Concussions in sports are common — with as many as 3.8 million per year in the U.S. In recent years, parents have reconsidered entering their child into contact sports to protect them from these often-recurring injuries. Highly publicized lawsuits against professional sports organizations have led to an increase in concussion prevention research, and the results may surprise you. While updating certain rules in sports have helped somewhat with concussion prevention, strengthening the muscles of the neck can also help reduce your chance of getting a concussion.
In plain terms, a concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that occurs from a bump, blow or jolt to the head, or by a hit that causes the head to shake violently. While they can, and certainly do, occur in other realms than sports, the playing field is often the place where youth and active adults experience them. In fact, up to 30% of youth athletes report having at least one concussion by the time they finish high school. Doctors once thought of concussions as a mild brain injury with symptoms of dizziness and general malaise subsiding after a month or two. We now know that concussions are associated with long-term effects like increased risk of Alzheimer’s, depression, and suicide. Hence, it is vital to protect athletes from getting one or more concussions. It’s important to note that these long-term effects are only a connection without a true understanding of the connection as yet. The answer may not be far from the brain itself.
The muscles in the neck have several functions, the first and foremost being that they assist in breathing. In addition, they help with the vital functions of chewing and swallowing. They also help to hold your head up against gravity and support the strong, yet vulnerable, vertebrae that encase and protect your spinal cord. There are deep neck muscles that are made for endurance activities, like holding your head up all day. There are also superficial neck muscles made for shorter, quick movements, like turning your head. While these muscles haven’t historically been given credit for protecting the brain, new research suggests otherwise.
Concussion prevention is the key to keeping athletes safe. Although there is no true way to prevent a concussion, there are some intriguing new insights that might reduce the risk. Numerous studies show that athletes who do a certain type of neck muscle strengthening are less likely to get a concussion compared to those who do not. Specifically, dynamic resistive training to the superficial muscles of the neck, not the endurance muscles, reigned supreme. The athlete performs exercises with resistance from weights or an elastic band in the directions of lateral flexion (side-bending), rotation (turning head), flexion (looking down), and extension (looking up). These findings are empowering to so many athletes who have often thought that a helmet was the only form of protection against concussions. Now there is a proactive step in concussion prevention that could change their overall health.
It has also been speculated that lack of neck strength might be one of the reasons that females have more concussion injuries and longer recovery times than males. For example, smaller average neck circumference and smaller average neck to head circumference ratio were significantly associated with concussion injuries.
Athletes have long feared, and yet endured, the short and long-term effects of concussions. These brain injuries have proven to not only be potentially career-ending, but also show up later in life in other forms. If athletes can help prevent the incidence of sustaining a concussion by doing dynamic neck strengthening, perhaps the prevalence of these injuries will slow down, and contact sports can thrive once again.
Physical therapists at Therafit can teach you exercises that will strengthen your neck muscles. Feel free to reach out to us at 978-452-9252 to learn more.
1. Chatterjee D, Frumberg DB, Mulchandani NB, et al. Current Concepts in Sports-Related Concussion. Crit Rev Biomed Eng. 2015;43(5-6):371-383. doi:10.1615/CritRevBiomedEng.2016016393
2. Elliott J, Heron N, Versteegh T, et al. Injury Reduction Programs for Reducing the Incidence of Sport-Related Head and Neck Injuries Including Concussion: A Systematic Review. Sports Med. 2021;51(11):2373-2388. doi:10.1007/s40279-021-01501-1
4. DePadilla L, Miller GF, Jones SE, Peterson AB, Breiding MJ. Self-Reported Concussions from Playing a Sport or Being Physically Active Among High School Students — United States, 2017. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2018;67:682–685. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6724a3