Are you a metalhead? Headbanging neck pain might just be a potential problem in your future. Studies have shown a link between headbanging and various problematic health conditions, including several forms of neck injury. Furthermore, many noted heavy metal musicians have cited injury, degeneration and the need to undergo drastic surgical interventions due to many years of banging their heads during performances.
The motion of headbanging is obviously and purposefully violent. It is almost self-flagellation, using ones own hair. When combined with other popular forms of metalheadesque expression, such as moshing and crowd surfing, there are many ways to damage the cervical spine and the surrounding soft tissues of the neck.
This article explores the relationship between neck symptoms and the practice of headbanging. We will examine how trauma can occur to the neck region and well as provide some guidance for readers who are looking for facts about the very real possibility of injuring themselves while banging their heads to their favorite music.
Headbanging Neck Pain Introduction
Headbanging, for those who do not know, involves various motions of the neck and head in rhythm to the music. Some headbangers prefer the “old school” back-to-front motion, while others prefer the circular motion of whipping the hair in an orbit. A few headbangers prefer a side-to-side motion, as if saying an affirmative “No”.
When asked why people headbang, most will say they do not know. It just feels good to them and helps them to “get into” their music. Some headbang because they want to fit into the group and everyone else is doing it. Some people say that they bang their heads to purposefully put themselves into a primal and savage state, while others claim it to be a relaxing form of dynamic meditation. We have heard all possible replies to this question and nothing surprises us at this stage of our research.
Headbanging can take place at any type of musical performance, but is most common at concerts featuring metal bands, thrash bands, punk bands, hardcore bands and some hard rock acts. Headbanging is not limited to live shows, as many fans do it simply when listening to their favorite music anytime, anywhere.
Headbanging can be rather gentle, such as nodding to the beat, or can be wildly enthusiastic, bordering on injurious. Obviously, the more aggressive forms of headbanging have greater potential to inflict the types of anatomical changes notated in the remainder of this essay. Additionally, the specific anatomy of each person will also play a role in who may or may not suffer ill effects as a result of their headbanging. There is no universal rule telling that all headbanging is innocent or dangerous. The risk factors must certainly be calculated on a case by case basis.
The various possible motions involved in forceful headbanging are strikingly similar to what happens to the neck during whiplash injury. Basically, the head is thrown one way with tremendous velocity, often going well past the comfortable range of cervical spinal motion. Of course, this motion is repeated hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of times during an average concert event for each headbanger. The cumulative stress of these movements can be equal to to a series of repetitive car accidents, with the force being focused mainly on the neck anatomy.
Damage can occur to the soft tissues surrounding the spine, such as the muscles, ligaments and tendons. These tissues can suffer small tears, known as neck strain, or may suffer worse injury, such as detachment from their anatomical anchors. This latter variety of trauma may necessitate surgical repair in some cases, in the neck, shoulder or upper back.
Some headbangers suffer similar soft tissue traumas to their lower backs, instead. This is particularly common in people who lunge forward and bend deeply at the waist when headbanging front-to-back.
Documented acute spontaneous spinal injury is rare, but can and does occur in extreme cases. These types of injuries range from fractured vertebrae to intervertebral bulging, herniation and rupture. However, accumulated stress from multiple headbanging sessions is most certainly a cause of accelerated degeneration of the spinal structures, leading to premature osteoarthritis, disc desiccation and herniation, as well as spinal joint breakdown.
Headbanging Neck Pain Citations
We are on the front lines of research when it comes to headbanging neck injury and have personally spoken to the doctors who have cared for several big name stars and a multitude of lesser names in the music industry, all of which have cited headbanging as contributory to their own pain syndromes.
A great number of musicians refuse to reveal that they are suffering from neck injury or pain as a result of years of headbanging. Maybe they fear being abandoned by their fans if they turn against a practice that is so universal and one that they once endorsed and participated in so aggressively. Maybe these music icons do not want to sound like they are parenting younger fans by telling them what to do or not do. Maybe these musicians just don’t care or think that their pain is not anyone’s business but their own. Who knows what the reason is for silence in each person’s case.
What we can tell is that many famous musicians have come forward to report headbanging as being at least partially to blame (in their own opinions or the opinions of their doctors) for a variety of problematic health issues. Some of the most noted of these musical mainstays include Dave Mustaine, Terry Balsamo, Craig Jones and Tom Araya.
As a lifelong musician and former thrash metal drummer, I became interested in the relationship between headbanging and neck symptoms when my own cervical spine began to trouble me. Of course, I had many possible contributors to the drastic degeneration in my own neck, including decades of participation in full contact martial arts training and competition.
I began headbanging as a young teenager, listening to such bands as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, Metallica, Slayer, Celtic Frost, DRI, COC and many, many more. I clearly recall seeing Judas Priest in concert and headbanging throughout the entire show at the age of about 14. I was dizzy for days afterwards. The years that followed had me going to see hundreds of bands playing live, as well as playing live with my own various bands, headbanging all the while. I never seemed to suffer any obvious trauma to my neck and never remember any particular occasion of dizziness or pain after that initial episode at the Judas Priest show. However, there is no denying that I demonstrate extensive damage in my cervical spine. I have intervertebral herniations at each and every cervical level of my spine. 2 of these herniated discs are especially bad and are partially compressing my spinal cord. I also demonstrate marked cervical osteoarthritis, far beyond what should be present for a “typical” person my age.
Do I blame headbanging for causing or contributing to my pain? Possibly. I am not sure. There are just too many potentially causative factors to weigh in on in my own case. Years of karate, Judo and Jiu Jitsu certainly could just as easily be the culprit. However, if I had it to do all over again, I think I would be just a bit kinder to my body and not cause myself such needless injury when I was younger. I might still headbang, but maybe with a bit more caution, instead of reckless abandon. I am sure that my condition now would be far better!
Headbanging Neck Pain Summation
It should be noted that doctors have linked headbanging to many health problems. Neck pain appears to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the risks of long-term banging of one’s head. Additional relationships seem to exist linking headbanging to stroke, concussion, brain injury, arterial trauma, headache, bleeding in the brain and damage to the central nervous system. We can not comment on these risks, as they are beyond the scope of this focused neck pain article. However, when it comes to linking neck injury with headbanging, we can see that a relationship most likely does exist in some cases, but many factors must be considered to make this link definitive for primary causation.
Frequent aggressive headbanging most likely will contribute to increased and accelerated degeneration of the spinal structures in the neck. However, it is known that degeneration is mostly an innocent and asymptomatic process. Headbanging can facilitate intervertebral bulging and herniation, but these processes are also mostly benign. However, when headbanging causes multiple soft tissue injuries, akin to whiplash, the damage can be documented and linked directly to the activity. It is known that recurrent strain conditions can cause RSI, which in itself is a highly controversial diagnosis in many patients.
So, we are not taking a stand on whether headbanging is right or wrong, good or bad. We are not telling people that headbanging is dangerous for them. However, we are warning headbangers that age may catch up with them in the form of injury or pain, creating problems that might link back to their earlier years when they were just “getting into their music”. This is far from certain, but is definitely a point for consideration for any logical young mind to contemplate.