Neck Braces For Mountain Biking: Helpful Or Harmful?
Over the past decade, neck braces have had a surge in popularity among gravity-oriented mountain bikers, especially ones where full-face helmets are standard attire. That popularity has seemingly faded in recent months, and we now seem to have found the equilibrium. Riders have either made a neck brace part of their essential gear or tried and ditched it altogether.
I personally rode with a neck brace for years. As I progressed to more technical and fast downhill tracks, the prospect of catastrophic spinal cord injury is something I had been increasingly aware of. To ease my consciousness and focus more on the riding, I got the Alpinestars BNS a couple of years back for downhill MTB riding specifically.
But there are also repelling factors like the steep cost and the fact that a lot of them are not compatible with body armor. Some riders are missing the hard data on the efficacy and lost trust in the ‘scare tactics’ marketing campaigns. The wide use of the neck brace might be over in MTB, but their use is still persistent – especially in the youth gravity riders.
Disclaimer: This is not sponsored content. I do not have any affiliation with a neck brace manufacturer. The aim of this article is to provide objective scientific information, aggregate data, and personal experiences.
What does an MTB neck brace do? And what’s an MTB neck brace good for?
A neck brace prevents hyperextension of the neck that would lead to vertebra damage by limiting the neck’s range of motion. It’s also dissipating the energy from crashes through the brace to the upper body and less critical body parts than the neck. However, it does not help with rotational forces to the head, which are a main cause of brain injuries like concussions.
Neck braces are most common in off-road riding like motocross and downhill mountain biking, where high speeds and difficult terrain are key characteristics of the sport.
The reason why braces are predominantly worn in these activities is that uneven terrain can grab the helmet and put a lot of force through the neck towards the rest of the body. This is usually not an issue on asphalt, where the helmet can easily slide along the pavement.
With that being said, crashes like these are rare and resulting injuries to the neck are among the least likely in downhill mountain biking. In fact, I wrote an entire article on the risks, dangers and probabilities of injuries. While neck and spine injuries are less likely, their consequences can be catastrophic.
Even with detailed descriptions, white papers by Leatt and aggregated anecdotes over many online forums it’s still difficult to aggregate data on injury prevention statistics for neck braces. What we can say, tho, from EMT reports working in close proximity to bike centers is the increase of collar bone injuries with riders wearing neck braces. Dual clavicle breaks are not exactly common but do happen disproportionately with neck braces.
As I said, it works by transferring impact force to other areas like the chest, shoulder blades, back and most importantly the collar bones.
How an MTB neck brace works
A protective neck brace works by limiting the range of motion the helmet can tilt to the front, rear and sides. However, it doesn’t limit the helmet when turning from side to side. In order to function properly, wearing a full-face helmet is required. These go further down at the back of the head, have that pronounced chin guard in the front, and extend below the ears.
Do MTB neck braces actually work?
A neck brace works in very specific crash scenarios where the neck is at risk of hyperextensions from medial and lateral forces. It does not help with brain injuries, rotational forces turning the head side to side or when force is applied down on the head and neck at a sharp angle.
So, in general, neck braces work for mountain biking, but their area of use is limited to specific crash scenarios where the head is impacted at a certain angle. Those crashes are often headfirst into resistance (ground, trees) but can also be ones where the rider’s body rolls over the head, hyperextending the neck in the process.
Either way, what initially makes these crashes so dangerous is the ground grabbing the helmet. So the helmet shape is also a good place to optimize. It’s also the reason Kali and Leatt helmets are known for their round shape without defined edges, compared to Troy Lee helmets.
I personally had one of those when I tomahawked down a steep downhill. The neckbrace actually broke at the front closure system. Glad I wore my neck brace that day and it wasn’t something else that broke instead. But it was also 100% my fault as I was riding over my skill level at that moment, which lead to an uncontrollable dismount. I, like most riders, would benefit more from learning how to tumble post-crash properly than simply getting a neck brace. And riding within one’s skill ceiling helps with that.
As there are no quotable independent statistics or studies on how much neck braces reduce the risk of serious injury in the field (only in controlled, repeatable, ideal test scenarios), it is difficult to weigh the benefits against the discomfort, costs, and higher risk to collar bones. Personal health is an issue every person and every rider has to decide for themselves, given the information at hand. And that’s what I intend here.
So here are the main arguments compiled into the main benefits and disadvantages:
- Mostly not compatible with back protectors and body armor.
- Cost of over $ 300 for an entry-level brace.
- Limited in the number of preventable injuries.
- Cumbersome to wear and limits the ability to look ahead and into turns.
- Limited data on the effectiveness in real world scenarios.
