Off Road Essentials: Should I wear a neck brace?
Never mind a neck brace – go back thirty years and the idea of going trail riding with anything more protective than a helmet and a jacket would seem absurd. Yet as protective gear has become lighter, better designed and easier to wear then the tables have turned. Now it’s rare to see anyone out on the trails without motocross boots, padded shirts and body armour, backed up by a supporting cast of kneepads, elbow pads and kidney belts.
But while trail riders have gradually adopted the equipment used by motocross and supercross riders, the one area where we seem to be lagging behind is in neck protection. When it comes to racing, less and less professional and indeed amateur riders head out onto the start gate without some kind of brace in place, and given the terrain they are riding, then it seems a sensible step to take. Neck injuries are potentially life threatening and certainly have the potential to be life changing, so taking steps to minimise your risk is a smart move.
So should trail and even adventure riders wise up and smell the coffee? Should neck protection be next on the shopping list or are braces best left to those who make their living on the racetrack?
Ride Expeditions decided to look at the evidence out there to help you make your decision easier.
We would point out that this blog is provided as a way of raising a subject for our readers. We recommend that if you are considering purchasing any safety equipment, you carry out your own research and consider all data available to allow an informed decision.
THE BACK STORY
The invention of the neck brace is down to just one man and sadly, a tragic accident. Back in the early 2000s South African doctor and avid motorcyclist Chris Leatt’s son was following in his father’s footsteps onto two wheels. At much the same time Leatt witnessed the death of a follow rider while on the racetrack. Keen to protect both his son and future generations of riders, the enterprising doctor started to develop a neck brace that would protect motorcyclists from injury.
Leatt’s first neck brace was first marketed way back in 2004, offering cervical protection specific to off-road riders and racers alike. His invention took a good few years to be accepted by riders, but as the brace grew in popularity, other companies looked to develop their own versions to address the same risks. Sitting alongside Leatt and their now wide range of braces and armour with integral braces, companies like Alpinestars, EVS now market neck braces that, for the most part, do the same job as Leatt’s original back in 2004.
Clearly the neck brace is there to protect the neck in the event of an accident. Although designs may vary, most braces do this by restricting the movement of the head and neck in a crash while also deflecting the effects of any impacts onto other areas of the body – usually the shoulders or chest. Clearly any brace cannot entirely prevent injuries, but regardless of the manufacturer or specific design they are all intended to reduce the likelihood of severe neck injuries in the event of a crash.
Those who don’t buy in to the idea of braces will point to the lack of clear empirical data to establish the level of protection braces can offer. And that’s a fair point – no two accidents will be the same and when developing a brace you can hardly ask riders to deliberately crash with and without braces and see which leaves them with worse injuries! For riders who have already sustained serious neck injuries without braces, then it’s pretty obvious that they would have wished that their protective equipment had prevented their injuries, and maybe if they could have worn additional protection they might have done, but that’s not the same as hard evidence
Whatever the design or brand of neck brace you pick, they all have limitations to their effectiveness depending on the type of crash you have, None of them can offer protection if you are unfortunate enough to land directly on your head – the brace would have to be so substantial and sturdy as to make head movement almost impossible to prevent this – clearly this would not be an option for safe riding.
But aside from this situation the braces on the market are designed to offer both the freedom to ride unencumbered, while still offering increased protection in the event of a crash compared to riding without a brace.
Neck braces cannot prevent or protect from all neck injuries in the same way that knee braces cannot prevent or protect all knee injuries. The fundamental difference is that if you damage your knee, it will probably heal and you will be able to return to riding …
So having established what the brace can’t do lets look at what it can do. Neck braces offer their protection by limiting the movement of the helmet – hence your head – in the event of a crash. The design of the brace should restrict movement forward, back and side to side, preventing hyperflexion – when the head if forced down towards the chest – or hyperextension – when the head is forced back causing extension of the spine. Moreover, in such impacts the base of the helmet hits the structure and the force of the impact is thus transferred onto the brace and hence upper body or shoulders, rather than the neck.
Some braces are adjustable as to how much your head can move before contacting the brace, although many are fixed. As with any safety equipment, the protection that braces can offer cannot be expressed in actual figures, but it’s safe to assume that the companies making them are not doing it to cause riders injury!
Assessing the increased risk – if any – of wearing a neck brace is particularly tricky given the potential danger in riding a motorcycle in the first place.
