NFL players speak out on hope for recovering spinal patients

Jacob Peklo Contributor
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Medical professionals feel confident in the progress of spinal research, but NFL players are wary that extending the season to 18 games could still put them at risk.

Two players with ties to the Washington Redskins came out to support continuing spinal research and celebrate the “spinal champions” who recover from potentially debilitating injuries at an event and 5K race in Reston, Va.

But the players expressed concerns that all this progress could be for naught if the season gets too long.

For Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh, the toll of a 16-game season adds up quickly. “Once you get at the end of the season, you’re basically running on fumes and your body is already going down and two more games is just adding insult to injury,” he said. “It’s just hard. You’ve got to kind of pace yourself and get a lot more treatment, but you’ll probably see a lot more injuries.”

Brian Subach is a physician and director of spinal research at the Spinal Research Foundation in Reston. He thinks professional athletes are in such incredible condition that an extra game or two can be pretty well- tolerated, if the players continue to emphasize core maintenance and proper techniques. “It’s really preparation in the off-season that is going to make them better and last the entire season, whether that’s 12, 14, or 16 games,” he said.

Subach is most excited about spinal treatments in recent years, especially for injuries once considered to be career-ending. While nothing, yet, can treat players in-game, these preventive techniques are invaluable, especially considering the brevity of most NFL careers.

“We’ve had guys whose careers are over, and then we do an operation on them and they’re back playing,” said Thomas Schuler, a physician and president of the Spinal Research Foundation (SRF).  “The ability to restore those patients back to that level of performance is so motivating for all of the patients.”

Preventive medical screening also keeps high-risk players out of the league. “It’s very much a concern looking at a potential player to see if there is a major issue that could become a problem down the road,” he said. “So, we try to avoid some of that.”

Fortunately, for McIntosh, his doctors at SRF have helped him stay on the field and ease his pain.

“I kind of feel like I’m Wolverine,” he said. “I just take a little bit of time off, regenerate, and I’m back. That does my body good to take a little bit of time off, rehab, and get back to homeostasis.”

For former Washington Redskin and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver James Thrash, the decision to retire after injuring his neck wasn’t difficult. “Once I saw the MRI it was pretty much an easy decision to decide that I can’t take those hits any longer,” he said. “To be able to walk away from this now is a credit, as opposed to not being able to walk later.”

“James, I believe, would have been able to get back to play, had he chosen to,” said Subach.

Thrash’s rehab may be something he must do for the rest of his life, but it’s keeping him healthy, and that’s imperative. “We have flare-ups from time to time, and if I’m not getting the treatment as routinely as I should, I definitely feel the effects of it,” he said.

McIntosh said he still occasionally experiences stingers from tackling ball carriers. “There’s a lot of sharp pain down my arm,” he said. “It’s kind of sad. I can’t pick up my children, and I’m feeling numb in my arm.”

Research extends beyond football

The SRF has been performing extensive research on people from all walks of life, from children to professional athletes. The foundation is excited about its latest finding.

“The holy grail of our research is to actually be able to regenerate a degenerated disc,” said Marcus Martin, a research associate at SRF.

A disc degenerates over time and loses moisture and height, Martin said. Visibly, there is a clear difference between degenerated and healthy discs. The goal is “to cause those cells or to implant cells in there which actually build the structure up and reinforce the disc, so they can reinforce the spine, and then lead to a healthier spine.”

Some of those therapies are already under way. “We’re hoping within the next five years that something will pan out really strongly and we’ll be able to regenerate their degenerated discs,” Martin said.

Ray Pugsley was running an Olympic trial in 1996, when he developed an acute pain in his back. Though he completed the trial, he has had two back surgeries, including a spinal fusion. He understands his presence at events, such as Saturday’s, can aid others’ hope for recovery.

“They see me performing well and then they find that I have a chunk of metal inserted in my spine,” Pugsley said. “Most people think back surgery is the end; you’re a couch potato for the rest of your life.”

After his comeback, Pugsley hopes others know the battle is winnable. “There are things that I’ve chosen not to do because I don’t want to press fate,” he said, “but not because I’ve been physically restrained by things.”