Students test a prototype of a patented neck strength assessment tool.

School of Health and Applied Human Sciences Faculty Developing Neck Strength Assessment Tool

September 15, 2022 - Strong necks are one way to prevent head and traumatic brain injuries, and the School of Health and Applied Human Sciences’ Alex McDaniel, assistant professor of exercise science, and Lindsey Schroeder, associate professor of athletic training, have invented a device to measure this strength.

The project began in 2017, when McDaniel and Schroeder began researching mild traumatic brain injury in athletics. McDaniel found that researchers are studying ways to improve neck strength to ward off potential traumatic brain injuries in athletes, but no one was focusing on the same issue in the military. Between 2000 and 2019, there were 416,000 traumatic brain injuries in the military, 82% of those were mild. “In the 82nd Airborne, the number one cause of decreased military readiness is brain trauma from parachute landings. So, we said, ‘Is there anyone taking care of this?’ We saw an opportunity,” McDaniel said.

Concussions, which are caused by an impact that moves the brain within the skull, can lead to problems with thinking, concentration, mood or other neurological changes. Additional symptoms can include dizziness and nausea. A neck that is stronger, thicker or aligned in a neutral posture — with the ears aligned with the shoulders — may reduce the amount of energy transferred to the brain during an impact, thus reducing the risk and severity of injury.

Military paratroopers are especially vulnerable to the recurrence of concussions. They can land between 15 to 20 miles an hour, while carrying 100 to 150 pounds of gear. “Even small, repetitive blows impact the brain, so every time they launch their parachute is going to add up over time. Other landings can be quite impactful, and the concussions are immediate,” Schroeder said. Research has shown that neck strength can reduce head acceleration following impact in a lab, suggesting that neck strengthening exercises may be a good strategy for concussion prevention.

McDaniel and Schroeder were recently awarded a $110,000 Translational Research Grant (TRG) from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center to develop an enhanced prototype of their patented neck strength assessment tool, rigorously test it, and work towards approval from the Food and Drug Administration as a medical device. The grant was awarded in collaboration with Justin Streuli from the UNCW Office of Innovation and Commercialization, Bill Kawczynski from the UNCW Office of Military Affairs and multiple community partners.

The Translational Research Grant program funds projects that explore commercial applications or initiate the early commercial development of university-held life sciences inventions. The technology must have the potential to solve a real-world problem as a commercial product in the life sciences sector.

With the help from the TRG, Schroeder and McDaniel are working toward making a difference in the health of military paratroopers.