Heads Up: Preventing Sports-Related Brain, Neck and Spinal Cord Injuries

As a neurosurgeon who specializes in complex and minimally invasive spine procedures, Dr. Robert Galler treats a wide range of injuries suffered by patients, including those with head trauma from bicycle accidents, spinal cord injuries from surfing and concussions resulting from participating in contact sports. Here, Dr. Galler talks about the most common sports-related injuries he encounters — and ways to prevent them.

What sports injuries are most common on Long Island?

Long Island is an ideal environment for enjoying the outdoors year-round. Because outdoor recreation is especially popular in the warmer months, we tend to see patients who have been injured as a result of engaging in water-related activities. These include things such as body surfing, board surfing and jet skiing. We also see a lot of injuries resulting from car/bicycle accidents.

What is your best advice for people who engage in these activities?

Prevention. Brain, neck and spinal cord injuries are serious neurological events with complex treatment and often long recovery times. Even though Stony Brook offers some of the most advanced neurological and neurosurgical care in the country, make every effort to be safe from the start. If biking, wear a helmet that is approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). As children grow, be sure to continually upgrade their helmets because only a proper fit affords maximum protection. If you’re an adult, make sure your helmet was made after 1999 because of a change in standards. Learn the rules of the road and follow them as you would if you were driving a car. Use bike paths rather than roads when possible.

If you are a beach fan, be sure to familiarize yourself with the environment, learn about the tides and currents, and pay attention to warning signs. Never dive into the water without knowing the depth, whether as a boater or when swimming at a pool. And whatever sport you participate in, whether equestrian competitions or rugby, wear the proper protective equipment. For older adults, bravo for exercising. However, you should be aware that if you have osteoporosis, even minor bumps and falls can cause a compression fracture. Be sure to consult with your primary care physician and know your risk factors before engaging in sports or physical activities.

What can parents do to help their families stay safe?

First, they need to develop good safety and prevention habits, then set a good example. How many times do you see a family taking a bike ride where the kids are wearing helmets and the parents are not? Don’t be a “do what I say, not what I do” parent.

Second, educate yourself and your family members. As an adult, it is your responsibility to teach your children safe biking and other sports safety. If your child plays team sports such as basketball, soccer or football, make sure the coach and team physician
adhere to the recommendations about dealing with head injuries, including the more “mild” concussions. Recent research shows that any blow to the head, even if the athlete does not lose consciousness, needs to be taken seriously because of the cumulative effect these injuries have over time.

Why should Stony Brook be the “place of choice” to treat these types of injuries?

Stony Brook is the only Regional Trauma Center in Suffolk County. We also have full-time neurosurgery services available at the Hospital 24/7—both adult and pediatric—and are staffed by a faculty of board-certified eligible neurosurgeons. We have the capacity to manage critically ill and injured patients in an intensive-care setting. Also, as the only academic medical center on Long Island with international and national research trials on spinal cord injuries, we can offer the highest level of care using leading-edge technology and surgical techniques.

Where can people get more information about safety and prevention?

There are a number of excellent resources available, including:

For more information about Stony Brook’s Comprehensive Spine Center, call (631) 444-1213 or visit neuro.stonybrookmedicine.edu.

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