- Increased potential for collar bone injuries.
- Can prevent arguably the worst injuries of all to the spinal cord.
- Safety measure for high-risk mountain biking.
- Extra protection for riders less “skilled” in crashing, like beginners and children.
- Ease of mind and confidence building.
At the end of the day, what we do is dangerous. And that’s also the thrill and excitement that brought most of us to downhill MTB. There is undeniably a risk-reward equation any one rider has to weigh themselves. I chose to ride within your ability and take full responsibility for what happens to me.
The cost has already occurred for my neck brace. The ongoing issue is the discomfort and prohibiting head movement during regular riding. It prohibits my riding in an unacceptable manner. After my big crash described above, I altered my overall riding style to not be over my personal limits quite as much and ride more in control to steadily improve and build confidence. This way the crashes that do occur are somewhat predictable and allow me to walk or roll off instead of hitting the ground bluntly in an abrupt stop.
Still, the single most important benefit of neck braces is the reduced risk of spinal cord injuries to the neck. And that can’t be overstated enough. It’s great that options to increase rider safety exist for anyone willing to make the purchase.
How mountain biking can hurt your neck and spine
Mountain biking can be harmful to the neck and spine if helmets are too heavy, bad posture is prolonged for long periods of time, unbalanced training, and crashing. Muscular tension can be relieved with exercises that target the neck, back, and core muscles. The risk of crashes can be reduced by wearing protective gear.
I certainly experienced all of the above at one time or another. But nothing is as drastic to your health as a good old crash. Let’s stick with risks to the neck for now. While spinal cord injuries are relatively rare in MTB, they do definitely occur. And often get reported on or talked about. There’s probably some recency bias going on that lets us feel as if those kinds of injuries were a common thing.
And even if the statistical chances are in your favor, tempting fate isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even if our hobby is inherently dangerous, and that is part of the attraction. And neck braces can help in certain crashes that move the head in a certain angle.
The most common ones from my experience are front-wheel washouts. Those can lead to headfirst crashes into the ground and bend the neck backward. Whenever you’re on board with one of those, you might wish you had the brace on at that moment. The ground is not going to move, but your head and neck will.
And there is another horrible kind of crash for the neck, not headfirst. It’s often the case with highsides, that catapult the rider off the bike into a tomahawk. On impact the upper body may roll over the head, putting a lot of strain on the neck.
I had one of those once and my head bent forward so that the chin guard of my full-face helmet hit the neck brace. It was enough force to break the brace at that point. Even at lower speeds than motocross, weird crashes have the potential to exert a lot of force to unwanted places.
Source: Sage Publications – Spinal Cord Injuries in Mountain Bikers: A 13-Year Review
Do mountain bike neck braces help with breaking your collarbone?
Neck braces do not protect the collar bone as collar bone breaks often result from force to the shoulder. If anything, the neck brace may even induce collar bone injuries from energy dissipation away from the spine. Some neck braces have direct contact with the collar bone or might be pushed down on it resulting in force put through.
How to wear a neck brace on a mountain bike
These are general fitting principles, true for any MTB neck brace:
- A neck brace is worn over any back protector and body armor.
- The brace should not have to be forced into position. Bigger sizing may be advised if it is.
- Movement forward and backward should be limited. This is the most important fitting factor.
- Straps should be tight, preferably worn around the torso. X-shaped straps are often loose.
- Far enough forward that the chin can’t touch the brace.
- The helmet should be able to touch the brace on the sides, chin guard and back with regular head movements. No outside force applied.
- Use higher padding to lift specific areas of the brace up, if the helmet can’t touch that area at all.
- Use lower padding in areas, where range of movement is too restricting and interfering with normal riding movements.
- Should not restrict breathing.
- If in doubt, consult the manual for your specific brace for details.
Are neck braces uncomfortable?
Discomfort during riding is a major negative side effect of neck braces. Restricted movement is one of the most-cited complaints from riders. Especially in fast-paced, high-impact riding they move around even when secured tightly. Any contact with the helmet leads to loud distracting noises.
Even with torso straps, neck braces rock back and forth. With loose straps the brace tends to move more and hits against the helmet, which is quite loud inside it. That movement gets dangerous when it moves so far back, that the chin can hit the front part of the brace.
For mountain biking, one aspect is especially at fault for uncomfortable wearing. They need to sit far forward but tend to move back when mountain biking. This is due to the angled upper body position and shoulders raised.
Additionally, the head is tilted back in order to look ahead on the trail. In corners – berm corners especially I found – when the head is tilted back and angled to one side, it is almost guaranteed to touch the back of the brace. Riders with every model of neck brace I talked to reported the same issue.
