The risk of injury in practices and games is common among all levels of football, but in the case of the rare cervical spine injury the actions taken by medical staff immediately following an injury could mean the difference between paralysis and full recovery.
Proper on-field management of such situations is critical, and that is exactly why Mercyhurst University Sports Medicine Department Bradley Jacobson and graduate student Jacob Gdovin decided to make it the focus of their research.
Jacobson and Gdovin challenged the “all or nothing endeavor,” or the position statement of the National Athletic Trainers Association that dictates “if you have to remove the helmet to gain access to the airway, then the shoulder pads should also come off.”
They found that their method of “pack and fill,” which avoids removal of shoulder pads in on-field care, reduced movement of the spine and neck, which decreased the risk for further injury to the athlete.
The project started with Gdovin’s baccalaureate research project for his undergraduate program in sports medicine and pre-med, and it grew to include collaboration not only from Jacobson, but also from the motion analysis lab at Erie Shriner’s Hospital for Children and Mike Cendoma from Sports Medicine Concepts.
Jacobson described Gdovin’s work on the project as “above and beyond” the expected research required in the undergraduate projects.
With their research, Jacobson and Gdovin aimed to make on-field care better in treating potential cervical spinal cord injuries.
Cendoma, who runs educational programs for football teams of all levels about how cervical neck injuries should be managed on-field, asked Jacobson and Gdovin to work with him and Sports Medicine Concepts over the summer. This gave them the opportunity to work with NFL teams and help present the results of their research.
They helped educate the neurosurgeons, orthopedic doctors, athletic training staff and paramedics that comprise NFL medical teams.
“Jake and I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to go to NFL teams like the Colts, the Giants and the Jets,” Jacobson said.
Both Jacobson and Gdovin drew interest in the project from their own experiences playing football, but one incident stood out to Jacobson as he recalled his motivation for the research.
In 1983, his first year as athletic trainer in charge of medical services at Mercyhurst, Jacobson encountered a cervical neck injury that enlightened him on “the preparation that’s needed and the proper protocol that’s needed to handle a situation like that.”
Though the player did not suffer any permanent damage, Jacobson realized that the lack of standards and confidence in on-field care left a lot of room for improvement.
“From that point on, it sparked an interest in this topic,” he said.
Though rules have been implemented through the years to discourage dangerous helmet-to-helmet contact between players, some including Jacobson and Gdovin credit improved on-field care techniques with the decrease in catastrophic spine and spinal cord injuries.
Gdovin commended the NFL, saying, “the fact that these injuries are decreasing says a lot about the work they are putting into trying to keep these athletes safe.”
Both Jacobson and Gdovin found the experience immensely rewarding, and they were thankful for the special opportunity to teach and work with NFL medical staffs.
They recently received confirmation that their findings were accepted for publication in the Journal of Athletic Training.
Mercyhurst students and faculty continually aim to make a positive impact in their respective fields.
Jacobson and Gdovin are no exception, as they are looking forward to continuing their work in improving on-field care and mitigating the effects of cervical spine injury.