While some have gone so far as to suggest eliminating high-impact sports, such as lacrosse, football, hockey and soccer, a new tool that exercises and strengthens the neck is being touted as an answer to rising risk of head injuries among athletes.

The tool, called the Iron Neck, is partly manufactured in Albert Lea and is used by 13 NFL teams and 300 college and high school teams. The Iron Neck, a circular plate that straps on to the user’s head, is connected to a pulley or resistance band. Linear and rotational movements, done consistently over about two months, can produce stronger neck muscles and help prevent brain injuries, according to Robert Sherman, the company’s chief marketing officer.

The company started in 2012 after a former UCLA football player, Mike Jolly, saw former teammates develop CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — and started looking into research surrounding solutions to brain injuries. The first model of the Iron Neck was released that year. The tool’s concept stems from a three-year study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy, which shows how, for every one pound increase in neck strength, the risk of a concussion declines 5 percent. 

Sherman, a friend of Jolly from their time at business school at the University of Texas at Austin, was brought in to help revamp the company in 2015. The company redesigned the product in 2016.

Iron Neck has since sold more than 1,300 units. Sherman attributed the growth to newer models with lower prices and the company’s efforts to connect with strength trainers at high schools and colleges around the U.S.

The Iron Neck comes in three models: Varsity, Pro and Rehab, and range in price from $425 to $625. Sherman said the company is projecting it will hit $1 million in sales by the end of 2018. 

Initially, before bringing in Sherman and two other former business school colleagues, Jolly marketed the product at strength-and-conditioning conferences, trade shows, and at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“It was almost entirely college and pro,” Sherman said. “The original product was very much not a rehab tool at that point.”

Though the company still advertises at such events, Sherman said the 2016 product redesign allows them to advertise at high school coaching events or with sports medicine and physical therapy doctors.

“From a product-development standpoint, we’ve gotten this to a place where we are comfortable,” Sherman said.

The redesign resulted in customizing the tool for three types of use. The Varsity model is intended for high school teams who need a basic exercise tool, the Rehab model is created for physical therapy and sports-medicine practices, and the Pro model is created for both strength and conditioning and physical therapy.

Sherman said the original product was mostly made of metal and weighed 13 pounds — too heavy to be used for physical therapy and rehabilitation. The company switched to injection molding for the tool’s main components, bringing the weight down to about 3 pounds.

The company has contracted with Interstate Molding for the last two years, an injection molding company in Albert Lea. 

“We provide everything plastic in it,” said Jon Klapperick, president of Interstate Molding. “I think it’s an awesome product.”

In developing the Iron Neck, Sherman and his team consulted with Dr. Uzma Samadani, a neurosurgeon in Minneapolis and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Samadani started studying neck strength and head injuries about a year and a half ago, and is currently conducting a study looking at neck strength in 300 kids and young adults.

With a stronger neck, “your head moves less when you have a blow to the neck,” she said. “That may potentially slow down … injuries, stretching and tearing of neurons.”

Sherman added that the company is working with schools who use the Iron Neck to track how effective consistent neck exercise is. A high school in New Jersey tracked neck strength while using the tool consistently over a nine-week period for boys and girls teams.

“Every athlete increased their neck size and increased their neck strength,” Sherman said.

Though Samadani does not use the Iron Neck in her study, she said she hopes to incorporate it someday.

“I think Iron Neck is an example of technology that could be powerful … particularly in girls,” she said. “They tend to not have as strong of necks.”

Samadani said she does not support banning sports, pointing out that most kids on sports teams will benefit more from exercise and learning life skills than the potential for injury.

“We’re the educators,” said Sherman. “The only people that really know about the research are the researchers and us.”

 

Olivia Johnson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for Star Tribune.