Head injuries are on the rise. Each year, millions of athletes suffer sports-related concussions in the United States, so many that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared an epidemic.

Students in Minnetonka High School’s VANTAGE program are working with field professionals to address the issue of mitigating concussions, working on data concerning the benefits of preventative measures that culminated in the Concussion Summit April 10.

“Concussion research is receiving a lot of attention and a lot of grant money,” says Mark Asanovich, Minnetonka High School physical education teacher and strength and conditioning coach, whose long career in strength training has included work with the NFL. “Most research is focused on the causes, consequences and care of concussion. There is very little being done with proactive prevention.”

Students worked with Asanovich and independent researcher Dr. Ralph Cornwell, who received his Ph.D. in Human Performance/Health Promotion from Virginia Tech University. He has developed a protocol of 11 exercises to strengthen the musculature surrounding the cervical spine to mitigate concussion, and he launched Project Neck four years ago.

“While I was looking for a dissertation subject I saw a hockey player break his neck,” said Cornwell. “He had a little neck and it just snapped, and he became a quadriplegic. I kept thinking, if that neck had been stronger, could he then have been a paraplegic, or would he have even been able to make a complete recovery?”

Project Neck is the first and currently only research study to conclusively demonstrate through mathematical models that, when head and neck muscles have been trained and strengthened, kinetic energy from impact can be better dissipated — in other words, when a hockey or football player is hit hard enough to cause a concussion, strong muscles will be better able to hold the head and neck steady through impact, protecting the brain from moving within the skull and preventing brain, head and neck injuries.

To prepare for the Concussion Summit, VANTAGE students in the Healthcare and Sports Science program became certified to “protect human research participants” through the National Institute of Health (NIH) last summer, secured informed consent forms and passed an Institutional Review Board approval process to conduct research involving human subjects.

During an eight-week study that concluded March 13, students followed the scientific method to ensure result reliability and imitated Project Neck protocols to lead 18 athletes through exercises, recording results and measuring neck circumference.

Between March 13 and March 24, students in the VANTAGE Business Analytics program took the data gathered and applied statistical analytics to it. Results on the benefits of strength training head and neck muscles to protect the spine and brain were presented and discussed during the summit, which also included demonstrations of the protocol exercises in the weight room at the Pagel Center.

Summit attendees, which included members of the community working in sports medicine and related fields familiar with concussion injuries, were also given the option to complete head and neck training certification.

“The number of concussions reported across the world is rising, and they just aren’t something that can be ignored, since they can lead to serious issues later in life,” said VANTAGE junior Annie Goodyear. “With strength training, athletes are not as susceptible to these injuries.”

Enterprise reporter

Meghan Davy Sandvold is a regional reporter covering the eight Southwest News Media communities. Born and raised in the Lake Minnetonka area, she now calls Eden Prairie home.