“It’s all in your head – I mean neck!”


Has your doctor ever told you “It’s all in your head”? Well, just maybe it would be more accurate to say “It’s all in your neck.”

I just got back from another fabulous Integrated Neurosomatic Therapy course through Neurosomatic Educators in Clearwater, Florida, and once again, the importance of our structure to our function was made abundantly clear. Although the importance of our body structure is frequently considered in "alternative" therapies such as chiropractic and massage therapy, perhaps it is time mainstream medicine looked more seriously at the impact of poor structural alignment on the ability of our bodies to function properly. As I touched upon in a previous post on this topic, medications won’t do much to cure acid reflux if the person is slouched over most of the time, squishing the esophagus (food pipe) as it goes through the diaphragm (breathing muscle that separates our chest cavity from our abdominal cavity). Do you have high blood pressure? Here is a common structural problem that may actually be playing a significant role – could it be that your top two vertebrae (atlas C1 and axis C2) are not in their optimal alignment?

Now before you toss me into the loony bin or call me a quack, hear me out. As you know, the vertebrae of our spine provide boney protection for our spinal cord, just as the skull provides boney protection for our brain, and the sternum and ribcage for our heart and lungs. All our really important bits for our survival are encased in bone. Darn good design if you ask me! Well, coming down through the hole in the base of our skull (foramen magnum) to connect to the spinal cord and encased within the rings of the top two vertebrae (the atlas and the axis) is our brainstem, which is responsible for much of our bodily function that is outside our conscious control.

What does the brainstem do? The stuff that is vital for our survival, like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, sleep, wakefulness, and motivation. In addition to that, the brainstem contains most of the cranial nerves, which are responsible for everything from sight, hearing, balance and smell, to control of most organs via the vagus nerve. Not only that, but the brainstem is responsible for transferring messages from the body to the upper centres of the brain and vice versa, and for overall tonus in the body. Very important stuff that most of us wouldn’t want compromised! So, should the top two vertebrae be shifted to one side or forward, rotated or tilted, they may encroach upon the brainstem potentially creating any number of problems in the body.

Furthermore, the dura mater (the thick coating that protects the spinal cord itself) attaches to C2 (axis), and if C2 is rotated, it will create a torsion in the entire spinal cord via the dentate ligaments which attach the cord to the dura down to just below the ribs, potentially entrapping some or even many of the spinal nerves lower down, creating pain and dysfunction. So, a poor position of the top two vertebrae can impact pretty much all areas in the body.

It has been suggested that potentially the cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is a poorly positioned atlas, possibly due to a difficult birth. The vertebral artery and vein are also encased in bone in the transverse processes of each cervical vertebrae (the 2 smaller holes outside the big one shown at this link) on the way up to the brain. If the atlas is rotated or sheared enough, and the baby is put on his stomach with the head rotated to the side to sleep, the vertebral or basilar artery may be occluded enough to cause blood and oxygen debt to the brain resulting in death. This can explain why fewer babies have died since the dictate to sleep babies on their backs. Perhaps if the atlas and axis position of babies were routinely checked after birth and corrected as necessary, that problem along with many other potential health problems, could be avoided all together.

Despite the propaganda against upper cervical adjustments, it is very possible to gently mobilize these joints into position safely. NUCCA Chiropractic is only concerned with the repositioning of the atlas, and after an X-ray where the position of the atlas is ascertained, the mobilization is very gentle, with no violent movement of the neck at all. Other practitioners may use muscle energy techniques to gently mobilize the atlas.

It should be noted that if one leg is actually shorter than the other, (much more common than one would think) or if muscles and fascia are pulling unevenly about the pelvis or neck, it will be very difficult to permanently stabilize the upper cervical area until these other issues are also addressed.

If you want to search for other posts by title or by topic, go to www.wellnesstips.ca.

Related tips
Posture, leg-length discrepancies, musculoskeletal pain and organ function
Walking, sacroiliac joint dysfunction and hip pain
Pain and stabilizer vs. mover muscles
Shoulder-blade position and neck, arm and upper back pain

St. John, Paul “Welcome to Integrative Balancing of the Atlas-Axis” in Neuro 1 Manual Neurosomatic Educators Inc, 2008.

