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Westminster Student Takes Head Injury Research To NFL

Whittney Evans
Westminster junior Ryzen Benson demonstrates the neck exercise that he discovered greatly reduces concussions.

A Westminster College undergraduate student is headed to Florida this weekend to present his own research on traumatic brain injuries to the National Football League.  

Junior Ryzen Michael Benson is bringing good news to an organization that’s been under fire recently for its high rate of traumatic brain injuries in players. Benson studies biomedical research. He’s a football coach at Highland High School. And he’s a data nerd.

“I was sitting in a coaches meeting and we’re talking about these certain neck exercises we do that help prevent concussions,” Benson says. “I’ve heard this before but I’ve never seen data to support it. So I was like there’s got to be some way I can quantify this.”

Benson didn’t find much on the topic. So he got together with Dr. John Contreras, director of the Master of Public Health program at Westminster, got a crash course in bio statistics and began surveying schools throughout Utah. Here’s what he found:

“Teams that weren’t doing these isometric neck exercises were five times more likely to suffer a concussion than teams that were which is absolutely huge,” Benson says. “It’s very significant.”

Benson says putting on size and mass, as well as strengthening the stabilizing neck muscles help prevent concussions. The exercise is common. But Benson says lot of people thought it was just a stretch.

Professor Contreras says it’s rare for an undergraduate student to take on such high-profile research. And he thinks Benson has opened the door for further research into traumatic brain injuries at the high school level.

“High level colleges, they have neurologists that they’re monitoring and at the NFL they have tons of them in order to get you back on the field,” Contreras says. “In high school we depend on a doctor and the parents, maybe the coaches and the trainers.”

Benson says only two out of the five schools he included in the study actually performed the neck exercises. Now, with data to back it up, coaches tell him, they look forward to making sure it’s done.  

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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