A concussion is caused because of acceleration or deceleration of the brain within the skull, which causes brain cells to become stimulated, resulting in symptoms. Research shows that if we decrease acceleration of the head, then it may be possible to reduce the risk of suffering a concussion. Studies indicate that one of the greatest influences on head acceleration is neck stiffness – and not necessarily neck strength.1
Increasing neck stiffness can link the head with the torso, and could reduce the acceleration of the head during impact.1
To put this another way, a stiff neck means the head and body move as a single unit, which can make the head move slower upon impact. If the neck is loose, then even a minor impact to the head can cause the head to whip back and forth, resulting in acceleration.
Neck stiffness vs. neck strength
Neck stiffness requires neck strength, but neck strength does not mean neck stiffness.
The world record neck lift is over 1,000 pounds, but the muscles in the neck are actively working, firing and using a lot of energy at the time of the lift. When the muscles are relaxed, the neck serves its primary purpose: to be a mobile structure, allowing the head to move and rotate. So, just because your neck is strong, doesn’t mean that its always stiff. This is especially true when your muscles are relaxed; like when you are keeping your head on a swivel while playing sports.
Preparing for impact
If someone knows that they are going to be hit, they are likely to tense up and contract their neck muscles. The body will naturally try to reduce the ensuing impact and limit acceleration of the head.
If someone knows an impact is coming, a stronger neck can create a stiffer neck, which could reduce peak head acceleration, and ultimately, risk for concussion.
People with weaker neck muscles may not be able to create enough tension, and may be at greater risk. It is thought that this is one of the reasons why women – who tend to have less neck strength than men – may be more vulnerable to concussions.
The problem with concussion injuries is that most people are unaware that they are going to be hit. They have no time to tense up and stiffen their neck muscles. In these cases, having stronger neck muscles have little to no benefit on reducing the risk of concussion.
In our opinion, neck strength could potentially reduce concussion risk only if someone is aware that an impact is coming, and has ample time to tense up, stiffen their neck, and prepare for impact; however, more research is required.
Prevention through game awareness
Sport technique and game awareness on the field or on the ice could help to reduce concussion risk. Although not always possible, understanding your surroundings and effectively preparing for an impact could decrease acceleration and risk for concussion.
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1 Viano et al. Concussion in professional football: biomechanics of the struck player–part 14. Neurosurgery. 2007; 61(2):313-27.