Imagine being a baseball pitcher with a numb hand, a running back with neck pain, or a baseball player who can’t turn his head to the right. All of these are symptoms of neck problems that impose severe limitations on performance and require treatment. As with any other major injury, prevention is preferred over rehabilitation. To effectively prevent or manage neck pain, athletes and coaches must first understand the basic anatomy of the neck and spine and the major causes of debilitating pain.
The spine is a chain of bones interconnected by ligaments and muscles with nerves traversing through openings between the vertebra. The neck, more formally called the cervical spine, is the top of the chain. It holds the head up and facilitates a high degree of movement—e.g., turning the head to look behind, looking up to the sky and looking down to jump over an obstacle. Other areas of the spine lack this incredible range of motion.
But with the increase in motion comes an increased chance of injury. The cervical spine can be injured as a result of a car wreck, of poor posture during exercise, or even from a pillow poorly placed while sleeping. Injury to the neck can also result from poor movement in other areas of the spine. For example, the mid-portion of the spine, called the thoracic spine, is commonly stuck in a rounded posture (called a kyphotic posture), which is exacerbated by activities such as sitting at a desk, driving, gaming, texting or working on a computer. This position pulls the head forward, placing extra stress on the neck and shoulders. (See illustration below.)
In comparison to back pain, which represents a huge chunk of ER visits and disability reports, neck injuries are nearly as common, but they have different causes and must be treated differently. Injuries to the neck present themselves in a variety of circumstances and severities. In extreme cases, the cervical spine is fractured, such as with Eric LeGrand of Rutgers several years ago. Or an athlete can have a chronic problem, such as Peyton Manning experienced and ultimately treated with cervical fusion. Such injuries are not always the result of intense blows during competition. You can injure your neck simply by working out.
The ease of a neck injury makes really important for athletes to take extra precautions during workouts and games. A simple neck injury can lead to more severe consequences, including stingers, headaches, arm weakness (sometimes permanent) and concussions. In fact, new studies suggest that increases in neck strength can help prevent concussions from occurring or lessen their severity.
Injury Prevention Through Proper Neck Training
Extreme caution can only go so far in sports dominated by uncertainty. Tackles and blows can come from any angle, and it’s nearly impossible for an athlete to be prepared at all times. That said, strengthening the neck through proper training helps to prevent injury. Use the following exercises to strengthen the muscles surrounding your cervical spine and help injury-proof your neck.
Wrestlers have used this training variation for decades to protect their cervical spine from injury. Because neck bridges are an aggressive way to strengthen the cervical muscles, athletes should progress slowly and always train within their own ability levels.
Eccentric Strengthening with Partner
Eccentric strengthening helps to prepare athletes to sustain blows to their upper body without suffering major injury.
- Place your head in each of the six main neck movements at full range of motion: flexion (looking down), extension (looking up), rotation (looking right and left) and side bending (tilting towards each shoulder).
- In each of these positions, have a partner resist you (either with a towel or by placing his hands directly on your head) as you move your head back to a neutral position.
Since it doesn’t require a partner, this drill is good for lifters who are training by themselves.
- Stand 1 to 3 feet away from a wall as if you were going to do a Wall Push-Up.
- With your hands on the wall, place your head (either the front, back or side) against the wall.
- Position your neck to take the brunt of your weight.
- Slowly take your hands away from the wall. Your neck should be holding most of your body weight.
- Hold this position for up to 30 seconds.
- Perform multiple sets to train all directions.
Trap Bar Shrugs
The upper trapezius muscles are crucial for preventing neck injury. Trap Bar Shrugs are a fantastic way to build neck strength, because they allow for heavy loads while allowing you to keep your hands in a neutral grip (palms facing in), which is safer and more comfortable on the shoulder joints.
Along with Trap Bar Shrugs, Power Cleans help to develop the muscles of the upper shoulders and upper back. The explosive movement also helps to prepare the muscles for violent hits, which can occur unexpectedly.
As with any injury, prevention is preferred over rehabbing after the fact. The large range of motion of the cervical spine makes it a weak point for many athletes and increases their chance of injury. Through proper neck training, athletes will be more prepared for ballistic hits on the field and will decrease their chance of suffering from neck pain.