The spring and summertime are excellent opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Many of us will take this time to enjoy water activities such as swimming, diving, surfing or simply enjoying the beach. Unfortunately, some of these activities are associated with injuries to our neck (cervical spine). These injuries include fractures (broken bones), cervical strains/whiplash, disc injuries and stingers (nerve root or brachial plexus injuries).
The Cervical Spine
Our cervical spine is made above 7 bones/vertebrae. Each of these vertebrae is separated by discs. The discs allow our spine to move in various directions and act as shock absorbers during activities. The vertebrae also form a spinal column which serves to protect the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a structure that exits the brain and travels through the cervical spine to give off various nerves into our arms and legs. In addition, we have a number of muscles and ligaments that are attached to our cervical spine that help initiate movement and provide further protection.
Cervical Fractures and Spinal Cord Injuries
One of the most devastating injuries that can occur is a fractured vertebra in the neck along with a spinal cord injury. There are in a number of mechanisms by which this can occur. One of the most common mechanisms is striking one’s head onto a surface with a significant force that causes the neck to bend in an abnormal fashion. This can lead to a break in 1 of the vertebrae protecting the spinal cord. Sometimes this break can cause an injury to one of the spinal nerves or to the spinal cord itself. A spinal cord injury can lead to weakness or numbness below the level of injury. At its most devastating level, it can lead to paralysis.
Here are some examples of the ways that someone can fracture a cervical spine during a water activity:
- Diving into a shallow portion of the pool and striking your head
- Striking your head into the side of the pool
- Falling off a surfboard and hitting your head on a sandbar
- Jumping from a cliff and not recognizing shallow water
Fortunately, a broken vertebra can be treated with either conservative care or with surgery. By restoring alignment and stability we can potentially restore function. However, if one has a spinal cord injury associated with a fracture the weakness and or paralysis may be permanent. Therefore, the best treatment is preventing this injury.
Tips for Preventing Injuries
- Never participate in sports when you are ill, very tired or intoxicated
- Never slide or dive headfirst into a body of water
- Supervise younger children at all times
- Follow all rules and warning signs at water parks, swimming pools, and beaches
- Do not dive into water that is less than 12 feet deep or into an above-ground pool
- Check the depth of the water and check for any equipment in the water
- Never push somebody into a body of water
SUSHIL K. BASRA, MD.
Dr. Basra is a Board-Certified Orthopaedic Surgeon, concentrating his practice exclusively on spine care. He treats a full spectrum of degenerative and traumatic conditions of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, including scoliosis, kyphosis, spinal fracture, tumors, disc herniation, and stenosis.