Factors that could decide Finley's future

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- From the video Jermichael Finley posted that shows him walking down a hospital corridor to the report Tuesday by ESPN's Ed Werder that Finley could be released from the hospital within 24 hours, the early signs indicate that the Green Bay Packers tight end will be able to lead a normal life.

But what about a normal football life?

That is likely to be a point of great debate over the next several weeks and months.

According to Werder, sources said Finley was diagnosed with a spinal contusion located in his neck after he sustained a hit in Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns. The sources said that is expected to heal, leaving Finley at no greater risk of another spinal injury than any other player.

However, before he is cleared to return, Finley is likely to visit several specialists, and it's possible there might not be a consensus about whether he should continue his career.

"There are some things where you could probably put doctors in a room and they would all agree because it would be so blatant," said ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. "There are some that they call absolute contraindications to play. If they see something like that, they would probably say, 'Hey, we all agree.' But more often than not, these things are not clear cut."

Whether Finley has spinal stenosis could play a significant factor in his football future. Spinal stenosis, according to the National Library of Medicine, is a narrowing of the spinal column that causes pressure on the spinal course or narrowing of the openings where spinal nerves leave the spinal column.

Several recent Packers players who sustained bruised spinal cords or columns -- including safety Gary Berry (in 2000), receiver Terrence Murphy (2005) and linebacker Jeremy Thompson (2009) -- all were diagnosed with stenosis. The Packers did not clear them, and they never played in the NFL again.

There are two types of stenosis according to Bell -- congenital and functional.

"In the case of stenosis, which is the first thing you think of with an injury like this, you ask is it congenital, where he has a narrow [spinal] canal and this was bound to happen at some point and you're lucky it wasn't more serious?" Bell said. "Or does he have functional stenosis, where in certain positions the canal is compromised but normally wouldn't be? And that's a gray area.

"Or does he have a bulging disc, and the disc is now pushing into that space. If the disc bulge didn't exist, there would be no stenosis. And in those cases, what they've done with players in the past -- there's a whole case series that's been reported out of Pittsburgh -- is they operate on them, fuse the two vertebrae together -- which is kind of the same surgery Peyton Manning had -- and then they can return to play."

Even if Finley doesn't have stenosis, there's another question that needs to be asked, according to Bell.

"It always goes back to, if he could have this once, could he have it again?" Bell said.

Finley's injury was especially troubling to those who witnessed it up close because initially Finley said he could not move.

"He couldn't move at the time, so I just told him, 'Just stay here, just lay here, don't move,'" said Packers tight end Andrew Quarless, who was the first person to reach Finley after the hit.

Even though Finley regained movement shortly thereafter and he reported that he has feeling in his extremities, there are too many unknowns to make any final decisions.

"We hear that he's got all of his feeling; he's got all of his movement," Bell said. "But when they start going in and testing with pinpricks on the edge of his fingers or tips of his toes, if there's something that never returns, we won't hear about that. But there's all these little things that they're going to be looking for.

"The obvious ones are he didn't have a fracture; they wouldn't have him up if he did. He didn't have some kind of gross instability; you usually fracture before you damage ligaments up there because the ligaments are so strong. If they didn't find anything, then it becomes a matter of comfort level of the doctor who is consulting, what they've seen, what their experience is, what they believe philosophically."