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5 Common Injuries Suffered By NFL Players

By Jennifer Hassan in NFL
| October 23, 2020 10:04 am PDT
5 Most Common Injuries for NFL Players

At any given moment during the football season, there can be hundreds of NFL players who are either benched with injury or being closely monitored to see if a physical issue takes a turn for the worse.

Fantasy football players, online sportsbooks, and draft junkies watch the injury list to assess the league’s health from week to week.

Pain and injury are the reality of football. It’s a violent game, often compared to war both for the strategy required to gain ground and for the constant danger of casualties.

However, even the smallest injuries, such as a strained Achilles’ tendon or an elbow sprain, can pull a player out of a game or even a season. More critical injuries can end a career.

Perhaps that’s why some modern players are engaging in better habits off the field, in order to secure their place on the starting roster.

I’ve listed the top 5 NFL injuries below, using the NFL’s 2020 injury report. The most frequently sustained are at the top of the list.

Knee Injury, Especially the ACL

ACL means “anterior cruciate ligament.” It’s one of the tendons in the knee that gives athletes the most trouble. If it’s torn, an athlete will feel like something has popped in the knee, followed by pain.

When you are running one way on the grass, and you need to turn quickly to one side or the other, it’s the ACL ligament that helps to absorb the impact this twisting motion puts on the knee joint.

Natural grass will have some “give,” but synthetic turf has very little. Thus, the playing surface will often determine the extent of an ACL injury, as will the weather.

Football players, especially on the offensive line, do a great deal of rapid twists using the knee joint. Wide receivers turn the upper body to look out for a pass while still running for the end zone.

Receivers will also stop suddenly to shift direction, evading a tackle. Quarterbacks whip left and right, looking for a ready receiver or quickly darting toward an open route.

Surgery, followed by a significant recovery period, is one common approach to treatment. During the months-long recovery, the player will likely undergo physical therapy and observation.

Neck Injury

neck injury

Neck injuries haven’t garnered the kind of attention that concussions have recently. Nonetheless, a number of professional football players are currently on the injured reserve list due to neck injuries.

Any damage to the spine can be dangerous. Interestingly, there are far fewer neck injuries now in football than there used to be, in large part due to the rule changes meant to protect players.

The Mel Blount Rule

Mel Blount was a terrifying, vicious member of the Steel Curtain, the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line that threw opposing athletes around like they were used candy wrappers.

Because Mel Blount (and other defensive linemen) would and could beat down receivers when they were nowhere near the line of scrimmage, there were a lot of injuries sustained by unsuspecting opponents. One such opposing player later stated that after Blount had hit him, he “couldn’t remember the play until I saw tape.” Blount is famous for creating many life-threatening injuries, including breaking one player’s neck.

So the NFL adopted what is known as the “Mel Blount Rule,” in which a defender is prohibited from attacking a receiver unless they are within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

As such, neck and spinal injuries have gone down but are still a significant problem for players, teams, and owners. If a team owner loses a superstar (i.e., “very highly paid player”) to injury, then the team doesn’t have the budget to adequately replace him.

The portion of the spinal cord that resides in the neck include the cervical vertebrae. After a tough hit, a player can feel a searing, painful heat streak down his arm. In fact, the player who had his neck broken by Mel Blount said his arm felt like someone was “blowtorching it.”

With a half-a-year rehabilitation window and the potential for paralysis, this is one terrifying sports injury.

Concussion

This injury is the current star of the football injury scene. It can be as simple as painful swelling and as complex as lifelong brain damage.

Concussions, especially in grade school players, have generated a great deal of negativity toward the sport recently. Since no helmet is 100% effective, some think the sport should be banned among the young altogether.

Laboratories are spending millions trying to design a better helmet. Until a perfect one is developed, concussions are just part of the football lifestyle.

Under current medical theory, when a blow to the head is hard enough to create a concussion, then the brain is actually smacking against the skull.

It’s that impact between brain and skull that creates the memory loss, dizziness, and other cognitive impairments.

NFL Concussion Protocol

The NFL has a system that must be followed when a player suffers a concussion. The player cannot return to play until he is cleared to do so by the medical team.

