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Kenowa Hills Public Schools, MI — Kenowa Hills sophomore Faith Swieringa carries a fingernail-size scar above her right eye. Lacrosse? Nope, cheerleading. She got it from being accidentally whacked during Homecoming week, requiring eight stitches. She's sustained two concussions in competitive cheer, where blows from elbows, falls to the ground and knocks against other heads are not uncommon.
"With stunting (routines), we get hit in the head a lot," Faith said during a recent workout in the Kenowa Hills High School weight room. "It's a mess."
She is hoping to reduce her chances of future concussions, thanks to neck-strengthening machines recently installed in her school. The school district and two community groups purchased four machines aimed at reducing the likelihood and severity of concussions among student athletes -- and all other students who use them.
The Pendulum Neck Machines, manufactured by Rogers Athletic Co. of Clare, will greatly enhance the exercise regimen established by Todd Johnston, director of the PEAK Performance physical education program at Kenowa Hills. Costing $1,800 each, one was purchased by the Hockey Boosters, one by the Kenowa Hills Education Foundation and two by the school district.
Johnston said he spent four years researching the best machines to condition students against concussions, which he called "the epidemic of this generation."
"It's expensive, it's difficult," Johnston conceded. "But job one is the safety of our kids. We're talking about protecting their brains."
A Growing Concern Nationally
Concussions have drawn increasing attention nationally for their effects on players in high-contact sports such as football and hockey. The National Football League has offered a $765 million settlement of a suit brought by former players suffering from dementia and other effects of repeated head trauma.
A new Michigan law took effect last fall requiring schools to provide concussion education materials to parents and students involved in gym classes and intramural sports, and to keep forms on file verifying the parent or guardian had read them. If a student suffers a suspected concussion, schools must follow the same procedures as are already required for competitive sports teams before returning students to participation.
It used to be a dose of smelling salts was considered enough to put a knocked-out player back into action, Johnston said. No more.
"We didn't realize how serious it is," said Johnston, a 14-year teacher at Kenowa Hills.
While head injuries to student athletes are a concern, Johnston said, the neck machines also could benefit students involved in other activities such as dance. Sophomore Hannah Combs, a dancer, agreed, noting the head is the heaviest part of the body. A stronger neck "helps us with our balance," Hannah said.
"It makes us aware so it doesn't just happen," added Ashley Warden, a senior softball player.
Besides the physical effects of concussion -- and possible complications years later -- head injuries set back schooling, Johnston noted. Injured students miss class time and are not supposed to read, use computers or their cell phones while recovering.
He noted three Kenowa Hills softball players missed school last year because of concussions. Recently an outstanding student was forced to stay home because of a concussion sustained in a private hockey program.
"It's an educational issue," Johnston said. "Increased fitness will make you ultimately a better student."
Studies Still Inconclusive
Research has shown girls in athletics are especially susceptible because of their thinner necks, Johnston said. He makes sure girls as well as boys condition their necks twice a week on the new machines, gradually increasing their repetitions and weight resistance.
He pointed to a study by Dawn Comstock, associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, of 6,704 student athletes in boys' and girls' soccer, lacrosse and basketball over two years. Those who suffered concussions had smaller and weaker necks than those who didn't. For every pound of neck strength, odds of a concussion fell by 5 percent, Comstock found.
Johnston also notes that Mike Gittleson, former head strength and conditioning coach for the University of Michigan football team, promotes neck strength to help protect against concussion.
Not everyone is convinced of the approach. Dr. Stephen Bloom, medical director of the Sports Concussion Program at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, said the research is inconclusive that stronger necks in themselves reduce the risk or severity of concussion. More important is properly fitted equipment and quickly taking an injured athlete out of play for expert examination, Bloom said.
"We simply need more research on the subject," Bloom said.
Johnston agreed the research is not conclusive, but said he has seen enough favorable evidence to believe these machines hold great promise for reducing the chances of injury.
"There are no negatives to training the neck," he added, "but there are countless potential positives."