Rutgers study: Athletes should build neck strength to lower concussion risk

Rutgers researchers are recommending that athletes who are at higher risk for sports-related concussions like football and soccer players protect their heads with neck-strengthening exercises.

The study by researchers at the Rutgers School of Health Professions, published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, examines previous studies regarding the role that the neck strength, size and posture play in reducing concussion risk. The researchers also looked at why there is a greater risk of head injury for female and young male athletes who play contact sports.

Based on the study, the Rutgers researchers developed recommendations for physical therapists and athletic trainers to follow to help protect athletes. Athletes should have a cervical spine assessment as part of a pre-athletic participation exam. They should be screened for pain because baseline reports of neck pain have been associated with increased concussion risk in young athletes. They should also be provided with exercises to strengthen neck muscles.

“Our ability to detect sports-related concussions has greatly improved, but our ability to prevent concussions and decrease post-injury outcomes remains limited,” said Allison Brown, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Health Professions who was the lead author of the study. “We have identified neck strength, size and posture as potential factors that reduce risk by lessening the magnitude of force upon impact. Thus, increasing neck strength and possibly size could substantially reduce risk or severity of injury or outcomes.”

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, jolt, or blow to the head. The sudden movement causes the brain to bounce around or twist inside the skull. This leads to stretching and damaging of brain cells and chemical changes in the brain. Concussions can lead to problems with thinking, concentration, mood, and other neurological changes. Additional symptoms can include headaches, vision or hearing problems, dizziness and nausea.

Women typically have less neck strength and experience a greater risk of concussion, as well as a greater severity of symptoms and longer duration of recovery compared with their male peers, Esopenko said.

A neck that is stronger, thicker or aligned in a forward posture, with the ears ahead of rather than aligned with the shoulders, may reduce the amount of energy transferred to the brain during an impact, thus reducing the risk and severity of injury, said Carrie Esopenko, an assistant professor at the School of Health Professions and the senior author of the report.

Women typically have less neck strength and a greater risk of concussion. Their symptoms can be more severs and the recovery period can be longer compared to men, Esopenko said.