Injuries in the NFL

Ever limped around with a sprained ankle for a couple of weeks?  Pulled a “hammy” playing softball and stayed out of the gym for a month?  Answer yes to any of these questions and you may not be cut out for a long NFL career.  While injuries are a given in the NFL, missing games with “minor injuries” is not.  Remember Jay Cutler?  Ridiculed on national television by those that thought a torn MCL was not serious enough to keep him from returning to a playoff game.

Anyone that watches football regularly is aware of the well-publicized major injuries but what is not well known are the “minor” injuries that many or all of the players deal with on a weekly basis.  Pulled or strained muscles; swollen knees and ankles; dislocated and separated shoulders; these are the injuries that many players suffer yet continue to play with during a grueling season in the NFL.

Dr. Michael Dillingham, the San Francisco 49ers team physician for 24 years, says “Playing with injury is routine.  Football is their profession and players are willing to take calculated risks to stay on the field.”   While careful not to impair a player’s ability to protect an injured area, pain-killing injections are commonplace before games to numb sore areas.  When asked about how many players are hurt during a season Dr. Dillingham articulates that “during the season virtually every player on an NFL team experiences an injury that the average person would consider a substantial injury.”

Even when players require surgery or significant rehabilitation after more serious injury, the time frame for recovery is accelerated when compared to the “normal” patient.  In his groundbreaking return from ACL surgery and rehabilitation, Jerry Rice was able to return to the NFL less than four months after his surgery by Dr. Dilllingham.  Active Care physical therapist and owner Lisa Giannone guided the rehab process, covered by Sports Illustrated.  Normal recovery after ACL surgery would require at least 7-9 months of rehabilitation prior to returning to sports.

After spending a season consulting inside the 49ers facility, Lisa and other Active Care therapists and trainers were accustomed to dealing with the accelerated pace of recovery.  As Lisa relates it was not uncommon to see players practicing with post-knee surgery sutures.

Public awareness of the risk of injury and the long-term health risks associated with professional football continues to increase.  In a report entitled “The Dangers of the Game”, released during the recent NFL lockout, research by the NFL Player’s Association revealed that major injuries have continued to increase with 352 players sustaining injuries that required missing at least half of the 2010 season, an all-time high.  The NFLPA released the report in response to the owner’s push for an expansion of the regular season to 18 games.  Not surprisingly, the research showed that the risk of injury increased through the season.

In wake of injuries to high profile players such as Robert Griffin III, debate will continue to rage about the wisdom of playing with injury.  But the question will be, how much will the heightened awareness about injury change the future of football?