Concussion Protocol:

  • Player is either hit in the head or shows symptoms of concussion
  • Stabilized at sideline or, if need be, on the field
  • Player is asked questions and given a neurological exam
  • Video of the play is reviewed
  • Player either returns to play or, if symptoms are detected, he is taken to the locker room
  • If concussion is suspected, there will be a locker room exam that is more exhaustive than the on-field assessment, including a complete neurological workover

Every NFL stadium has an Emergency Action Plan, and before every game, the medical personnel gather to review the protocol.

In all, there are more than two dozen medical professionals at every NFL game, including those played in London and Mexico City.

Also, there are three neurotrauma specialists at every NFL game now, as the league works to address the concussion problem.

Suddenly, the high price of attending an NFL game makes more sense.

Arm Joints: Elbow/Shoulder

The arm joints are particularly susceptible to damage, especially in a sport like football. The arm bones fit into their joints like sockets. They can be dislodged from the socket by being yanked or twisted out of place.

In the non-athlete, the arm joints are more likely to cause pain if a person holds more weight than their muscles can carry (think: “heavy suitcase”).

But in a football player, the shoulder and elbow joints are more likely to be strained or even pulled out of their sockets through impact or twisting. A shoulder joint can be dislocated in full or in part, and in any direction.

The very mobility of the shoulder is what also makes it the most vulnerable joint in the body.

Hamstring

Ah, the “hammy.” Whenever an athlete states that he or she has a hamstring pull, the listeners invariably wince. Who hasn’t felt the excruciating pain of a sudden cramp in one of our largest muscles and the resultant temporary paralysis?

The hamstring can be pulled (strained) or actually torn. At one point, there were so many hamstring injuries across the NFL that it was called an “epidemic.”

Warming up is critical to prevention, but it’s still not a cure-all. Any movement that results in the muscle overstretching itself will create the injury. Ice and rest usually do the trick, but occasionally, surgery is needed to repair a bad tear.

One Hundred+ Hamstrings

One team doctor estimated more than 170 hamstring injuries per season across all teams. That makes the injury as common as it is costly, since it takes players off rotation for weeks or months as they rehabilitate the muscle.

According to the Mayo Clinic, once a player has received a hamstring injury, he is more likely to re-injure the muscle.

The Cost of Injury

Here’s a scenario: a team stretches its budget down to the cents to bring over a superstar player from another team. In a pre-season practice match, the player injures himself, and he’s sidelined for the season.

The team is out millions, and the player risks being traded again for being such an albatross.

It’s not as uncommon as you think. On the plus side, some second-string pull-ups end up becoming notable players.

The Cost to a Player

One large injury that keeps a player out for a season can make other teams leery of bringing him on the roster. So can numerous smaller injuries. Once a player is deemed “injury prone,” he is no longer considered a good bet.

So, that’s one cost to a player. The other is any fear or trepidation he brings onto the field now that he’s worrying about re-injury. If he plays it too safe, he may be considered to have lost his edge. Too risky, and he could be placed on injured reserve.

Players lucky enough to score big endorsement deals from the likes of Nike, Adidas, and Gatorade may lose these deals if they are injured for too many weeks in a row.

Players don’t pay out of their pockets for injury treatment; their massive insurance policies take care of it. However, the potential for lost salary, lost contracts, lost endorsement deals, and even the end of a career create a serious financial threat.

The Team Cost

Now let’s talk teams. I mentioned it above, but the loss of a player to the injured reserve roster leaves a team in the hole regarding that player’s salary. There is less money in the budget to lure new players over to the team.

Players on the field making significantly less than the one on the bench become angry, and it affects morale. Especially if the injured player was brought in to a lot of hype and never showed his worth on the field.

A Final Word

Everything in life requires a balance, and this is certainly no less true in professional leagues like the NFL.

Teams must balance their rosters and their budget and take chances on college stars at the draft.

Players have to balance their “gung-ho” attitude on any given play with the potential for injury.

Team accountants have to balance a player’s skill with his potential for injury and, thus, budget drain.

The league is currently doing research into pain management and even alternative therapies. The goal is to keep the players healthy, away from potentially addictive opioid prescriptions, and wise enough to prevent re-injury.

Currently, there is a race to build a better helmet. We may soon see developments in shoe and pad technology.

With every season, with every new study, there will be alterations to play, medical attention, and team protocol. We can look to see the league evolve along with medical and product technology.

Other sports suffer from the same issues, of course. This is why athletes such as Serena Williams and Cristiano Ronaldo engage in such stringent lifestyle choices and workouts to prevent injury.

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