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Head games: Football treating athlete safety seriously

Neck strength could be key to concussion prevention

Aug. 14, 2012

The chorus of voices discussing and insisting on concussion prevention grows stronger every year, and with the dawn of the 2012 football season, organizations at all levels have been instituting measures to ensure the safety of its athletes.

Wauwatosa East alumnus Ted Lang has his own ideas about concussion prevention. The strength and conditioning specialist has more than 20 years of experience working at all levels - youth, college, high school, professionally and even with Olympians. He's worked with the Milwaukee Brewers and currently works with the Kansas City Royals.

Lang has been emphasizing the benefit of neck exercises in preventing concussion, preaching his message to a number of organizations, including the All-American Youth Football League and at state coaches meetings.

Lang noted that the University of Memphis football team cut its neck-related injuries by 50 percent and that Texas Tech also had a significant cut in related injuries when they both adopted a program of neck-strengthening exercises. He has addressed AAYFL coaches about this issue and said it was the only thing the coaches wanted to talk about.

"We're really working hard trying to alleviate some of these problems," Lang said. "All we want to do is help the kids."

Working with Don Olsen, who has worked in sports medicine for more than 30 years and is the owner and lead physical therapist of North Shore Physical Therapy in Glendale, Lang has developed a program he calls "Neck Strategies and Spinal Stabilization." The basic set of exercises features maneuvers for isometric stretching, partner stretching, spinal stabilization and neck strengthening.

Lang points to a study by Sandra Black from Texas Tech in May of 2007. Black talks about a biomechanical concept that suggests cervical neck strength, when increased, maximizes force absorption and thus translates less of an impact toward the brain. With better strength, alignment and larger head-neck-torso mass, the neck decreases the torque experienced by the head in an impact.

"If one kid doesn't get a concussion, it was worth it," Lang said. "Coaches understand that you have to take the time to stretch."

It's certainly not the only mechanism by which sports organizations are trying to counteract the issue, which has gained greater notoriety in part because of medical after-effects visible in former football players, including brain damage and depression. Beginning this year, the WIAA has mandated that a player whose helmet comes off during the natural course of a play (not because of a penalty) will have to sit out a play.

The rule will hopefully serve as a deterrent for players who do not wear the helmets tightly enough. Schools have also become more willing to replace worn or outdated helmets, and the WIAA has been vigilant in recent years about removing athletes from the field of play when concussions are suspected.

"With new concussion rules from the NFL, people are finally taking it seriously," said John Dobbe, president of the Wauwatosa East Junior Raiders. "It used to be when you had a concussion, you could just shake it off and get back in there. There's got to be more done at the youth and high school and college level."

According to materials released by Aurora Sports Medicine, between 1.6 and 3.8 million concussions occur each year in the United States, and 78 percent are attributed to sports injuries.

- Tom Skibosh and Steven L. Tietz contributed to this story

No small stretch

A look at some of the stretches prescribed by Ted Lang to reduce risk of concussion:

Major targeted movements

Forward flexion - chin tucks 5x

Extension - chin to sky 5x

Right lateral flexion - earlobe to shoulder 5x

Left lateral flexion

Right rotation - look over shoulder 5x

Left rotation

Full rotation both directions - 2x

Chin pendulum - 5x

Partner stretching (with helmets)

Ear hole against leg - 10 seconds

Hand on top of helmet - 10 seconds

Hand around face mask - 10 seconds

Spinal stabilization

Plank with straight spine - 20 seconds

Side plank, hand up, with straight spine - 15 seconds each side

Yoga child's pose - 15 seconds

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