Preventing Concussions: Learning from Woodpeckers

Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? is not only the title of Mike O'Connor's first book. It's also the driving question behind a new device that could help prevent concussions. Here's the problem: While helmets can prevent skull fractures, they can’t prevent concussions. The brain floats in fluid inside the skull and can therefore slosh around during impact. The solution? Consider the woodpecker. 

Dr. David Smith, CEO of Xennovate Medical, received a bit of advice from an attendee at one of his lectures in 2007. The advice was to investigate how woodpeckers manage to knock their heads against trees all day without suffering any ill effects. Smith appreciated the advice and began studying woodpeckers. 

A woodpecker has a very long tongue. In some species, the tongue is supported by bones that wrap all the way around the head. It appears that the tongue compresses the bones, and therefore the neck veins, as the woodpecker thrusts its head forward. The resulting slight increase in skull fluid volume helps keep the brain from knocking against the skull.

Smith wondered whether the same effect could be reproduced in humans, perhaps with some kind of collar. He contacted Dr. Julian Bailes—yes, the doctor played by Alec Baldwin in the 2015 movie Concussion. Bailes had testified before Congress in 2009 about head injuries in the NFL, having been team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1988-98.

Smith and Bailes designed a collar that gently presses on the back and sides of the neck, leaving the throat unobstructed. The pressure slightly compresses the jugular vein, slowing the blood flow out of the brain. The result: the skull temporarily contains an extra teaspoon of blood. This extra teaspoon of volume, which causes no harm, reduces the amount of sloshing that the brain can do when the head is walloped.

Smith and Bailes tested their first model on rats. It worked well enough that they decided to move on to human subjects. Three years ago, Smith and Bailes invited Dr. Gregory Myer at the Human Performance Laboratory at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to join their effort. They tested the collar with high school football players. The results will appear in a paper that Myer intends to submit for publication early next year.

Performance Sports Group, which makes Bauer ice hockey equipment and Cascade lacrosse helmets, has committed $7 million toward production of the band. More importantly, CEO Kevin Davis has such confidence in the band’s effectiveness that he’s asked his son to wear it when he plays hockey.

We hope he says "Thank you" to any woodpeckers he sees or hears on the way to practice.