Cervical surgery is one of the most common surgical spinal procedures performed around the world. The authors performed a systematic review of the literature reporting the outcomes of cervical spine surgery in high-level athletes in order to better understand the nuances of cervical spine pathology in this population.
A search of the MEDLINE database using the search terms “cervical spine” AND “surgery” AND “athletes” yielded 54 abstracts. After exclusion of publications that did not meet the criteria for inclusion, a total of 8 papers reporting the outcome of cervical spine surgery in professional or elite athletes treated for symptoms secondary to cervical spine pathology (focusing in degenerative conditions) remained for analysis. Five of these involved the management of cervical disc herniation, 3 were specifically about traumatic neurapraxia.
The majority of the patients included in this review were American football players. Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) was commonly performed in high-level athletes for the treatment of cervical disc herniation. Most of the studies suggested that return to play is safe for athletes who are asymptomatic after ACDF for cervical radiculopathy due to disc herniation. Surgical treatment may provide a higher rate of return to play for these athletes than nonsurgical treatment. Return to play after cervical spinal cord contusion may be possible in asymptomatic patients. Cervical cord signal changes on MRI may not be an absolute contraindication for return to play in neurologically intact patients, according to some authors. Cervical contusions secondary to cervical stenosis may be associated with a worse outcome and a higher recurrence rate than those those secondary to disc herniation. The evidence is low (Level IV) and individualized treatment must be recommended.