Why Cervical Spine ROM is Crucial for Athletes

Think you have your athlete’s back? Think again!

The appropriate diagnosis and management of cervical and thoracic spine injures in athletics is critical for returning to high-level performance. Often, an athlete with neck or thoracic pain will seek medical or rehabilitative care but will continue to fully participate in sport. Here are several guidelines to remember that emphasize complete cervical spine function in athletes:

Return to Play vs. Discharge of Care

Rehabilitation providers need to differentiate return to play recommendations from discharge of care. Appropriate discharge testing is crucial to identify all the meaningful impairments so nothing is missed. Leaving modifiable impairments on the table is a recipe for poor performance potential or re-injury.

Full Cervical Spine ROM in Sports

Do not underestimate the function of full cervical spine ROM for sports. The initial validity of cervical rotation may not be that obvious…but when we go into more detail, the cervical spine’s role in full spinal ROM is extremely important. For example, many sports involve generation of high rotational velocities through the hips and spine for throwing and hitting. These velocities hinge on a smooth relationship between cervical, thoracic, and pelvic mobility (among others). Efficient rotational velocity production relies on these linked processes.

For normal thoracic rotation motor control, the athlete needs to possess adequate cervical mobility and control. For example, when in the batter’s box a right-handed hitter needs full thoracic rotation to the right and full cervical rotation to the left. Both of these motions are extremely important in hitting athletes who are taught to keep their “head still” during the execution of the swing.

With these examples in mind, recognize the importance of appropriate discharge testing (rather than just return to sport) and don’t neglect even subtle cervical ROM loss in athletes!