Friday, July 9, 2010

Your Neck and Formula One Racing

So this random guy at a bar was trying to get my attention last week and failing miserably until he said one thing that made my ears perk up:  "Did you know that Michael Schumacher does three hours of neck exercises every day?"

What?  Neck exercises?  My brain snapped out of stand-by mode and started making connections:  I had just seen a woman at her house last month who has been nearly debilitated by two spinal surgeries.  One of the interventions was a neck operation, a cervical laminectomy meant to relieve symptoms from cervical stenosis:  her spinal canal was congenitally narrow, meaning a predisposition to compression on her spinal cord.  However, her symptoms of numbness and pain in the arms persisted after the operation while her overall condition worsened, as at 65 years of age, her body did not react well surgery.  Her husband dutifully brought her to numerous doctors, therapists, and specialists, none of whom gave her conclusive advice.

Nonetheless, one concept stuck with me after meeting with this woman:  neck exercises.  Because, in this woman's case, the laminae were cut to relieve the compression on the spinal cord.   To picture this, it would be like chopping off the buttresses around Notre Dame to allow more people to walk past the church.  Accordingly, there is a loss of stability.  And something has to jump in to compensate.

Of course, my client is not the only person dealing with neck rehabilitation.  This brings us back to our original subject:  Professional race-car driver Michael Schumacher.  He is a living legend.  Now, keep in mind the fact that race-car driving is the most demanding sport for the neck muscles, which can be subjected to up to 24 kg (53 lbs) of force during a high-speed turn, not to mention the constant vibration of the vehicle.  But in February of 2009, Schumacher suffered a serious neck injury in a motorcycle accident.  The injury described by his physician of over 10 years, Dr. Johannes Peil:

"He had a serious injury to the seventh vertebra of the neck, a fracture of the first left rib and a fracture at the base of the skull, roughly the size of a thumbnail but in a place supporting the whole weight of the skull.  There was also a hairline fracture on the left side of the skull."

Does that sound challenging yet?  But being the uniquely motivated ├╝ber-athlete that he is, Schumacher planned nevertheless to make a career comeback for his Ferrari team, so the goal remains to regain his neck strength to withstand the extreme jostling inside the cockpit.  A quote from Dr Peil:

"He had serious rotation movement problems between the head and neck, and the physio focused on extension mobilization. There was a lot of manual therapy and therapy focused on building up the muscles. When you have an injury like that you have to look at muscular compensation – that is to say that the injury will never be completely healed, but what you can do is compensate for it by building up the muscles around that area.  We used a neck machine specially designed for Formula One drivers, to stabilize and strengthen his neck."

The keywords:  muscular compensation.  Manual therapy (that's were Rolfing comes in) and extension mobilization are known.  And after plenty of google-snooping, I found a rare image of the fabled "neck machine" that Dr Peil mentioned: The F1 McLaren Technogym Machine.  As you can see, it looks like a torture instrument:

In the middle is a steering column, and the driver sits in the contraption with a helmet which is attached with pulleys in all directions to those massive weights you see there in stacks.  When the driver steers the wheel, the machine pulls accordingly, simulating the forces experienced on the race track during a turn.  The machine essentially exerts a slow-motion, controlled whiplash to the neck in all directions to strengthen muscles not only along the spine but in concert with the shoulder and arm muscles used in racing.

But no worries!  I certainly do not recommend you place yourself in a full-body Formula-One blender.  And by all means, patients with cervical stenosis, pre- or post-operative, must consult their doctors and PT's first.  But for the rest, the consensus seems to be that exercise, lowering inflammation and good posture are the best ways to stave off later complications that may require surgery.  I happened to find a couple of videos that summarize ways to gently strengthen your neck.  Below, I give you the choice between a gorgeous, motherly Irish yoga teacher named Esther Ekhart, or a very courageous (and tan) Texas orthopedic surgeon who looks simply fantabulous in white shorts.  Both of them explain neck exercises that utilize isometrics.

And Dr. John Evans, an orthopedic surgeon from San Antonio:

I hope this posting gives you a place to begin to appreciate your neck.

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Then the random guy at the bar says, "Did you know that Schumacher drove the taxi in Coburg to get to the airport on time, and he tipped the taxi driver one hundred euros?"

Yeah, I heard that one before.  What else is new?