Those who are sceptical about braces indicate that there is increased potential of collarbone injuries in low-level crashes. Although there is little evidence to support this view, it’s possible if not probable as collarbones are fairly strong when impacted from above. However, given the protection offered by the brace is for serious crashes, risking your clavicle seems a reasonable trade-off. It should also be noted that most modern braces are cleverly designed to break themselves before breaking your bones – so the manufacturers have thought about this!
It’s worth noting that the professional bodies that provide medical support to race series like the AMA Supercross are supportive of the effects that neckbraces are having in racing.
Back in 2013, Dr John Bodnar of Asterisk Medical Services gave his observations on the subject.
“Spinal injuries have been a major concern not only in the supercross and motocross series, but for anyone who rides a motorcycle. For the professional race series, the Asterisk Mobile Medical Center has been collecting data over the last two years in regards to spinal injuries and the use of neck braces. Since the overall number of injuries is relatively small, it will be several years before any statistically significant change can be shown and validated. However, at this point, we have seen a trend toward a decrease in cervical spinal injuries with use of neck braces and no increase in clavicle or thoracic injuries. We can only hope that this trend continues and we can see a reduction in the number and severity of spinal injuries.”
Although real world testing may be impossible, manufacturers invest significant time and money in testing their products with computer simulations, crash test dummies and hours spent poring over the data they collect to ensure their products offer the best possible protection.
SO IS IT FOR ME?
As with any protective equipment, the choice as to how far to go and what to wear is entirely with the rider. In the UK the only bit of protective kit enshrined in law is the helmet, so everything else beyond that is entirely your choice. For trail riders, increased protection is usually part of the riding kit as we said in the introduction, and reflects the increased risk of riding off-road.
So should your kit bag contain a neck brace? To answer this depends on your attitude to risk and the type of riding you regularly indulge in. If you are a weekend trail rider, happy to bimble along at 15 mph on the local lanes, then going out kitted like a supercross ride might seem an inappropriate response – in reality the most risky part of your ride may well be the road before the lanes!
For faster riders and adventure bike riders, then neck braces begin to make more sense. Get into a tankslapper on a fire-road at 50 mph and there’s a fair chance that you are going down and going down hard – and 120 kilos of bike may be following you. And if you are on an adventure bike, then you can double that figure
In that situation, deciding to wear a neck brace may prove to be a very wise decision. You rarely see Dakar riders without some type of brace, and there’s probably a reason why.
HEY - WE RUN MOTORCYCLE TOURS
As converts to the idea, we’ve got a couple of braces in the kit bag. First of is one of the original Leatt GPX braces. It’s a simple two piece design that clips together at the sides, with the rear and front carbon pieces adjustable for height and hence the amount you can move your head. Although it comes with a chest strap to hold in place, the GPX conveniently fits perfectly into the aperture on a Thor Sentinel Chest guard giving entire upper body protection in one unit. It’s our choice for racing and enduro and is comfortable enough to trail ride too.
Our second option is an EVS brace that is a simpler and slightly more compact design. This is our choice out on the trails at it sits into the shoulders comfortably, held in place by a chest strap. It’s a hinged one-piece design and it’s smaller profile means it can site better with a riding jacket
There are plenty of options out there, and companies like Leatt now offer body armour with integral braces, which addresses two requirements with one bit of kit.
Either way, make sure you try the brace with your usual riding kit, body armour and helmet. Make sure it sits comfortably as you are more likely to wear it than if it’s uncomfortable and doesn’t work with your kit. If you are intent on buying online, then it’s a good idea to have looked at and tried on the brace prior to purchase – maybe at a trade show – to avoid playing postal ping-pong.
Like a crash helmet, if you have a serious crash and the brace does it’s job then be happy and buy another one, consigning the old one to the trophy shelf.
And once you have one then wear it – no matter how sophisticated the design, neck braces are not effective if they are sitting in the kit bag …
So do you wear a neck brace? What do you wear and why do you wear it?
Leave your comments here
22 comments on “Off Road Essentials: Should I wear a neck brace?”
I wear a leatt 5.5, took a digger at about 45-50, landed head first and broke my collar bone, shoulder blade and 3 ribs. Happy I had my brace on could have been so much worse. I was just cruising down a trail, still not sure what I hit
Protection is an important part of riding – glad it saved you a more serious injury Ian
I don’t wear one but I wouldn’t mind if they were cheaper. One of Leatt’s braces costs more than most of my entire kit. I think a neck brace made of visco-elastic foam could be an option for me and would be about £20.
