Concussion has been in the news a lot lately and there is no doubt that prevention is the best medicine. However not every accident is preventable and if you are unfortunate enough to hit your head you might wonder whether there was anything that you could have done in advance to reduce your risk for injury and to help speed up your recovery.
Researchers have been looking at this exact question. Knowing that exercise is part of the prevention of injuries for many joints in the body, they studied whether this concept could apply in concussion.
The results are surprisingly good. Exercise has more effect in prevention than you might think. Obviously, you can’t do a physical work out for your brain, but you can make your neck stronger! Recent studies suggest for every pound gain in neck strength, you have a 5% reduced chance of concussion!
What is a concussion?
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury – often classified as a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). This injury affects the brain’s function. Concussions are often caused by an unanticipated impact which can be a direct or an indirect blow to the head. In other words, it is a fast acceleration and deceleration of the brain within the skull causing the brain to injure from moving quickly inside of your skull.
In my practice, I have observed that many people injure their head and neck together. The mechanism of injury in a concussion is similar to whiplash. Both are caused by acceleration and deceleration of the head and neck. Hence, concussion and whiplash often occur simultaneously and can present with identical symptoms!
So even though your initial symptoms may be due to the concussion, they can linger due to the associated whiplash. In other words, the residual symptoms can come from the neck as well as the head. When planning your recovery it is important to know that it is not only about the brain healing as often treatment to the neck can reduce symptoms substantially.
Why would strengthening help?
A simplified way of thinking about the human head and neck anatomy is to imagine it as a ball balanced on a stick, like in tee ball – the ball being our skull and stick being the neck. If an external force is applied to this model (either a direct blow to the ball or a hit to the stick), the stronger the stick is, the more it can manage the force and lessens the impact on the ball.
Strengthening your neck muscles provides a more steady base for your brain. And can absorb the shock more efficiently. This means there would be less stress for your brain and head to deal with.
When comparing average patient populations, men generally have more muscular necks which brace their heads better than women. This can explain why it is not uncommon to see more severe symptoms in females even when the force that is applied to their neck and head is about the same.
How can I make my neck stronger?
Neck exercises can be fairly simple and to be effective you do not need complex equipment. My recommendation is to start with simple exercises. Often isometric exercises are a good place to start.
An isometric movement involves resisting a force without actual physical movements, like pressing your head against your hand. (i.e. immovable force meets immovable force). Once you are comfortable with simpler exercises, you can work your way up to exercises that are harder or add more resistance.
(the picture on the left shows an Isometric side bend exercise. Source: physiotec.ca)
How strong am I?
If you want to know whether you have weak neck muscles, or whether your exercises are working, your OTC therapist can objectively measure your neck strength using a force dynamometer. This type of strength assessment can help to determine your strength and monitor progress during your exercise program.
For more information about concussion prevention and rehabilitation contact us at (416) 925-4687 or email me directly at MBazaz@OrthoPhysio.com. To learn more about concussion and exercise, please check out my previous article here and visit Parachute Canada for the latest research and recommended protocols for safe return to activities.