Common arm injuries among NFL players tracked by research

Injuries are a fact of life for football players and can end a season or even a career. New School of Medicine research shows arm injuries also are causing NFL players to miss significant game and practice time.

Matthew Matava

The researchers reviewed NFL injury records over 10 seasons to understand how often finger, hand, wrist, elbow and arm injuries occurred, what caused those injuries and whether some might be preventable. They found 2,224 of them in the league’s database and published their findings in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Knowing which positions are at risk for particular injuries and what those players were doing when they got hurt may help to prevent some of those injuries.

“Players with finger and hand injuries are treated by medical personnel each week, and most people won’t even know that player is injured,” said Matthew J. Matava, M.D., associate professor of orthopedic surgery and team physician for the St. Louis Rams. “Whether he can continue to play will depend upon his position. Obviously, it’s a lot easier for a lineman to play in a cast than it is for a quarterback, running back or wide receiver.”

It turns out that offensive and defensive linemen are the most likely to sustain hand injuries. Some 80 percent of hand injuries involve broken fingers. Defensive backs are the most likely to suffer a sprained or broken thumb. Jammed and dislocated fingers usually affect receivers and defensive backs.

“There’s not much we can do to prevent most finger and hand injuries,” Matava said. “You can protect the head with a helmet and put pads on the shoulders, but most players need their fingers and hands free to be at their best.”

Players with elbow injuries averaged 22 days lost, wrist injuries 27 days and forearm injuries 42 days. That’s almost half of the NFL season.

The majority of these injuries occurred among offensive and defensive linemen, and 75 percent were elbow injuries. Defensive backs had twice as many forearm injuries as players at any other position.

For all of the injuries that Matava’s research team analyzed, the most dangerous football activity was tackling. Tackling was involved 28 percent of the time when hand, finger and thumb injuries occurred and 24 percent of the time in wrist, forearm and elbow injuries.

“Obviously, you can’t avoid tackling in football,” Matava said. “You can make rules to eliminate blocking from behind, spearing or other dangerous things, but you can’t eliminate tackling without fundamentally changing the game.”

Matava said it may be possible to protect players from some of these injuries by having them wear protective braces. The NFL does not require elbow or wrist braces, and Matava said he believes if such requirements were proposed, players might object.

In addition to cataloguing the types of injuries that affect NFL players, looking through the league’s injury database also may be an important way to learn to prevent similar injuries in younger college and high-school players, Matava said.

“We hope this type of survey will become the ‘gold standard’ of injury research in football and that it, perhaps, will trickle down to the NCAA level and the high-school level,” Matava said.