I’m not convinced that expecting protection from neck injuries for £20 is a bit of a stretch. Leatt and other companies have a variety of options from full-on braces to body armour with integral braces – probably a better option than a ring of foam that would restrict movement. It’s your choice because it’s your neck!
Several years ago, I was sprinting uphill on a pedaled bicycle, bearing down full weight on the pedals. The bike’s chain broke and like a tug of war where one team lets go of the rope, my momentum threw me violently over the handlebars, landing front skull first into the pavement. My helmet protected my head, but had a huge split in the area of impact. I now have a nice bone nodule on the back of my neck. I am fortunate that I didn’t end up like superman actor Christopher Reeves in a wheel chair. Lightweight neck braces seem to be a protective answer.
Thanks for the comment Michael – we’re glad that your crash wasn’t as serious as it could have been. Neck braces can certainly help in many crashes and with cervical injuries, there’s often not a second chance to reconsider whether you should have been wearing one!
I have a renewed interest because I had been hit by a car on the highway back in 79′ , which cracked one vertebrae . This last winter my neck became more crunchy than normal and found out two vertebrae had broken off the rear facing spurs and were floating around my neck . Doctor and Chiropractor said if it does not hurt , go ahead and ride . Did a 200+ mile test ride on pavement and all went well . So met up with fellow Adventure riders and tried some off road . Thirty miles in my neck was not having fun . I had to opt out of all the planned rides . Neck is quite stiff and nice amount of pain . I am looking for something that may absorb some of the helmet weight . Oh I need a custom one because my left shoulder is over an inch higher than my right ( a leftover from heart surgery in 62′ ) . Anyone know what manufacturer might make custom ones for under a million dollars ?
We think you might be better looking for a lighter helmet – we use the Suomy Mr Jump which is less than a kilo – that will certainly help – other wise you could try adapting a surgical type collar but only do this after taking medical advice! Good luck
I have been riding with the leaat combo neck and chest protector 3.0 model and have taken a few very serious crashes with no neck injuries or collar bone injuries besides a separated ax joint. I recently watched rynos harp on not being able to look up while in the attack position. I recently have been riding without any brace or chest protector and it feels great. I am debating on whether to get a new unit because the shoulder pads are falling off the leaat unit. I ride motocross mostly. What are your thoughts? Should I get another combo unit? I was considering getting the body armor with no neck brace.
Ryno has strong views on neck braces and that’s fine – there’s no right and wrong in this and as no two crashes are the same, it’s almost impossible to compare experiences. However as said in the piece, Leatt’s passion to create the braces in the first place was to protect riders and that continues to be the case – if he just wanted to make money there are easier products to make with far less research and development required! The decision has to be yours, but when we were racing, we always felt safer in a neck brace, but Mr Hughes would perhaps not feel the same …
hi! I’m looking for a neck brace for a while but i use a FOX Titan vest and unfortunately i think that isn’t compatible with neck braces, am I right?
You would need to contact Fox to check that!
A few years back my younger brother was just getting into single track. I’d helped him make a short 1/2 mile loop one morning through a section of some trees on the farm so he could get some seat time in between our weekend excursions. While testing out a section I Had, I’d say, about a 10 MPH very light over the bar experience. I hit a small pine stump under the foliage that I hadn’t previously noticed, and the bike came to a screeching halt. As I impacted the ground in Superman position first my chin bar grabbed the dirt like a boat anchor and yanked my head towards my chest. This then allowed the visor to assist in the effort to stop my forward motion and exacerbated the amount of force tucking my chin to chest. Having never experienced a helmet induced injury or even given much thought of this happening I can tell you my neck has never felt that way before, nor after! I could barley look up or down for a couple months and even side to side wasn’t fun either. Now, I will admit I never went to the doctor or had any test done, but the sound of stuff tearing in the back of my neck was a very unique and unmistakable sound that warranted no need of testing to confirm to me what had happened OR, More importantly, what ALMOST happened! That said I NEVER ride without a neck brace. I’ve ran the mid and top level EVS, am now using the Alpinestars brace, and was researching the newer “Mountain Biking” specific Leatt (having started riding MTB frequently lately) when ran across this article. My 8 year old son rides a TC 50 now as well and rides often on our 3 mile single track loop we just finished at home, and he ALWAYS wears his neck brace.
