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?
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