Neck strength imbalance correlates with increased head acceleration in soccer heading

Sports Health. 2013 Jul;5(4):320-6. doi: 10.1177/1941738113480935.


Background: Soccer heading is using the head to directly contact the ball, often to advance the ball down the field or score. It is a skill fundamental to the game, yet it has come under scrutiny. Repeated subclinical effects of heading may compound over time, resulting in neurologic deficits. Greater head accelerations are linked to brain injury. Developing an understanding of how the neck muscles help stabilize and reduce head acceleration during impact may help prevent brain injury.

Hypothesis: Neck strength imbalance correlates to increasing head acceleration during impact while heading a soccer ball.

Study design: Observational laboratory investigation.

Methods: Sixteen Division I and II collegiate soccer players headed a ball in a controlled indoor laboratory setting while player motions were recorded by a 14-camera Vicon MX motion capture system. Neck flexor and extensor strength of each player was measured using a spring-type clinical dynamometer.

Results: Players were served soccer balls by hand at a mean velocity of 4.29 m/s (±0.74 m/s). Players returned the ball to the server using a heading maneuver at a mean velocity of 5.48 m/s (±1.18 m/s). Mean neck strength difference was positively correlated with angular head acceleration (rho = 0.497; P = 0.05), with a trend toward significance for linear head acceleration (rho = 0.485; P = 0.057).

Conclusion: This study suggests that symmetrical strength in neck flexors and extensors reduces head acceleration experienced during low-velocity heading in experienced collegiate players.

Clinical relevance: Balanced neck strength may reduce head acceleration cumulative subclinical injury. Since neck strength is a measureable and amenable strength training intervention, this may represent a modifiable intrinsic risk factor for injury.

Keywords: acceleration; biomechanics; heading; neck strength; soccer.