Why you should care
Because the highest percentage of concussed athletes don’t play with pigskin.
The padded room already has precipitation on the walls, and we’ve barely even started yet. “Butts up!” barks Rob Waltko, a former Pennsylvania state champion wrestler at North Allegheny High School, commanding preteen wrestlers on their mats to arch their backs. The North Allegheny Junior Tigers, mostly fifth and sixth graders, push and extend until the tops of their heads touch the mat in what resembles a chakrasana yoga pose. They’re still learning the sport — starting with basic exercises like the back bridge. “A strong neck and core are huge,” Waltko says. “There’s a lot of wear and tear [in wrestling], so you need that strength to stay mobile and flexible.”
Increased mobility and flexibility are not the only reasons for a swelling interest in neck strength. As concerns over chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) spread to all levels of sport, coaches, trainers, athletes and businessmen have zeroed in on the neck as a way to prevent head injuries. Once widely believed to be a football and boxing problem, concussions and CTE are now properly perceived as threats in many sports.
When your head moves during a collision, your brain gets jarred around the skull. A stronger neck can help stabilize the head.
Dr. Mark Kemenosh, lead chiropractor, Glen Oaks Health and Spine Center
In the NCAA, wrestling, football and ice hockey have the three highest self-reported concussion rates for men, while ice hockey, field hockey and soccer top the list for women. Developments in hardware, especially cushioned football helmets, have been widely touted, and now the next wave of prevention includes companies like the Iron Neck and Q30 Innovations, which focus on stabilizing the neck to stave off brain injury. But can even the most successful neck stabilizers meaningfully negate the effects of brutality in combat sports?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur in the United States. According to Dr. Mark Kemenosh, lead chiropractor at Glen Oaks Health and Spine Center in New Jersey, the neck plays a pivotal role in limiting the damage. “When your head moves during a collision, your brain gets jarred around the skull,” Kemenosh tells OZY. “This can cause injuries to the neck muscles, the top couple vertebrae and the connective tissue between the brain and the skull, leading to long-term damage. A stronger neck can help stabilize the head.”
Mike Jolly, a former UCLA football player, contends that strength built through conventional exercises does not provide critical protection during collisions. So he invented the Iron Neck, which relies on a rig called the Halo to apply “horizontal resistance while you rotate the neck,” according to Jolly.
The Halo functions as an attachment to any rotary cable weight machine — for example, a tricep push-down extension — and looks as though a 45-pound iron cast plate has become the hottest new headwear. An inner bladder can be inflated with a pump to create a snug fit around the user’s head. The athlete simply rotates his head and neck, following Jolly’s regimen. The rotational resistance and natural range of motion trains the neck’s muscles to fire appropriately during actual collisions. Today, 15 NFL teams and 24 collegiate programs utilize the Iron Neck in training.
“Compared to other sports, there’s nowhere to hide in wrestling,” says Brantley Hooks, a four-year starter at Bucknell University and now assistant coach at Fort Dorcester High School in North Charleston, South Carolina. “It’s devastatingly obvious when a guy wrestles concussed.” That may be one reason for wrestling’s relatively high rate of self-reported concussions. But it doesn’t explain why, in a sport where neck strength is pivotal, head injuries remain frequent.
The reluctant conclusion: Ridding contact sports of all head injuries requires much more than strength training. Former NFL quarterback Danny Kanell fears that this might mean fundamentally changing contact sports. “There is a huge concern for the future of football at the youth level,” Kanell tells OZY. “If you don’t have kids playing at a young age, the sport is going to die. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that in 20 or 30 years, we’ll be looking at a product that’s not the NFL.”
Another company using preventive technology to improve the state of play is Q30 Innovations. While some companies focus on collision-absorbent helmets, Q30 aims to protect the brain from inside the skull. The Connecticut-based company has produced the Q-Collar — a New Age neck roll that takes a radical approach to brain protection. By lightly clamping down on the athlete’s jugular veins, the Q-Collar causes the brain to swell, fitting more tightly within the skull. In March, the Q-Collar won Q30 the 2017 Alpha Award for Best Analytics Innovation/Technology at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Panthers LB Luke Kuechly has been wearing a "Q Collar" ; the device compresses the jugular so the brain swells and fits snugly in the skull. pic.twitter.com/mot3zm7L18— The Riot Report (@RRiotReport) August 13, 2017
It’s quite likely that the attempts to address the epidemic in sports concussions all stare down an unsolvable problem. Neck bridges and Q-Collars can’t stop the trauma of getting launched headfirst onto a thinly cushioned mat — all in the name of a two-point score. But the combination of research, education, innovative tech and old-school strength training might ease the pain. “Teaching coaches and trainers [to identify trauma] is huge, but the athletes themselves need to know the signs,” Hooks says. “We didn’t really talk much about that when I was wrestling.”
Competitive athletes will always try to push beyond injury. As Hooks says, “twisted knees and bad shoulders are a dime a dozen in the weigh-in line.” The key, then, is keeping that mindset below the neck.