Finally, I’d like to share another aspect of my life with those considering whether or not to add a neck brace to their kit. I’m a Therapy Consultant for a large US medical equipment company providing offloading surfaces to people that are mostly spinal cord injury patients(paraplegic/quadriplegic). Folks that are bed ridden and either completely or mostly immobile fight unique battles each and every day that the rest of us are completely oblivious to. The one that I help them with is decubitus Ulcers or bedsores that begin due to the constant pressure from extended periods of sitting or laying in 1 position day in and day out. In fact it was complications of a bedsore that was the eventual demise of Superman(Christopher Reeves)! Nonetheless, from me to anyone who reads this it’s not only the lives of the injured, but even and especially the lives of those that love and have to care for someone who experiences a spinal cord injury each and ever minute of EVERY day. What most people think of with spinal cord injury patients is the person we all see still out and about living their semi-altered life self propelling in a wheelchair. We make way for them in the store, have maybe a sympathetic thought or two, and go on about our day. But what we don’t consider are the MANYspinal cord injuries, especially in the neck, that actually result In the complete inability to move anything from The neck down, including arms, and hands, which is why we don’t tend to consider this possibility. Because we don’t see them out and about. They are stuck at home, along with someone else who has to attend to their EVER;Y need. These folks can do absolutely NOTHING for themselves except speak, and In my experience of speaking with them and discussing their specific accident that caused their injury there’s a common form of the “I wish I would’ve…”. With taking that experience into consideration I can unequivocally say that for ME, even upwards of $500 is a small price to pay for even the POTENTIAL to prevent an injury that could change my life and the lives those that love me. I do completely understand there’s no guarantees, but I at least Hope this helps with someone else’s consideration; Godspeed.
Thanks for your input Allen – it’s a personal choice as with all protective equipment but neck braces make a lot of sense!
I’ve rode with a Leatt when I first started ridding and the fitment was great. Now that I’ve gotten back into it my Leatt is to small and I’ve tried Alpinestars neck brace but it’s not the nice fit like Leatt was. Most likely I’m going to buy another Leatt just because I feel it’s something you shouldn’t go cheap on just like a helmet, and knee braces. Thank you for the write up about this. Helped me learn a good bit.
Cheers Jake – glad we could help.
After some advice, my kids ( 9 &11) both wear the fox titan body armour, but are growing out of them fast. They do not race, but ride on weekends, still not at high speeds but they are improving. They have also recently switched to 2 wheels instead of 4. I’m looking at going with neck braces when we upgrade their armour to larger sizes. Is it better to have armour and the additional neck brace or are the armour and neck brace combos better. Probably looking a Leatt. Anyone’s feed back would be greatly appreciated, the more information the better.
Giving definitive advice on this is difficult as there are so many different factors to consider and no right and wrong. Maybe go to a youth race event and see what other parents are using for their children. Leatt are market leaders in this field but there are equally good products from Alpinestars, EVS and others so do the research on the options and that way you have the best chance of an informed decision.
How do you wear a neck brace over a thick adventure rider jacket with leatt body armour underneath, and which brand might work best?
Thick clothing is never a good idea whether you are wearing a brace or not – multiple thin layers will keep you warmer and allow better movement while riding. You can get jackets that accommodate neck braces with a wider or adjustable collar, but these will tend to be more enduro rather than adventure based. You may want to look at armour options with integral neck braces or perhaps look at braces that can safely be worn on the outside of a riding jacket.
If in doubt, go to a reputable dealer and seek professional advice on the options available.
Wife and i have original Leatt. We bought them in 07, crashed in 11 and snapped shoulder blade. In this case i dont think there was much risk of neck injury, i landed more sideways and pushed my arm/shoulder up into the brace. Worn on MX track and enduro ever since, now moving to ADV and not sure about it as this old model makes it impossible to lift your head high enough when stand up riding. Plus a lot of straps and stuff to put on and off regularly. Are the newer models better designed to not restrict movement? Could a lighter/foam type one work better for ADV?
I wear the Leatt 5.5 neck brace with the Leatt 5.5 body amour. The integral fitment between the two is great. I am 6’1″, with handlebars generally 2″ higher than a 5’9″ rider. I do have trouble with “not being able to look up while in the attack position”. At the end of a 45 mile practice my neck feels good. At the end of a 90 mile hare n hound, not so good from the muscle strain of looking up and being limited by the back of the helmet contacting the rear base of the neck brace. Have worked through all the adjustments on the neck brace to achieve the maximum movement to allow me to look up. I end up looking through the top of my goggles under my visor. My attack position is compromised. Some riders I have discussed this with have stopped using neck braces. If the back of the helmet or rear of the neck brace allowed for one more inch of movement, I would buy a replacement.