A tale of two neck cranks
The can-opener vs the crucifix
Neck cranks may be one of the most frequently misunderstood submissions in the MMA fighter’s repertoire. Few fights end by neck crank, but are feared nevertheless because of their potential to cause serious injury. They can also be used as a threat to force an opponent to move.
The two neck cranks I’m going to look at in this article both work by pushing the head forwards and hyperflexing the neck. In this they are similar, but there is a crucial difference which leads to different effects on the body. Rotational neck cranks (such as the twister, for example) are a whole other box of frogs, and we’ll talk about those another day.
Let’s take a quick overview of some neck anatomy.
The skeleton of the neck consists of seven bones: the cervical vertebrae. These are stacked one on top of another to form the cervical spine. The head sits at the top, with the rest of the spine underneath. Each pair of vertebrae is separated by an intervertebral disc. A disc is a little like a stale flattened doughnut. It has a tough fibrous bit round the outside and a soft jelly like bit in the middle.This arrangement allows the disc to absorb shock. The important thing, as we will see, is that the “jam” stays in the middle of the “doughnut”.
There are two other joints between each pair of vertebrae – zygoapophyseal joints (or facet joints to their friends). These allow the vertebrae to move relative to each other, which is what happens every time you bend your spine.
Through the middle of this column of vertebrae runs your spinal cord, from which nerves travel out to every part of your body. For this reason, it’s important that the whole arrangement doesn’t come apart too easily. As you might expect, evolution has provided us with some strong ligaments in this area to hold things together.
The muscles of the neck also contribute to its stability. They come in layers, from the most superficial (trapezius) to tiny little deep muscles that run from one vertebra to the next. There are also muscles that connect the neck to the shoulder blade and the ribs.
So, on to the submissions. The can-opener works by simply levering the head forwards. It is rare that it gets a submission; most often it is used to open an opponent’s legs in guard and force them to move.
In theory, hyperflexion of the neck can cause extremely serious injuries. The list includes muscle strain, ligament sprain, rupture of the intervertebral discs, facet dislocation or fracture of the vertebrae. The scary thing about necks is that any damage to the spinal cord or the nerves coming from it can cause pain, numbness, weakness or paralysis. The nervous system is particularly unforgiving of injury, and any damage may prove permanent. In the worst case, a dislocated or fractured vertebra could lead to spinal cord damage and paralysis or even death. Worrying though this is, damage of this nature is fairly unlikely in the case of this particular neck crank.
Somewhat less serious, but still potentially very painful and debilitating is the disc herniation (sometimes referred to as a “slipped disc”). This is when the squidgy inside bit of the intervertebral disc is forced out, putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerves and causing pain and muscle weakness. While possible, this is still quite unlikely in this particular situation.
The human neck is, on the whole, pretty robust and not easily damaged. The most serious injuries are generally caused by flexing the neck at high speed under huge forces, such as in a fall or a road accident. Even in the heat of battle, a can-opener is applied comparatively slowly and with significantly less force. In most cases, it is the muscles, and sometimes ligaments, that cause the pain and take the brunt of the damage.
Another factor is that most people have a good range of flexion at the neck – about 80-90 degrees, on average. This doesn’t leave a lot of room to flex it beyond its normal range. This is one reason why submissions from this technique are so rare.
A crucifix, is a different animal entirely. The neck is flexed again, but this time the arms are also fixed in a “crucifix” position. How does this change things? It means that the shoulder blade is brought into play. There’s a muscle – levator scapulae – that runs from your shoulder blade to the top of your neck. Normally this muscle helps you to shrug your shoulders or to tilt your head to one side. Raising your arms at the same time as pushing your head forwards will stretch the two ends of the muscle away from each other. Stretch too far and you get pain, then torn muscle fibres. This is the limiting factor in the crucifix, which is why the submission comes on with far less neck flexion than is needed for a can-opener. A crucifix will typically damage muscle or tendon rather than the bones and ligaments of the neck itself. It may also result in shoulder pain as well as (or sometimes instead of) neck pain.
Having said all this: if you suspect that someone you are training with has a serious injury to their neck, you should avoid moving them and call for an ambulance immediately.
For more minor neck problems such as muscular strains, as always apply rest and ice as soon as possible after the injury. Consider seeing a professional such as a doctor, osteopath or physiotherapist if you have ongoing pain or any other symptoms.