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Thoughts on The Q-Collar and Woodpeckers
Why the Q-Collar device may or may not work to mitigate TBI
You might have noticed a story in the New York Times this week about the Q-Collar. The makers of this item say it protects the brain against TBI. That has yet to be proven. If you take a brief glance at the comments on that piece you’ll see an absolute litany of scathing criticism and debunking. Here are my thoughts on the Q-Collar.
First, the theory behind it.
The inventors wondered why woodpeckers, who obviously bash their heads into trees repeatedly, don’t sustain brain damage or develop something like CTE.
Woodpeckers may very well develop something like CTE. As the article points out, autopsies of woodpecker brains show damage. (Isn’t it fun to say woodpecker brains?)
So right off the bat, we have a potentially false premise. Still, let’s remain curious.
The Q-collar was designed to mimic a muscle in the necks of woodpeckers that constricts to reduce the outflow of blood from the brain, thus raising the blood pressure in the vasculature of the brain.
The theory is that the added bit of blood pressure bolsters the brain to dampen some of the forces traveling through the brain at impact.
Since the vasculature of the brain comprises much of its volume, this doesn’t seem entirely implausible. It should be noted however that woodpeckers are sustaining a relatively low threshold of force delivered in one plane through their beaks, which are adapted to what they do (whereas human beings are far from adapted to football or car crashes or blast injuries).
It should also be noted that birds are not mammals, their hearts and blood vessels are different from ours, and their skulls are constructed differently. It’s unlikely that blood pressure is the sole reason why woodpeckers can do what they do.
And what is the Q-Collar doing? Merely applying slight pressure to the neck. That’s it. That’s all this “device” is doing.
I’ve mentioned that the vasculature of the brain comprises much of its volume, so while it makes some sense that bolstering blood pressure might help “stiffen” the internal structure of the brain, it doesn’t follow that this would prevent the brain from hitting the skull, given enough force.
It also doesn’t follow that it would stop a compression wave from traveling through the brain and damaging glia, neurons and other structures.
The injured soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries taught us that one does not need to be physically struck in the head to suffer brain damage.
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If a significant force hits the body alone, a compressive wave travels through the body and brain, and as this wave moves through different densities of brain tissue, it creates shearing forces that damage tissue. The same thing could happen to a football player who is hit hard enough in the chest.
When the late John Madden talked about the results of the NFL’s analysis of concussion dangers, he said they discovered that one of the worst types of hits a player could sustain was one delivered down through the crown of the head.
This was one reason why the NFL made rule changes forbidding certain defensive players from lowering their head to deliver a hit with the crown of their head (often to the crown of someone else’s head).
Will a Q-Collar really do much in instances where compression waves are moving through the head, in different planes? Or in instances where the forces far exceed what we might experience if we hit our own heads into a tree, like a woodpecker? In a car accident, we have bodies weighing many tons traveling through space at great speed. Etc.
On the Q-Collar website, they show a hype video with people's heads (and bodies) receiving massive blows from forces in every possible direction, the implication being you are protected no matter what. To me, this is highly misleading.
In fact, the language used on the Q-Collar website makes it seem more dubious to me than it might otherwise.
On the Q-Collar website, there is a misleading graphic comparing it to other forms of head protection, such as helmets. Here, they don’t mention technologies like MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system) or Bauer’s Re-Akt helmets, which were designed to direct force away from the brain, not just protect the skull.
This feels like a lie by omission and something that might encourage a teen to ditch the helmet believing her Q-Collar will protect her.
They also make a big deal about the Q-Collar having FDA clearance—but it’s important to know that different levels of FDA clearance exist, and they mean very different things. Basic clearance simply means the FDA doesn’t think it will harm anyone. This level of clearance is very different from the higher levels of approval, which mean that something (a medication, a device) is clinically proven to do what it claims to do. The Q-Collar isn’t there yet.
I’d like to believe the Q-Collar could help, but I also think it would be foolish to think it’s providing anything more than a mitigation, akin to the way some cereals are “part of a nutritious breakfast". To believe it’s preventing all damage from any kind of blow, or somehow turning you into a superhuman, is wishful thinking.
I know mitigation is nothing to sneeze at. All one has to do is think about how much of the medical industry is devoted entirely to mitigation of injury and disease.
Here’s hoping the makers of the Q-Collar can prove it is helpful, and to what degree— such proof might prevent them from over-inflating it, and keep skeptics from piling on.
Brainwave is an informational resource for people whose symptoms haven’t resolved after a concussion or mTBI. I aim to present this information in a clear and concise way, spelling out what’s backed by science and what remains unknown. Nothing here is meant as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. I am not a physician or a healthcare practitioner of any kind; I’ve had a lot of sports-related concussions and had to learn this stuff the hard way. If you found this information helpful or know someone who might benefit from it, please share and subscribe to Brainwave.