BACKGROUND: Cervical cord magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) T2 hyperintensity is used as evidence of cord trauma in the evaluation and management of athletes in contact sports. The long-term pathophysiologic and prognostic value of this finding is poorly understood, especially in return to play (RTP).
OBJECTIVE: To examine the significance of T2 hyperintensity in the cervical spinal cord of professional athletes.
METHODS: Retrospective review of MRI T2 hyperintensity findings between 2007 and 2014 in 5 professional athletes. Pertinent examination and demographics, including mechanism of injury, surgical intervention, radiographs, MRI studies, long-term outcomes, and RTP recommendations were collected.
RESULTS: Four National Football League players and 1 professional wrestler had prior traumatic neurapraxia that at the time of initial consultation had resolved. MRIs showed congenitally small cervical canal (1) and multilevel spondylosis/stenosis/disc herniation (4) along with focal cord T2 hyperintensity (5). The signal abnormalities were at C3/C4 (3), C4 mid-vertebral body (1), and C5/C6 (1). Four athletes had single-level anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, and 1 was nonoperative. Serial MRI imaging at 3 months after surgery showed hyperintensity partially resolved (4) and unchanged (1), and at 9-months 3 of the 5 completely resolved. Based on the author’s RTP criteria, 4 of 5 were released to return to their sport. Clearance for RTP preceded complete resolution of MRI T2 hyperintensity in 3 of 4 athletes. The 2 athletes that have returned to profession sport have not had any additional episodes of neurapraxia or any cervical spine-related complications.
CONCLUSION: MRI T2 hyperintensity in contact sport athletes who are symptom-free with normal examination and no evidence of spinal instability may not be a contraindication to RTP. Additional observations are needed to confirm this observation.
From: Significance of T2 Hyperintensity on Magnetic Resonance Imaging After Cervical Cord Injury and Return to Play in Professional Athletes by Tempel et al.