As linebacker Ryan Shazier lie clutching his mid-back, his legs motionless, the American football world fell silent. It’s a difficult injury to discuss because he’s still recovering and likely still in a place where he doesn’t yet know what that recovery will mean.
I’ve gotten many, many questions about his injury. I will try to answer some of them here, but right now, for those of us outside of the linebacker’s close friends and family and medical team, there are a lot more questions than answers. I will stick to the facts.
The initial reports from the Steelers’ locker room were mixed – one report was of a spinal cord “concussion” and another a spinal cord “contusion.” These are very different entities. A spinal cord “concussion” is like a shock to the cord – for a short moment in time, the spinal cord responds to a trauma by shutting down and, over minutes to hours, gradually regains full function. With cord concussions there is little to no damage to the spinal tissues. A spinal cord “contusion,” on the other hand, involves some injury to the tissue such as bleeding (like a bruise that you can see in your skin) that can progress and cause lasting neurologic deficits like weakness, etc.
Shazier was reported to have regained some movement in his legs on Tuesday, but no further details about his neurologic recovery have been given. He was transported back to Pittsburgh and had surgery last night to stabilize his spine.
A spine stabilization surgery often involves fusion of 2 or more vertebrae together to act as a brace for an injured area. After a spinal cord injury, surgery can be performed for a few different reasons – to stabilize an unstable fracture, to stabilize a ligamentous injury, to remove a portion of disc that is compressing the spinal cord, to evacuate a hematoma that is pressing on the spinal cord, or to remove bone fragments that may be abutting the spinal cord and risking further injury.
We don’t know why Shazier had surgery last night, but we do know that he is in the early stages of a long recovery. We don’t know what degree of nerve recovery that will be, but I suggest we remain hopeful. My thoughts are with Ryan Shazier, his family, and his medical team during this difficult time.