Professional football coaches, players and, especially fans, are fascinated by statistics. Here’s one from “Pro Football Reference” that causes concern among neurosurgeons: On average, each team runs between 67 and 84 offensive plays each game. While “skill” players such as wide receivers and quarterbacks take a few (five or so) “hits” and running backs experience about 20 collisions for tackles and blocks each game, offensive linemen receive full-body blows on every offensive play!
With all of these high-velocity collisions, interior linemen routinely have a minor injury to their shoulders commonly called a “stinger.” This condition is a temporary tingling throughout the shoulder and arms that feels like an electrical charge running to the fingers. In most cases, these stingers are nothing to be concerned about, unless they are a symptom of a nerve disorder.
During training camp this summer, the Dallas Cowboys’ All-Pro starting center, Travis Frederick, noticed that he was having more and more stingers. While it was annoying to the massive athlete (he’s 6’3” and 317 pounds), he ignored them and kept working on his skills and conditioning. Unfortunately, they were a symptom of something much more serious.
According to 24/7 Sports, “Frederick made a post to his Twitter account announcing that he has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the nerves. Frederick stated that he had received two treatments over the past 48 hours and will continue treatment over the next several days.”
A Neurosurgeon Examines Guillain-Barré Syndrome
As a neurosurgeon at Texas Back Institute, Dr. Thomas Kosztowski understands the severity of this condition. He explained its causes and treatment in layman’s terms.
“The cause of Guillain-Barré Syndrome is still not completely clear,” he said. “The current medical thinking is that the body experiences some kind of infection – often gastrointestinal (stomach) or respiratory (lung) – and the body mounts its immune system against this infection. The problem occurs when the immune system gets ‘confused’ and also attacks the neurological system.
“This disease affects the nerves that are outside the spinal cord. The patient will typically experience tingling or weakness in the arms or legs. This sensation tends to travel ‘up’ from the hands and feet to the central body. This condition can be dangerous because in addition to the weakness or numbness, there can be disruptions in breathing and in the regulation of blood pressure and heart rates.”
Stingers vs. GBS
This situation with the Cowboys’ center was confusing to the player and team staff because “stingers” often occur in contact sports. Young athletes, without the resources of a professional team, are vulnerable to many types of injuries and diseases. What can the coaches and trainers of amateur athletes take away from this situation?
Dr. Kosztowski noted, “When the coaches and trainers of the team heard the player describe the sharp pains and tingling that he was experiencing, they most likely thought of the most common cause for this – a simple stinger resulting from a direct hit on the shoulder. GBS is a very rare disease, and it is unlikely that a non-specialist would attribute this tingling and pain to anything but stingers.
“This is problematic for amateur sports because GBS can occur at any age. I would recommend that any time a young athlete experiences any type of numbness, weakness or tingling in the arms or shoulders that they see their primary care physician immediately.
“From media reports, I understand that Frederick had undergone MRIs and they showed nothing unusual. However, with more extensive blood work, the doctors were able to come up with this diagnosis. Without extensive blood work and a spinal fluid tap, it is almost impossible to reach a definitive diagnosis of this condition.”
How is GBS Treated?
“Once it is diagnosed, this condition is a fairly treatable disease,” Dr. Kosztowski said. “However, the sooner it can be diagnosed the better. The most commonly used treatment for Guillain-Barré Syndrome is intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg). This is a treatment that is made from donated blood that contains healthy antibodies and requires multiple sessions.
“Success with this type of treatment depends on several factors, including how quickly the disease was caught, how extensively it had spread and the health of the patient. It is possible for a patient to fully heal from GBS, or there can be residual effects.
“Because of the facts in this case, I believe Frederick will do very well in recovery from this condition. He’s young, very healthy and, according to reports, the disease was caught very early in its development. Plus, the treatments were started immediately.
“We’re all hoping that he has a full recovery.”
“Dallas Cowboys Offensive Line” Flickr photo by Keith Allison shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license.