Neck braces are anecdotally not as common in downhill mountain biking as they used to be. They’re not gone tho. You still see (more young) riders using them at bike parks but more adults seem to decide against wearing one.
Are they not as effective as we thought? Not cool anymore? Too expensive? Let’s find out.
Disclaimer: For many years I wore an Alpinestars neckbrace, but decided not to anymore despite it saving my neck in a couple of crashes. This article includes scientific evidence, studies, and personal experiences.
How they work
A neck brace prevents hyperextension of the neck forward, backward and side to side that would lead to vertebra damage by limiting the neck’s range of motion.
It also dissipates the energy from crashes away from the neck and through the brace to the upper body into less critical body parts like shoulder blades, traps, ribs and in some cases clavicles.
However, it does not help with rotational forces to the head, which are a main cause of brain injuries like concussions.
The reason why braces are predominantly worn in offroad riding like motocross and downhill MTB is that uneven terrain can grab the helmet and put a lot of force through the neck toward the rest of the body.
This is usually not an issue on asphalt, where the helmet can easily slide along the pavement.
Related article: What to look for in a neck brace for MTB
Helpful or harmful?
- Can prevent catastrophic injuries to the spinal cord.
- Additional protection for high-risk mountain biking.
- Extra protection for riders less “skilled” in crashing, like beginners and children.
- Ease of mind and confidence building.
- Uncomfortable to wear.
- Limits the ability to look ahead and into turns (constant contacts).
- Changes body position and fatigue.
- Seldom compatible with back protectors.
- Cost of over $ 300 for an entry-level brace.
- Limited number of preventable injuries.
- Limited data on the effectiveness in real-world scenarios.
Here is my take formed by personal experience and objective data:
Neck injuries are very rare in downhill mountain biking (only 2.1%). And only a subset of these neck injuries could benefit from neck braces. They also don’t help with rotational impacts or head injuries like concussions.
So there is only a tiny chance of a neck brace being helpful in MTB. But in the rare case it is, it can make a huge difference – between either a catastrophic spinal cord injury or none.
I had two such accidents luckily wearing one, making me a statistic outlier.
Then there are the costs: not only monetary but also in discomfort and restrictions on the bike. In DH, the head is always tilted up to look ahead and into turns – banging against the neck brace and limiting movement during normal riding.
Statistically speaking, it doesn’t make sense to wear one. That still doesn’t help you if you’re on the wrong side of statistics.
Like with most things in downhill, the decision to wear a neckbrace or not depends on your risk tolerance.
Then there are other repelling factors like the steep cost and the fact that a lot of them are not compatible with most back protectors.
Effectiveness according to studies
The research on the effectiveness of neck braces specifically in mountain biking is very limited. There are first-party lab test and white papers (by Leatt) that look at how well neck braces work on specific crash scenarios – with little regard to if those scenarios are likely.
The wide use of the neck braces might be over in MTB, but their use is still persistent – especially in the youth gravity riders.
They work well in preventing certain neck injuries, as shown by the lab tests. The likelihood of such crashes is simply very low (below 2% of all MTB injuries)
Many riders are missing the hard data on the efficacy in real-world scenarios and lost trust in the ‘scare tactics’ marketing campaigns.
Or are tired of misleading conclusions of large sample size studies like the study done by EMS Action Sports that falsely concluded “A Critical Cervical Spine Injury is 89% More Likely Without A Neck Brace” in motocross racing.
It should say “of all Cervical Spine Injury patients, 89% wore no neck brace” – not correlate that this is a likely outcome of not wearing one.
It does not account for how many people wear braces (likely the minority), nor control for other confounding factors like risk aversion.
There’s one question that you can find very contradicting information for: Do neckbraces prevent or induce collarbone injuries?
Depending on the crash, a neck brace can prevent collar bone breaks or result in one … what?
- Helpful when the helmet chin bar hits the clavicle directly.
- Harmful when the collarbone hits the underside of a neck brace.
Since you can’t decide on which crash you’re having, there’s no definitive answer.
The first one is fairly straightforward. The second one is a function of how a neckbrace works.
They work by transferring impact force to other areas like the chest, shoulder blades, back or the collar bones.
The energy has to go somewhere, and the clavicle doesn’t usually touch the brace. But there isn’t much room to spare so this can happen very easily when the shoulder is pushed up.
Sources and Citations
- Leatt Lab White Paper: Research and Development Efforts towards the Production of the Leatt Unrestrained Torso Neck Brace
- 2 year EWS racer Study (PDF download)
- Spinal Column and Spinal Cord Injuries in Mountain Bikers: A 13-Year Review
- On-track Measurements in Motocross: The Correlation of Neck Muscle Activity and Contact Incidents of Helmet and Neck Brace
- Neck Braces in Motocross: Different Designs and Their Effects on Muscular Activity of the Neck
- A comparison of neck movement in the soft cervical collar and rigid cervical brace in healthy subjects.
- Neck Brace Effectiveness Statistics by Great Lakes EMS Inc (Action Sports EMS) – Motocross Data