a good sign. While he has limited details of the running back’s situation, Dr. Anand adds that these data points suggest that Harris will be back on the field soon.
“The two things we're most concerned about are the brain and the spinal cord—in the skull and in the neck—because the most vital conduit of nerves for the rest of your body is in your neck,” Dr. Anand explains. “If that's all working and fine, then usually it's a good sign.”
With this in mind, Dr. Anand suspects that Harris “did not have a spinal cord injury or a significant brain injury,” but will probably be put on some sort of concussion protocol, which, he says, is normal.
Assessing for head and neck injuries on the football field
When a collision occurs, hurt players can—and should—be assessed right away, Dr. Anand says. Responders can’t always diagnose the player on the field, but they can take the proper first steps in evaluating their injury and reducing negative outcomes.
Some of the proper steps involve immobilizing the head and neck and conducting a quick neurological exam to check for movement in other places in the body. To check for movement, emergency responders should start by simply asking the player if they can move different parts of their body, such as their arms and legs, he says. Doing this assesses both the player’s ability to comprehend what they are being asked and their ability to produce voluntary movement—two functions that, typically, can be provided by the brain, Dr. Anand adds.
If a player is nonresponsive, that’s very serious, Dr. Anand says. This can look like someone not answering questions or not moving their body.
Responders should also follow proper protocols for taking helmets on and off, being mindful of the neck, Dr. Anand adds. In most head and neck scenarios, players will be taken to the hospital for X-rays or MRIs to provide a more comprehensive understanding of their condition, he says.
For head and neck injuries in football, diagnoses could range from soft tissue injuries like sprained ligaments or mild concussions to major injuries—“anything or everything you can dream of,” Dr. Anand says.
Is football protection protective enough?
Despite their name, protective gear—helmets and shoulder pads, for example—doesn’t protect against all head and neck injuries.
“You can't immobilize the neck and play,” Dr. Anand says. “So you're always susceptible.”
Furthermore, while helmets cover the head and brain, they leave the neck on display—and even place extra weight on it.
“There's been some consideration and talk about the helmets actually adding more problems to the neck because now your head is another 3 to 5 pounds heavier,” Dr. Anand says. “Your head is certainly protected to a certain extent by the helmet. But still, that's no guarantee.”
Imperfect as they are, football helmets have been shown to significantly reduce the occurrence and severity of brain and head injuries.
Overall, football is a dangerous sport, and playing the game comes with unavoidable risks, Dr. Anand says. He encourages players to not be overconfident about their safety while on the field simply because they are wearing protective equipment.
“Somehow, the players themselves also need to realize that just because they’ve got a helmet doesn't mean [they] can do whatever [they] want,” Dr. Anand says.
What this means for you
Buffalo Bills’ running back Damien Harris was taken to the emergency room with a neck injury this Sunday. Head and neck injuries in football can range from soft tissue injuries to life-changing complications. When such injuries occur, players should be properly assessed on the field and in the ER.