Neck bending protects against spinal cord injury in head-first hits

Research on interplay between neck muscles and spine posture shows instinctive protective response.

Safer behavior in combination with more data and developing technology can prevent catastrophic injuries to our neck and spinal cord, according to a perspective recently published in Nature authored by Dr. Peter Cripton. Dr. Cripton is a biomechanical engineer and principal investigator at Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI) centres ICORD (International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries) and Centre for Hip Health and Mobility.

“We can do more to prevent neck injuries that occur specifically in head-first impacts,” says Dr. Cripton, associate professor in UBC Department of Mechanical Engineering and associate faculty member in UBC Department of Orthopaedics.

“Head-first impacts are how we break our necks and cause paralysis; and even though these kinds of injuries aren’t common, they cause a dramatic change in quality of life and are very costly.”

While sports enthusiasts very often see hockey and football players go into the boards or another player head-first, it is rare to see any suffer from a broken neck or paralysis. Dr. Cripton attributes this to players being ‘lucky’ that their necks at impact are slightly bent, rather than straight, sparing the spine from fracture and the spinal cords within the spine from taking a huge brunt of impact force.

“In a head-first impact, the head stops at impact but we still have the momentum of the torso; the only thing we have to slow down the torso is our neck,” he explains. “The unlucky scenario is if, at impact, the spine is perfectly aligned like a straight and stiff column making the forces pushing back from the torso rise very high — this results in that force moving quickly up the column and breaking those bones.”

Dr. Cripton and his UBC team have conducted a number of studies examining how neck muscles brace when startled, as though anticipating head-first impact. They found that most of their subjects instinctively protected their necks by making them more curved. However, a minority made their neck straighter, making them at higher risk for spinal cord injury. 

New neck-protecting technology

Their research is the basis for their latest project, the Pro-Neck-Tor helmet, which turns any head-first impact with this dangerous straight spine posture, into an impact where the head is guided forward or backward resulting in a curved spine posture to prevent spinal cord injury. The helmet comprises two shells: an inner shell that can move independently from an outer shell, because of space between them, and a mechanism that guides the head into a small amount of nodding forward or backward motion, bending the spine during a head-first impact. The team is currently in talks with potential industrial partners to develop a certification process, manufacture the helmets, and eventually bring them to market.

While a more effective helmet will help prevent spinal cord injuries, increased awareness about these injuries and prevention are necessary.

“There are some coaching techniques in football and hockey being used to try and prevent spinal injuries but the injuries are so rare that they don’t get enough attention,” says Dr. Cripton. “In my opinion, you still see too many close calls.”


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