Clark, Randall & Jones, Tracy Neuro ALP 1 Manual Neurosomatic Educators Inc. 2007.

Bakris G et al. Atlas vertebra realignment and achievement of arterial pressure goal in hypertensive patients: a pilot study. J Hum Hypertens. 2007 May;21(5):347-52. Epub 2007 Mar 2.

Knutson GA. Anatomic and functional leg-length inequality: A review and recommendation for clinical decision-making. Part I, anatomic leg-length inequality: prevalence, magnitude, effects and clinical significance Chiropr Osteopat. 2005 Jul 20;13:11.

Knutson GA Anatomic and functional leg-length inequality: A review and recommendation for clinical decision-making. Part II, the functional or unloaded leg-length asymmetry Chiropr Osteopat. 2005 Jul 20;13:12.

Schneier M, Burns RE: "Atlanto-occipital hypermobility in sudden infant death syndrome." The Journal of Chiropractic Research and Clinical Investigation. 1991;7(2):33.

2. Gilles FH, Bina M, Sotrel A: "Infantile atlanto-occipital instability." Am J Dis Child 1979;133:30.

Kent, Christopher DC Subluxation and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Online at The Chiropractic Journal, July 2005

Deeg KH et al. Ischemia of the brain stem caused by compression of the vertebral arteries by head rotation–an etiology for SIDS? Klin Padiatr. 2001 May-Jun;213(3):124-33.

Eichler F et al. Position dependent changes of cerebral blood flow velocities in premature infants. Eur J Pediatr. 2001 Oct;160(10):633-9.

Pamphlett R et al. Vertebral artery compression resulting from head movement: a possible cause of the sudden infant death syndrome. Pediatrics. 1999 Feb;103(2):460-8.

Deeg KH et al. Basilar artery insufficiency–a possible cause of sudden infant death? Results of a Doppler ultrasound study of 39 children with apparent life-threatening events Ultraschall Med. 1998 Dec;19(6):250-8.

Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd

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  1. Michael Foran said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 11:19 pm

    Great Article Vreni. I would like to be a listed sponsor on your web blog( mabey under Health Issues?) if there is an opportunity to be added to it let me know.
    Nice to meet you and Thanks again for stopping by.

  2. DAISY STARKS said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    Since I was a teenager until presently …(fortunate enough to reach a “healthy” 83 years) …my problem has been:tenseness that turns my abdomen into a “rock” at times then begins to cause my respiratory system to “shut down.” One gynecologist said at one time after I was newly married and didn’t know why I couldn’t conceive said:I was so TENSE that he was sure a baby couldn’t grow in there. He remarked that it was the VAGUS nerve that was stimulated from stress/anxiety. The only time I become aware of this is when my equalibrium begins to fade and I manage to “relax” before I feel “faint.” When I gain control through “relaxing” the malady … it goes away. I will attribute today’s episode to my over indulgence in “caffeine,” but feel I must keep on the DECAF track. Love, coffee and tea. Could be that age has a hand in it too, besides other stuff wearing out. I always end up with subjects that I can never find to help me resolve problems that pertain to me. Got any suggestions? Am I so unique? Thanks for listening.

  3. Elaine Merrill said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    My 93 year old father suffers terribly with pain and numbness in his right hand. It is so bad he can barely use that hand. I had him in to see a neurosurgeon who diagnosed it as cervical stensosis…his spine is actually compressed between C3-C5. The neurologist suggested surgery, but my father is horrified of surgery at his age. Would PT or decompression be helpful? I have asked his regular physician and his occupational therapist, but no one wants to order decompression or PT for the neck area.

  4. Vreni said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

    Hi Elaine,

    Stenosis is narrowing of the spinal canal. Do you know what is causing the narrowing? Is it the vertebrae being mal-aligned, or something within the canal? How it is treated would depend entirely on what is creating the narrowing.

    If it is the former, it may be possible to re-align the vertebrae if you can find a chiro that can gently mobilize them rather than do quick adjustments. A good massage therapist that does structural integration may be able to help by releasing the musculature that is pulling the vertebrae out of alignment. The therapist must know how to assess the neck and what to do about what he/she finds.

