Neck-strengthening device aims to prevent concussions

Alan Philipson developed the portable neck-strengthening device that some doctors say can make all the difference in preventing concussions and other injuries. (Carline Jean/Sun Sentinel/MCT)

(MCT) -- WESTON, Fla. - Alan Philipson is tackling the problem of head injuries from a different angle - by working out the neck.

Influenced by studies showing a link between concussions and neck strength, the entrepreneur has created the Cervifit, a portable device that uses small weights to build up neck muscles.

Made of tough ABS plastic, the Cervifit works as a fulcrum, with a set of small, 4- and 5-pound iron weights stacked at the top. Strapped to the head, it creates up to 40 pounds of resistance when the wearer performs a series of neck lifts and other exercises.

Among its first clients: Fort Lauderdale race car driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won his first Indianapolis 500 this May.

"I think it definitely has a lot of potential. With G-forces up to four times (normal weight) in an Indy car on turns, it definitely helped strengthen my neck," said Hunter-Reay, adding that he used the Cervifit to prepare for this spring's Indy season.

NFL agent Jonathan Kline, based in South Florida, said he saw such potential in the Cervifit that he ordered eight devices to give to player clients, including Willie Snead, who just signed with the Cleveland Browns, and Derrick Strozier, who joined the New Orleans Saints last week. A local high school football coach ordered six for his football team after seeing one of his players - the son of Philipson's girlfriend - using a prototype during workouts, Philipson said.

"The concussion issue is a huge issue in the NFL ... and at all levels of football," Kline said, adding that "if my guys like it, a couple use it and achieve some level of success with it," it could catch on with "everyone who worries about concussions."

Philipson created the Cervifit - now available to the general public for $129.99 at - out of a longtime fascination with medical devices. A walk-on fullback for Florida State University in 1989, he suffered two concussions during his youth, he said.

He began playing with the Cervifit concept as a marketing project while pursuing his master's in business administration. A fitness buff who worked as a personal trainer while making his way through school, Philipson said he realized there was no portable, affordable equipment to help those wanting to strengthen their neck muscles, outside of weight machines found in gyms.

With a $75,000 investment from Philipson's mother, the Cervifit was patented and went into production in November, he said.

Though he has no medical training, Philipson's first flirtation with innovation came when he designed a double-cuff exercise device that worked out the injured and dominant limbs simultaneously, to reduce overcompensation. Called the Aztec, the device was patented but never went to market.

"I've always had an inventive side of me," said Philipson, whose father holds a number of product patents. "I think it's just in my DNA."

The device is not just for football players or race car drivers negotiating G-force turns. Two Florida doctors who advised Philipson on the Cervifit are also recommending it to patients to improve balance, prevent falls and treat head and neck pain.

"For me, it's a nice, non-medicinal way to help patients with chronic neck pain," as well as those suffering migraines or hoping to avoid a repeat concussion, said Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, a neurologist who helped Philipson and his company, Anatomical Architects, fine tune the Cervifit.

Biomechanics experts have long zeroed in on the neck's implication in head injuries, theorizing that girl soccer and lacrosse players suffer more concussions than boys because of inferior neck strength. Last year, a Colorado School of Public Health study bolstered that idea, finding that of 6,704 young athletes followed during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years, those who suffered concussions were more likely to have a smaller neck circumference, less overall neck strength and a smaller neck-to-head ratio.

The theory goes that the neck acts as a shock absorber of sorts for the head. The stronger the neck, the better it can control the head in abrupt movements and prevent the brain from sloshing around in the skull, a violent force that causes concussions.

One independent expert agrees the concept "makes sense," given the body of research on concussions and neck strength. He noted, however, that there are no empirical studies that take the theory a step further to show neck-strengthening devices - or even helmets, for that matter - reduce concussions.

"Strengthening the neck in contact sports is a great idea," said Dr. Evan Peck, a sports medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic Florida, declining to comment specifically on the Cervifit because he was unfamiliar with the device. "But I don't know if we can make the leap yet that it prevents concussions."

Because the device is still new, extensive research has not yet been conducted on its effectiveness. One is planned in the next six months. In the meantime, it is advised that anyone using the device should be trained on its proper, safe use by an experienced professional such as a doctor or personal trainer.