When vertigo strikes, the world begins to spin, you feel unsteady, and nausea or vomiting creep in. Your neck might also feel stiff, painful, or tight before the vertigo episode begins. Is this neck pain connected? Is it a coincidence? Many people living with vertigo and dizziness might find themselves asking those questions quite often. Hopefully, we can help you to better understand the connection between your neck, your spine, and your vertigo. We will also explain a science-backed way of correcting vertigo that has its origins in the cervical spine (the neck).
Head Position and Sense of Balance: Two Inseparable Factors
The connection between your head position and your body’s ability to maintain equilibrium has been understood for centuries. Balance is the ability to maintain the body’s center of mass over its base of support. When this sense is functioning as it should, it generally goes unnoticed. However, when you have a condition that causes vertigo, it affects what would normally be basic activities of daily living. For example, walking down your driveway to check the mail or safely driving to work.
The reason your head position is so important is that:
- Your sense of balance relies heavily on input from your eyes. Sensory receptors in the retina of your eyes, the rods and cones, send nerve impulses to the brain that help it to know people’s orientation with respect to their surroundings.
- Input from your vestibular system (inner ear) is crucial to maintaining a sense of balance.
When your head is not in its correct, neutral position it can trigger ongoing vestibular dysfunction, dizzy spells, and vertigo attacks.
What can cause your head position to be abnormal?
- Trauma or injury to the head or neck – sports injuries, motor vehicle accidents, or even a simple slip or fall can create a misalignment in the vertebra that supports the head and keeps It in a neutral position
- Wear and tear that occurs over time – repetitive microtrauma that can be caused by overuse can cause degenerative changes to the way your neck is able to support the weight of the head.
The Brainstem: The Piece That Ties It All Together
The balance information received from all of the sources (the eyes, the vestibular system, and the proprioceptive sensors from the muscles and joints) then enters the brainstem. The brainstem is an extremely important part of your body’s central nervous system (CNS). It acts as a hub and a switchboard for the nerve signals traveling between the body and brain. When balance signals reach the brainstem, they are sorted and combined with other information from different parts of the brain in order to make the appropriate adjustments to body position to maintain your balance. You may have perfectly normal input from all of the sources that gather information about balance, but if the brainstem fails to interpret them correctly, then vertigo will ultimately be the result.
Upper Cervical Chiropractic: the Logical Solution to Cervicogenic Vertigo
If you are living with symptoms of vertigo that come along with neck pain and headaches, it is worthwhile to have your neck examined by an upper cervical chiropractor. This is particularly relevant to vertigo sufferers with a history of head or neck injury. Upper cervical chiropractic is a subspecialty that focuses on the vertebra that forms the junction between the head and neck – the atlas (C1).
The atlas is an important piece of the puzzle for vertigo sufferers for several key reasons:
- It plays a major role in maintaining head position. The skull rests upon two small joints with the atlas vertebra that form the connection between the head and neck.
- The atlas vertebra forms a layer of protection for the brainstem. If the atlas is misaligned, it can hinder normal brainstem function and cause aberrant balance signals as a result.
- While it may not seem apparent, the atlas is very close to the structures of the inner ear. Abnormal atlas position can influence the inner ear’s ability to properly sense balance and relay balance signals to the brain.
The goal of upper cervical chiropractic care is to restore normal atlas alignment. By doing so, it returns the normal head position and brainstem function. Upper cervical chiropractors do it in a very precise manner. Prior to any adjustment, they perform a thorough exam and analysis which includes detailed diagnostic imaging. Based on these images which are naturally different from person to person, they customize an adjustment for each individual.
This highly detailed and personalized level of care allows for adjustments that are extremely gentle and don’t require any of the twisting or popping that is normally associated with a chiropractic adjustment. Once normal head and neck alignment are accomplished, the goal is to be able to hold that adjustment for as long as possible, giving your body the time it needs to heal optimally. This has helped many vertigo sufferers to reduce or even rid themselves of symptoms and return to a full quality of life.