That’s exaggerated with the combined use of a back protector the neck brace sits on top of. Even with the torso straps, my brace tends to move more than what I’d like when used in combination with a back protector. That’s also the reason I don’t wear it anymore and ride without a neck brace.
What to look for in a neck brace
There are a few key aspects that make a good, recommendable neck brace. While fitting is somewhat subjective, these characteristics are non-negotiable when talking about safety:
- Agood, stable fit. Adjustable straps for tight fit to the upper body and limited movement.
- Padded contact points where body and brace meet or might meet.
- A long lip at the rear for the helmet to push against.
- No contact with the spine in the middle of the back that could lead to energy dissapation there.
- Body armor or back rotector compatibility.
- Rear contact points like wings or back plates, preferably on the scapula.
- Quick release that is easy to operate.
Brands like Leatt, Atlas, and Ortema make neck braces with two separate backplates, that sit on top of the shoulder blades.
Avoid at all costs
Neckbraces to avoid are the ones not actually called beck braces, but continuously showing up when researching: the neck collars. They have a very close resemblance to sleeping braces, which are designed for neck support, not impact absorption.
These may look like neck braces, and actually do some of the things a brace would do. But these are either very constricting or so unrestricted, that the head is not even constrained in its movement.
The EVS Sports R2 Collar (picture above) is a very commonly seen example of what I’m talking about. It has pretty much none of the characteristics above – apart from back protector compatibility because it hardly touches the upper body. Their EVS R4 Collar fixes that, by putting an extra rear plate along the upper back. Which isn’t ideal either.
Either way, these do not transfer the force away from the neck. In some cases even expose the head or neck to more potential impact by being so soft. They just sit around your neck with nothing to push up against. So they have none of the characteristics important to an actual MTB neck brace.
Best Neck Braces 2022
If you come to the informed conclusion that you’d like to look into which neck brace in particular to get, there are a couple of reputable brands and models to recommend. Truth be told, these are the four main players in this market – each with its strengths and weaknesses. There isn’t one neck brace that does every single thing right. Depending on your needs, some are better for you than others.
Ortema ONB Neck Brace
Arguably one of the best-fitting neck braces on the market. The parts are designed to heat up and mold to your body, making initial fitting more time-consuming, but paying off in comfortable and secure wearing. It’s extremely adjustable with almost all parts hot-swappable or adjustable.
The two backplates are nice and wide to accommodate a back protector. It comes with straps to tie down and keep it from moving on the rough downhills.
If I bought a new neck brace for mountain biking, it would be the Ortema ONB.
Leatt DPX 5.5 Neck Brace
Leatt is probably the most well-known neck brace manufacturer. They are complete specialists in protective riding gear. This one comes with the strap kit included.
The DPX line of neck braces, compared to the GPX, is designed for mountain biking. GPX and DBX are both built on the same frame but with slightly different padding on top of the rear collar and the lateral areas near the neck. With those differences in mind, they can be used for off-roading and mountain biking alike.
This brace is highly compatible with back protectors and body armor from Leatt. Not so much with other brands tho. The backplate has similar issues as the Alpinestars BNS, as it sits in the middle of the upper back. A good alternative might be the Leatt STX Neck Brace, which has two rear scapula wings instead of one middle one.
The Leatt GPX braces have a high and large brace surface for the helmet to push against. However, their neck brace frame seems to be geared more towards motocross than mountain biking. It’s one of the largest to use on mountain bikes. The size is also what offers good protection, although heavy in use.
Atlas Air Brace
This one is also highly adjustable to fit pretty much any rider with any helmet. The rear wings are not spaced wide enough apart at the shoulder blades to fit a back protector in between. They’re also on the shorter sides, which allows the brace to slide back more than others.
The Atlas neck brace is one of the lighter models. It’s also more prone to move around a lot if not tied down. Straps are available, but not so easy to use as other models. The standard loops, similar to what Alpinestars BNS ships with, cut into the armpits and are not fun to use all day. Furthermore, the fit is too loose.
Alpinestars BNS (Bionic Neck Support)
Still one of the better ones on the market. But I would not recommend it over the Ortema due to the backplate over the spine, which also makes it difficult to use with back protectors. I tried both under and over mine, but couldn’t get it to fit comfortably while also tight.
Even with the straps (sold separately), it tends to move more than what I’d like when used in combination with a back protector. That’s also the reason I don’t wear it anymore and ride without a neck brace.
Best Kids neck braces
All the models mentioned above are also available in youth sizes and often exciting colors:
- Leatt Brace Youth GPX 3.5 Junior Neck Brace
- Alpinestars Youth Neck Support
- Atlas Youth Tyke Neck Brace