Cyclists far more likely to suffer serious back injuries than other athletes

BOSTON — More than eight out of every 10 sports-related spine injuries are suffered by cyclists, according to new research. Bike riders account for an astonishing 81 percent – nearly seven times more than skiing and snowboarding, say scientists.

The discovery is based on an analysis of traumatic spine injuries (TSIs) involving thousands of adults which can lead to significant disability — or even death. Policies designed to make cycling safer should be implemented, study authors suggest.

“These findings can be used to inform future research directions, including research regarding policy recommendations to prevent these injuries,” urges lead author Blake Hauser, of Harvard University, in a statement.

Simon Cowell broke his back last year while using his powerful electric bike. He said it “flew up in the air and did an accidental wheelie” after he tried to change gears. The media mogul, 60, underwent six hours of surgery to insert a metal rod into his spine. He was “lucky not to end up in a wheelchair.”

Ms Hauser’s team examined data on 80,040 sports-related traumatic injuries in the U.S., focusing specifically on 12,031 traumatic spine injuries. “Accidents involving cycling are by far the most frequent cause,” she says.

Next came skiing and snowboarding (12%), swimming and contact sports (3%) and skateboarding and rollerblading (1%).

The spinal cord is a collection of nerves carrying messages back and forth between the brain and the body. These messages allow us to move, feel pressure and control vital functions like breathing, blood pressure, bladder and bowels. When the spinal cord is damaged the messages can’t get through – causing a loss of movement and sensation from below the level of injury.

The study shows different activities tend to result in particular injuries. Overall, one in seven cases involved injuries to the spinal cord, rising to 49 and 41 percent in aquatic and contact sports, respectively. Among all patients, most injuries were caused by motor vehicle accidents (81%) in which the patients were not inside. Next came falls (14%.) 

Nine percent of patients with sports-related TSIs required surgery during their initial stay in the hospital. They were likely to remain on average two days longer and those with sports-related traumatic spinal cord injuries seven days longer than patients with non-TSI sports-related injuries.

The severity of injuries and adverse outcomes were determined based on stays in the intensive care unit (ICU) and post-hospital discharge disposition. Patients with sports-related traumatic spine injuries were significantly more likely to spend time in the ICU than patients with other sports-related injuries. Furthermore, patients with sports-related TSI were twice as likely to be discharged to another hospital, a rehabilitation facility, or home requiring rehabilitative services.

The percentage of patients who died in the hospital was low, but those with TSI were more likely to die in the hospital than patients with other sports-related injuries. Patients with traumatic spinal cord injuries were more likely than other patients with TSIs to be transferred to the ICU or die.

“Using a national, multi-center database, our team was able to identify associations between sports-related traumatic spine injuries and clinical outcomes,” adds Ms Hauser.

The study is published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.

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