Objective: To alert athletic trainers to the importance of recognizing the signs and symptoms of central cord syndrome.
Background: A 15-year-old high school wrestler was found lying supine on the mat after sustaining a hyperextension injury to his neck while drilling during practice, complaining of numbness, tingling, and a burning sensation in all 4 extremities. Touching the extremities elicited an extreme burning sensation. After in-line stabilization of the cervical spine was performed, palpation of the spinous processes elicited tenderness and an increase in pain. Six weeks before the injury, the athlete had experienced forced lateral flexion of the cervical spine during a match, resulting in an episode of bilateral numbness and burning in his arms. On evaluation by the athletic trainer, symptoms were limited to the right hand, and brachial plexus neurapraxia was diagnosed.
Differential Diagnosis: Central cord syndrome, brachial plexus injury, cervical spine injury, burning hands syndrome, Brown-Séquard syndrome, anterior cord syndrome.
Treatment: Upon assessment, the athlete's cervical spine was immobilized until emergency medical services arrived and applied a cervical collar. Radiographs taken at the hospital revealed a congenital fusion of C6-7. Magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography showed evidence of stenosis, a herniated disc at C3-4, and a central cord injury. He was admitted to the hospital for observation and was placed on a corticosteroid protocol. At approximately 1 week after the injury, the athlete underwent a cervical decompression and fusion at C3-4. Subsequently, he underwent extensive rehabilitation and has had some persistent neck stiffness. The athlete is no longer allowed to participate in contact sports as a result of the presence of stenosis at multiple levels.
Uniqueness: Central cord syndrome is typically seen in an older population with cervical spondylosis and rarely occurs in young adolescents. However, this athlete sustained 2 central cord injuries, 1 mild and 1 severe, in less than 6 weeks' time.
Conclusions: The original injury sustained by the wrestler was thought to be a brachial plexus injury but, in fact, was a mild central cord injury. Central cord syndrome was not suspected in the original injury because the athlete's complaint was of unilateral numbness. With the second injury, the central cord injury was more severe. Proper recognition, assessment, and handling of this situation were crucial in providing optimal care to this athlete.