At this point, Packers fans are all too aware of neck/cervical injuries and the effects and repercussions of returning to play after an injury and surgery. At this point, Ted Thompson has had likely six neck injuries and four surgeries, all with various results, some positive but mostly negative. The latest was defensive linemen Johnny Jolly, who after battling a prescription drug addiction was a surprising addition to the Packers roster last year. News recently came out that Jolly has been cleared by his doctors to return to play and now the question is whether or not the Packers will take him up on that offer. However, many fans don’t really know the diagnosis, treatment or outcome of neck injuries and surgeries and it’s important to really understand the injury before deciding whether or not Jolly should or could return to the Packers. As a matter of disclosure, I am not a doctor but an immunologist, so while I do have plenty of experience in the medical field I am not qualified to present a medical opinion; below is research I have done from a variety of medical journals and other sources.
Packer players who suffered a neck injury under the Ted Thompson regime
1. Terrance Murphy: Murphy suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit by Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis on a fumble recovery off of a return and was later discovered to have spinal stenosis, which ultimately ended his career.
2. Jeremy Thompson: Thompson suffered a neck injury during a practice after sustaining a collision with running back Kregg Lumpkin, who from reports suffered temporary paralysis on the field, necessitating the need for an ambulance and an overnight stay at Bellin Hospital. Thompson subsequently also announced his retirement after the injury. On a completely unrelated note, Thompson is now a medical student at the University of North Carolina, so the stereotype of football players being dumb jocks isn’t always true.
3. Nick Collins: Perhaps the most famous Packer to suffer a neck injury, Collins collided with Carolina running back Johnathan Stewart from above and suffered temporary paralysis. Collins spent the night at a hospital in Carolina before rejoining the team on IR. Collins then had single fusion neck surgery to fuse the C3 and C4 vertebrae together. Collins was subsequently released by the Packers and while he hasn’t officially retired, no team has been willing to even try him out, which indicates the severity of the injury.
4. Sean Richardson: Richardson suffered a herniated disk on a return against the New York Giants in 2012 and was sent to IR. Richardson subsequently had single fusion neck surgery on the C5 and C6 vertebrae and missed most of the last season as well. However, Richardson is the lone bright spot for the Packers as no other player has made it back to the field after suffering a serious neck injury.
5. Jermichael Finley: Finley suffered a bruised spinal cord against the Browns last season and suffered temporary paralysis and had to be carted off the field and again spent the night at a hospital. Finley subsequently had single fusion surgery on his C3 and C4 vertebrae. At the moment Finley’s professional future is very much in doubt; while several doctors have cleared him to return to play, unfortunately none of these doctors is employed by an NFL team (in a team capacity) and currently Finley is a free agent with most indications being that teams are waiting until he is further out on his recovery before making a decision.
6. Johnny Jolly: The latest in the Packers neck injury woes, Jolly reported suffering numbness in his arm against Cowboys last season and was placed on IR shortly afterwards. He was later diagnosed with a neck injury and subsequently had single fusion neck surgery on his C5 and C5 vertebrae. Recently Jolly has been cleared by some doctors nearly 5 months ahead of schedule and is currently a free agent.
1. Surgery: Players can elect to either have surgery or not. For the Packers the results are mixed; of the two players that did not decide to have surgery (Murphy and Thompson), neither ever saw the field again. Of the 4 that did decide to go through with surgery, only Richardson has been cleared by team doctors to resume play. Nick Collins ultimately never played again and at the moment indications are the same fate likely falls on Finley. Not too much information is known about Jolly’s injury since it was so recent, but research suggests that patients that opt for surgery do have a higher likelihood of returning to play (72%) than those that don’t (46%).
2. Location of fusion/injury: spinal injuries are actually quite different in nature and the exact treatment also significantly influences the likelihood of return. Typically the lower the injury, the more likely that player is to return from injury. Fusions involving the C3/C4 vertebrae, which are higher up on the neck than the C5/C6 vertebrae typically have worse recovery likely because they are further away from the body and therefore more exposed for re-injury (another possibility is that C3/C4 vertebrae injuries are more serious for the same reasons). In this case, Jolly has a better chance of recovery since his surgery was lower like Sean Richardson’s surgery, which ultimately allowed him to return to play.
3. Spinal Stenosis: This is one of the bigger issues, stenosis is classified as “an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal that may occur in any of the regions of the spine”. Players that do have this likely congenital abnormality typically do not exhibit any symptoms but it’s a big enough issue at this point to warrant it being checked at the NFL combine and is likely the reason several players have fallen on draft day. Of the Packers players to suffer an neck injury, only Terrance Murphy was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and it ultimately ended his career. Another common symptom is cervical cord neuropraxia, which is an injury to a nerve that results in temporary paralysis but not degeneration. Unfortunately, cervical cord neuropraxia is often associated with spinal stenosis and as previous reported Jolly was first diagnosed with a neck injury after exhibiting weakness in his arm (which is likely an indication of cervical cord neuropraxia). Jolly is likely at a higher risk of having spinal stenosis or at the very least have a narrowing of the spinal canal (but perhaps not to the extent of actual spinal stenosis).
4. Other considerations: While defensive backs have historically had a harder time recovering from neck injuries, Sean Richardson did have a couple things going for him; namely his age (23 at the time) and body type are conducive to a quicker and more complete recovery. On the other hand, Jolly is 31 and plays defensive end/tackle and plays at 300+ lbs which is very unnatural weight/body size (see Jeff Saturday playing for the Packers versus after retirement to see really how unnatural being a 300+ lb linemen really is). The final thing to consider is Jolly’s well known issues with prescription medication; while it’s likely that doctors avoided prescribing codeine and codeine like therapeutics, it’s possible that any drug given to Jolly will increase his risk of relapse.
Overall, I would say that recent news of Jolly’s recovery is mostly positive spin made by his agent and his representation. Simply by looking at past history with the Packers shows they are notoriously conservative when it comes to player’s health (which is a great thing); if it took a 23 year old player with little or not wear or previous injuries nearly a year to get back on the field, what are the chances that a 31 year old player with tons of snaps and seasons under his belt will be cleared in under 6 months? While it’s hard to say whether or not Jolly’s career is actually over, it definitely seems like an uphill battle for him, even with the positive news that just came out.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.