Back injury from headbanging can occur in virtually any location of the spine. Patient statistics show that headbangers often suffer from back or neck pain later in life. Although not generally studied in a traditional medical research setting, our clinical experience has shown a disproportionate percentage of former headbangers as suffering from atypically severe spinal deterioration.
We have already researched and discussed the topic of headbanging neck pain on our website Neck-Pain-Treatment.Org. The response from readers was overwhelming, causing us to further our research efforts on this neglected topic. We hope that this factual essay helps current and former headbangers to understand the consequences of their actions and how the act of banging one’s head will create negative changes in the spine over time.
This essay provides an objective view of spinal injury caused by or contributed to by the popular activity of headbanging. We will discuss the topic from research and clinical perspectives, using over 10 years of work in the field of dorsalgia advocacy and education to guide our conclusions.
For the sake of this discussion, back injury is defined as either an acute trauma suffered during or shortly after headbanging, or a painful condition brought on by the degenerative effects of the activity months, years or even decades later. It should be made clear that spinal degeneration is completely normal, expected and universally experienced. However, the extent and effects of this degeneration in headbangers are extreme in many cases; providing the first clue that headbanging might be a harmful activity for the spine.
Headbanging is defined as the forceful and often violent shaking of the neck and head forward and backwards, side to side or in a circular motion, most often accompanying aggressive music. Headbanging is usually associated with heavy metal and punk music, but has found its way into hard rock, various types of electronic music and even pop to some extent. Some participants liken headbanging to dancing, while others cite it is a great way for them to become engrossed in their music and express themselves. Most participants report that headbanging is a great way to vent anger and relieve stress, as well.
Therefore, it is now clear that this dialog focuses on the physical effects of headbanging on the human vertebral column. We base our findings on research, as well as clinical experience dealing with literally thousands of people who might include headbanging in the list of potential back pain causes. I am not ashamed to say that as a former heavy metal drummer, I can include my own experience as a former chronic and violent headbanger, an expert in back pain and a patient who has endured symptoms for over 3 decades as of the time of this writing.
Regardless of the style of headbanging used, the effects are similar. When compared to whiplash suffered during a car accident, sports injury or act of violence, headbanging is no less severe or traumatic to the spine. We have actually studied the forces generated by violent headbanging and found them to be equal to the forces cited for causing many cases of neck and back damage.
Since the activity pushes the range of motion past its comfort level and does so under tremendous speed and force, injury is logical to occur. Injury can take the form of typical whiplash-type expressions, such as hyperflexion (looking downward) and hyperextension (looking upward). Often both hyperflexion and hyperextension occur during forceful headbanging. Side to side styles of headbanging can create extreme rotational force on the cervical spine, resulting in hyper-rotation of the neck. This is often seen bilaterally. Circular style of headbanging can result in any or all of these strain conditions, possibly enacting hyperflexion, hyperextension and/or hyper-rotation.
When the neck is forced past its comfortable range of motion, injury can occur to the soft tissues or the skeletal structures of the spine. Muscular strain can occur in the neck, upper back, middle back or lower back, since all the muscles of the dorsal anatomy work in conjunction with one another. Herniated discs might occur anywhere in the spine, but are most commonly found in the neck and upper thoracic region. Vertebral fracture is rare, but can occur in some patients, particularly those with existing spinal irregularities, such as cervical spondylolisthesis and severe hypolordosis.
It is logical that headbanging places inordinate force on all the structures of the spine, including the intervertebral discs and the spinal joints. It is also therefore logical to link early onset and extreme spinal degeneration to headbanging, since it seems to occur in many people who actively participate in the activity over time.
Headbanging is much worse than a single traumatic event. Instead of damage being done and the healing phase beginning, headbanging places continual repetitive strain on the spine, causing multiple injuries and degenerative acceleration. The more violent the headbanging is, the worse these effects will likely be. Although the activity will certainly strengthen neck and back muscles, the positive benefits are far outweighed by the collateral consequences of injury. In essence, headbanging as a regular lifestyle activity is like getting into multiple motor vehicle accidents in its effects on the vertebral column.
Since most headbangers are resilient youths, few experience truly acute injuries that cause them to seek medical attention, although many do report neck pain, upper back pain, dizziness and headaches in hindsight. Instead, the effects of headbanging are most often seen in older people who might have given up the practice long ago, but are now facing the considerable damage caused by their decisions to participate so aggressively in self-injury.
Many hard rock and heavy metal musicians have come forward to share stories of injury to their bodies that have been linked to headbanging. Most have done so in an effort to educate young fans that although the pastime may be fun, it is still risky. The point hammered home by the most outspoken of these musicians is that “there will be consequences to your actions as you get older”. Many of these musicians have suffered dramatic spinal degeneration, intervertebral herniation, spinal stenosis and have undergone multiple surgical therapies, often without great success. In most cases, the trauma was simply too great to correct easily, if at all.
One must speculate that a great number of musicians choose not to jeopardize their careers by speaking out against an activity that has made them famous and possibly rich. We know from our clinical experience that headbanging seems to lead to spinal problems in the 30s, 40s and beyond. However, we do not see many diagnosed or treated famous patients coming forward to warn their fans due to fear of sounding like the very authority figures they have spoken out against for years in their music. Some may simply be embarrassed of how they end up after years of self-abuse.
I certainly do not want this essay to sound preachy, nor condemning of a popular activity that is inherently linked to many styles of music. After all, many of the activities we choose to involve ourselves in during our lifetimes have the potential for enacting negative consequences on our health and wellness. I do want to share our knowledge with people as to the risks, so that they can make their own enlightened choices, since this is what true education is all about.
I am still a musician and still like to bob my head to music, although my headbanging days have long passed. I was actively involved in headbanging for probably close to 15 years. My spinal degeneration is well documented on this website. I wonder how much of it is a direct result of headbanging. I will never know for sure, but I am sure the activity played a contributory role in my own chronic pain struggles.
Just remember the physics of it all and the logic should be clear. The head is a very, very heavy weight and the neck is a rather thin anatomical structure that is designed to move the head through a specific and limited range of movement. When you provide wanton acceleration to the already large mass of the head, then tremendous negative forces are exerted against the spine. This is simply basic anatomy and the model for whiplash in all forms. If you must headbang, try to use judgment or I virtually guarantee that someday you will look back and wonder like so many of us do: “Did I do this to myself?”
Worth mention: We have medical colleagues who have studied a link between headbanging and traumatic brain injury. Since headbanging can and does cause concussions, this is a very real topic of concern and should be individually researched, as well.