The shocking death of Phil Hughes, just days before the popular Australian cricketer would have turned 26, has left the sports world wondering one thing: How could this happen?
Hughes was wearing a helmet, but in a freak combination of circumstances, his head was turned away from the ball as it bounced up to him.
The ball came up below his helmet, outside his face guard, hitting him in a sensitive part of the neck. It smashed the critical vertebral artery, which carries blood from the heart up into the head.
“That caused the artery to split and for bleeding to go up into the brain,” Australian team doctor Peter Bruckner said. “And he had a massive bleed into his brain.”
While it’s incredibly rare for such a thing to happen on a sports field, the injury is not that uncommon in some car crashes, medical literature suggests — perhaps occurring in 1% to 3% of accidents. Other blunt trauma to the neck, or strangulation, can cause the same damage.
It’s even possible for the artery to split with no obvious immediate injury, in what specialists call “spontaneous vertebral artery dissection.”
If that happens, it can be less obviously traumatic than what happened to Hughes, leading to a slow leak rather than the massive bleeding that killed the athlete.
About one or 1.5 people in 100,000 suffer spontaneous vertebral artery dissection every year, a review of the literature suggests.
It’s among the leading causes of strokes in people ages 45 and younger, the study finds.