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  • Writer's pictureGary Moller

Protecting my Brain and Cervical Spine

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

What I am doing to reduce the risk of brain and cervical spine injuries while mountain biking

My interest in brain and cervical spinal (neck) protection has been extra high since I almost put myself into a wheelchair in March of this year. You can read all about it here:

While the fall did not cause a concussion, the impact of my head with the ground almost broke my neck, with the impact crushing and bruising my spinal cord. I distinctly remember what happened the instant my helmeted head struck the ground. Like a hammer ringing a bell, the shock from the sudden deceleration was sharply transmitted from the helmet to the skull bones, then instantly to the bones of the neck. At the same time, I was violently bent over like a scorpion, crushing my spinal cord in the process.

When I first saw this MRI of my spinal cord I was shocked, confirming that I was very lucky not to be permanently paralysed.

MRI of cervical spine
MRI of Gary's cervical spine showing the crushed spinal cord.

Crashes in cross-country mountain-biking are usually slow speed - they are for me anyway. It is not a sudden, violent whack that usually does the damage because most of these falls are more like slides than the direct, violent impacts that might be the case when hitting a car and falling head-first onto pavement.

In my crashes, the most damage to the head and neck happens when the sliding helmet catches on the ground or an obstacle like rocks or roots. In this case, powerful torsional forces are transmitted from the helmet to the skull and onto the neck. Other than relatively minor grazes, cuts and bruises and the occasional broken bone, by far the most serious damage I have suffered is to my neck. On all previous occasions this has involved a fall, going into some kind of slide/tumble then the helmet catching and my neck getting a violent twist. This is why most of the serious damage I have suffered has been to the neck and never a concussion. The difference with this latest neck injury was the more direct impact onto the helmet after going over my handle bars and my extra vulnerability to harm due to the structural weaknesses in my cervical spine from past damage.

I knew immediately that this was the one accident that I was not going to walk away from!

I did end up walking away from it after several weeks but I did seriously consider that this was the end of all high-risk activities for me. I thought seriously about retiring from all competitive cycling. As I am writing, I am aware that I have one numb small finger and some residual nerve pain in both arms. My neck is back to about where it was pre-injury in terms of mobility, so that is encouraging.

I am now back to full training, in very good condition and really enjoying life. So I have decided not to retire but to continue to do what I really enjoy while I still can, including contesting the next mountain biking world championships this August. I'm 66 year old later this year and still going strong, so why stop now? Instead of giving up, my strategy is to do everything I can to reduce my risk of further injuries to my cervical spine which is showing clear signs of being a little the worst for wear and tear.


What I am dong to reduce my risk of further injury


I have nailed this down to the following:

  1. Re-configuring my bike so that I am less likely to go over the handle bars.

  2. Improving my skills and strength.

  3. Not taking careless risks.

  4. Wearing a helmet that is designed to reduce the transmission of shock and torsion through to the cervical spine.

1. Re-configuring my bike so that I am less likely to go over the handle bars

Going over the handle bars is what did the serious damage this last time. I have a 2019 Cannondale Scalpel Ocha which is the best racing machine on the market. However, there was one thing about its setup that might increase the risk of going over the bars. I was riding with a light carbon seat post which can not be lowered when descending steep slopes and obstacles. While I was not riding this bike at the time of my accident, modifying all of my bikes with seat post that can be lowered in an instant was an obvious move. This is done by f