    Decompression may be helpful for cervical stenosis, if the stenosis is caused by a disk bulge, but at that age it is doubtful there is much left of his disks in the first place. You may want to try very gently pulling on his cranium for a minute when he is lying down to see if that helps. (Don’t hold the head by the jaw!) If it does help, there is a chance decompression may work.

    If it is a growth within the canal like calcified spurs, I’m not sure what can be done.

    I would suggest omega 3 fatty acids to take down inflammation – krill oil is a good choice. Choose one without a sweetener. And vitamin D may also be helpful. Most people are very deficient, and vitamin D does a lot of different things in the body.

    Is it absolutely certain that his pain is coming from his neck? It is certainly possible that a malpositioned shoulder blade could cause that kind of pain as well. Try holding his shoulder up while he is standing – have him completely give you his arm – you hold his upper arm up for a few minutes and see if that reduces his pain. If so, then a good physiotherapist can give him some stretches and strengthening exercises to correct the shoulder blade position, and hopefully his pain. He may need to wear a sling for that arm to take the weight off his weak muscles until his shoulder blade position improves.

    Anyway, just another thought … Hope that helps.

  5. Jennifer said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 3:32 am

    Hi Elaine!

    I am so sorry to hear about your father’s pain. Pain can be such a frustrating and devastating situation to both experience and witness. If it is any help at all, I have some luck with severe disc issues with bodywork. I would highly recommend gentle older adults Massage Therapy and Craniosacral Therapy, with a touch of Reiki for good measure.

    You can search for nationally certified bodyworkers in your area by going to NCBTMB.org and searching for a practitioner. The link for practitioners is kind of hidden, and on the right side of the image itself. You can also got to google.com and search for nationally certified therapists, but note there is a difference in a certified and nationally certified therapist.

    To be listed as Nationally Certified one must have met many credentials and passed national exams. I myself am only a certified massage therapist and have not yet taken these board exams although I have taken over 800 hours of massage therapy and graduated from an accredited school. And I know many excellent therapists who have not taken the exam as well, who are the best therapists I have ever been to.

    However, having said that, if it were my father, and he were 94 and suffering so much I would want The Best of The Best! The Tested Cream of the Crop. And if your dad thinks “massage therapy”, “craniosacral therapy”, and “reiki” sound too far out there-just tell him to think of it as physical therapy- because essentially that’s what it is! My thoughts and prayers are with you.

    Sending Healing Thoughts your way,

    certified massage therapist

  6. Harold Smage said,

    May 29, 2011 @ 3:44 pm


    I happened to read in a previous bit the phrase about Pt’s that “listen with their hands”.

    I had the misfortune to succumb to bouts of Myofascial Pain disease, similar to the trials of Fibromyalgia. I experienced severe pains that would flare up in various areas of the fascia.
    Some of the PT’s that were familiar with the “trigger points” that are the cause of this could defuse the pain quite well by exerting the proper pressure on the Tp’s. Relief would last all of 2 to 6 hours before they would return. It was commonplace to have severe pain cycle on every 6 hours of the day. This generally would last a few months and then disappear or at least moderate for from one to six months.

    But then I did more research on the syndrome and happened on a practitioner trained in the John F Barnes methods. I noted when leaving my first session that she had not actually
    exert pressure or do much in the area the pain was located at. I actually had the feeling that I “had been cheated”!

    To my amazement by the next afternoon I was definitely feeling improvement and the “cycle of pain” had been broken.

    The lady had mentioned at that first appointment that after her “viewing” of the body posture etc. she would pick a side (front or back) to start on and as her hands started to work on your body she would “be led to” areas to do what would bring them back to good function.

    Her web site had testimonials stating her sensitivity of approach and mentioning that she was quite “gentle”.

    After her office moved further to drive to I was able to find another JFB trained therapist.
    She was as good or better in terms of excellent and lasting results. Her hand always seemed to “know where to go, what to do!

    I consider the average “trigger point release therapist” to be a complete waste of money and time for me with no lasting results. They can defuse the symptoms, whereas the two ladies with the JFB training have always produced lasting improvement.

    With both of these gals a part of it is in that they have had very good training. – But – a major part of their results in addition to knowing what to do is the fact that they sense what needs doing!

    I do not mean to imply that other schools of training are inferior.

    The really effective practitioners do have this ability to “see with their fingers” and then do and “follow further” to really get good results!


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