We’ve now seen every state in the U.S. pass legislation to enforce higher standards for concussion education and management of concussed athletes. However, one concussion topic continues to take a back seat: prevention. Hoping to bring concussion prevention to the forefront, a growing number of doctors, athletic trainers, and researchers are bringing attention to the idea of strengthening the muscles of the neck as a method of reducing the number of concussions in student athletes.
In order to understand how neck strengthening may help prevent a concussion, it is important to first understand how concussions are sustained. While a direct blow to the head is what first comes to mind when thinking of how a concussion occurs, many are actually the result of a sudden change in direction of the head. This happens most commonly in athletes when a hit to the body results in whiplash or a sudden rotation of the head, causing the brain to violently shift within the skull. Helmets and rules of tackling have helped prevent concussions from direct hits, but there is little that can be done to limit the internal forces at work during a sudden change in direction.
This is where several experts feel that training an athlete’s neck musculature could help protect the brain from injury. Some have theorized that the muscles surrounding the neck can be the first line of defense, slowing down dangerous changes in direction of the head. Stronger neck muscles and stability would potentially assist in keeping the heads of falling players from striking the ground. By slowing down the head, the muscles of the neck act as shock absorbers, reducing the transmission of forces to the head and decreasing the risk of an injury to the brain. Current research on the topic is limited, but some recent studies seem to support the theory. A bevy of research is currently underway to help determine if there is truly a relationship between neck strength and concussion rates.
A typical neck strengthening routine would be designed by an athletic trainer or reputable strength and conditioning coach to address each athlete’s individual weaknesses and imbalances. A comprehensive neck strengthening program can be completed in as little as 5 minutes a day, 2-3 days a week. While some programs could be designed to utilize specialized neck strengthening machines, many exercises can be done in a more affordable way by resistance bands or through hands-on manual resistance.
While increasing the strength of the muscles in one’s neck doesn’t guarantee a concussion-free season, the theory that it can contribute to a safer season has merit. If neck strengthening to prevent concussions is of interest to you, I would encourage you to reach out to a certified athletic trainer or reputable strength and conditioning coach to design a program that is appropriate for you and your goals.