Dr. Andrew L. Carney, a Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suspects that the problem wrestlers might be facing is the dissection of the carotid and vertebral arteries in the neck. A dissection happens when a tear occurs in the inner lining of an artery. Because of this, blood enters the space between the inner and outer lining of the artery which then results in the partial or complete blockage of the artery.
According to Dr. Carney, “Hyperextending the head or rotating the head aggressively can separate the inner lining of the artery from the outside wall.” Due to the nature of wrestling and some of the moves and shots to the head that wrestlers take, one can make the assumption that there is a greater potential for this type of injury to occur in wrestlers than for those in the general populace.
How long can a person live with this condition?
Dr. Carney told me the story of a karate fighter that had both his vertebral arteries occluded and suffered from bouts of fainting 15 years later.
What types of side effects can this injury have?
A person with a dissection of the carotid and vertebral arteries can suffer damage to their brain and cause changes in heart function. Less severe side effects to the brain include headaches, dizziness, and neck pain. More severe side effects to the brain include amnesia, apathy, and hallucinations.
In his book Dizziness, Fainting, Headache, and Neck Pain For Those Who Care, Dr. Carney states “The relationship between cardiac rate, rhythm and output and arterial obstruction cannot be stressed too seriously.” He tells the story of a patient that was diagnosed as having a myocardial infarction (in layman's term a heart attack) but really died due to a classic case of brain stem ischemia: collapse, respiratory arrest, and subsequent cardiac arrest.
Can this condition be diagnosed prior to death?
Yes. An MRI of the neck as well as an MR Angiogram should show if there is an arterial dissection.
Can a broken neck lead to an arterial dissection?
According to Dr. Carney, a broken neck does predispose a patient to arterial dissection and to symptoms later. As wrestling fans know, Chris Benoit once suffered a broken neck. Upon his death, an autopsy of his brain tissue revealed that he had the brain of an 85 year old man with Alzheimer’s.
Can the condition be repaired?
Yes. There is a surgical procedure that can fix the problem. In the case of people with brain damage caused by occlusion or dissection, if the artery is repaired then brain function can be restored.
Why haven’t wrestling fans heard of this before?
The only way that this injury can be determined after-death is by an autopsy of the neck. However, the autopsy of the neck is rarely done. Dr. Carney feels that the reason why is because it is difficult to do and that the undertakers and family object to disfiguring the neck.
Who is Dr. Carney?
He is a founding member and former President of Society of Neurovascular Surgery. In 1977, he performed the first-ever Vein Bypass from the Common Carotid Artery to the Vertebral Artery at the Skull Base.
Sources used include: correspondence with Dr. Carney, footage on Dr. Carney's website, Dizziness, Fainting, Headache, and Neck Pain by Dr. Carney, Sports Legacy Institute findings on Chris Benoit, Richard N. Fogoros, M.D., and http://adam.about.net