The Science of Headbanging: Is Rocking Out Hazardous for Your Health?

Recent reports of serious injuries - from brain bleed to stroke - are making fans and musicians wonder

When a recent report in a British medical journal revealed that headbanging could cause brain damage, as it did for a 50-year-old Motorhead fan who, after a January concert in Germany, was discovered with bleeding on the brain, rockers took note. Vigorous headbanging, as doctors surmised was the cause of the man's persistent headaches, caused the condition, which worsened in the months after the show. Eventually, the man had fluid in his brain drained via a hole drilled in his skull and the headaches ceased.

While the story certainly made for an eye-grabbing headline, and prompted visions of everyone from Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl to Korn bassist Fieldy, Dr. Christopher Mandigo, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Spine Center at Columbia University Medical Center (who did not treat the patient), says the hubbub was blown out of proportion and that such incidents are rare. "There's nothing inherently dangerous in [headbanging]. It's no different than riding a Jet Ski," he says with a laugh. "If you look hard enough in medical literature, you can find these kind of subdural hemorrhages associated with almost any activity."

Still, there is a physiological change that humans experience around age 50 when the brain begins to shrink, so it doesn't fit as snugly inside the skull as it once did. "Think of the brain as a car passenger. If you're moving your head vigorously back and forth, the brain is moving inside the skull," says Mandigo. "So if it's not perfectly matched [to the skull's size] anymore, it can tear veins."

Unsurprisingly, musicians have suffered repetitive stress injuries after years of headbanging and thrashing about while performing. Slayer singer/bassist Tom Araya developed a pinched nerve and two herniated disks, and Megadeth singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine now has a spinal condition called stenosis. Evanescence guitarist Terry Balsamo and Stone Sour drummer Roy Mayorga both had strokes after developing a blood clot and a dissected artery, respectively. Mandigo says of those cases that headbanging "might have been the match that lit the kindling of the fire, but it was years of that behavior, on top of other factors we don't really fully understand" that created such health problems.


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