Ryan Shazier’s Spinal Injury Status Is Still Unclear, But It Looks Dire

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The linebacker’s spinal injury is way more serious than first thought

On Monday Night, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier took a hit that may have changed his life. Shazier injured his spine during a tackle attempt on Cincinatti Bengals receiver Josh Malone and was carted off the field. Since then, information coming out of the Steelers’ office and from various other sources has been confusing and scant, but, as with any spinal injury, the consequences can be dire.

On Thursday, the Steelers announced that Shazier had undergone spinal stabilzation surgery, a procedure that can mean a number of different things. The surgery took place Wednesday.

Statement from UPMC Neurosurgeons & #Steelers Team Physicians on Ryan Shazier pic.twitter.com/nE7xgsx7Tx

— Burt Lauten (@SteelersPRBurt) December 7, 2017

Initially, there were some encouraging reports that suggested Shazier’s injury may be less severe than it looked on the field. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Steelers writer Ed Bouchette reported that players were referring to his injury as a “spinal cord concussion,” a serious neurological injury that nevertheless has a relatively good prognosis.

Some good news coming out from Steelers. Two players called Shazier’s injury a spinal chord concussion, comparable to Tommy Maddox injury in 2002; Maddox missed 1 game. Encouraging news, another said.

— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) December 5, 2017

But news of Shazier’s surgery means that his injury may be as serious as anyone who saw the hit feared. Bouchette, following up on the Steeler’s announcement, noted that “spinal stabilization surgery” can encompass a variety of procedures that often include fusing damaged vertebrae together with cages, plates or screws.

Right now, there’s no information as to how serious the surgery was or what Shazier’s prognosis is. Brock Bowman, medical director at the Spinal Cord Injury Center at Shepherd Center in Atlanta told Bouchette that recovery from such surgery can take anywhere from six weeks to three months. Several other third-party neurologists have said that Shazier’s ability to walk could be in question, let alone his ability to play football.

“It’s not good…We’re not going to see him this season. He may not play football again,” Dr. Anthony Alessi, a neurosurgeon who consults with the NFL Player’s Association, told ESPN’s Michele Steele. “This is a much more severe situation on our hands than we thought.”

Related: Why 30 Former NFL Players are Donating their Brains to Science

However, it’s very important to note that Alessi does not know the details of Shazier’s case. He consults with the NFLPA, but has no access to Shazier’s medical records, charts, and isn’t responsible for his care in any way. Right now, the only people who have an accurate prognosis for Shazier’s injury are the doctors directly treating him at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Joseph Okonkwo and Joseph Maroon.

Still, Shazier’s injury, which has the potential to be devastating, has highlighted the violence and brutality inherent in the NFL.

“I’m not worried about him playing for us again, I’m more worried about him,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler told Bouchette at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday. “Y’all have been updated as much as we have. The thing that we’re hopeful for and prayerful for is that he comes back and he’ll be OK. The football stuff is secondary. His life is a lot more important to me than football.”

The discussion of the sport’s sometimes devastating health consequences usually revolves around CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a rare condition that has become an epidemic in former NFL players who sustain multiple concussions throughout their career. CTE has horrible effects on mood, mental health, and a whole host of physical symptoms as it develops during and after a player’s career. Spinal injuries, on the other hand, are immediate reminders of how easily a routine play in the game can go wrong.

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