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Neck and Upper Back Pain: Could it be a Bigger Issue than You Thought?

by Dr. Leah Hahn, D.C.

I know how irritating neck pain is first hand.  I remember sitting at my laptop in both high school and college, feeling burning pain along my upper back and neck.   At that point, before I had started chiropractic school, I didn't know any better that pain was something to pay attention to.  I grew up in a household that didn't talk or relate much about pain.  I thought it was "normal" to have stiffness, muscle burning, and chronic tension at the base of my skull.  I played tennis in high school and college and dealt with tennis elbow, shooting pain searing into my left wrist.  I didn't know that this chronic injury could actually be caused by the function of my cervical spine (neck).  As I started chiropractic school, I learned so much about the body, symptoms (they are actually signals from the brain to pay attention to), and health.  Let me explain more. 

The Weight of Your Head

If you look at basic physiology of the spine and nervous system, your neck is what supports your head.  Your head, on average, weighs 10-12 pounds.  This is a lot of weight to support, so our spines have curves to support this structure.  Think of a bridge--specifically the Golden Gate Bridge.  Part of what makes that such a strong structure is the fact that it is curved, allowing it to support more weight and create stability.  

The curve of the neck allows the neck muscles to relax and support versus strain and guard.  This curve is also designed to protect the spinal cord (the signaling mechanism between the brain and body).  Because a lack of curve causes instability to the spine, the muscles of the neck increase their tension level in order to increase the protection of the spinal cord.  This can lead to muscle fatigue that consistently sets in with computer work, driving, stress, etc.  Patients (like my former self) will report that neck pain happens to them almost every afternoon (when the muscles of the spine become exhausted from maintaining such high tension levels).

While this lack of curve can lead to persistent and chronic neck tension, it also can have serious health complications.  Research has related this lack of curve too early onset of osteoarthritis, autoimmune disease, decreased immune system function, headaches, migraines, fatigue, and more.  So not only is neck pain a sign that the curve could be lost in the neck, but also that the neck is not as neurologically stable as it should be, that other health issues could be caused and/or related to the neck's poor function.  More disturbingly, as the curve is lost, it is common for anterior head carriage to come into play.

Anterior Head Carriage becomes "Text Neck"

Most of us do activities "in front of us" all of the time: computer work, housework, driving, texting, and other "device" use.  Most of the activities are performed from a young age; now more than ever, kids learn from computers, laptops, and tablets.  This leads to what may seem like an unavoidable leaning forward, bringing your head in front of your body to see better, concentrate, focus, etc.  Done for hours every day over many years, it is very common for the spine to assume this shape.  What I mean by that "shape" is your head in front of your body, sometimes several inches, known as anterior head carriage.  Due to the posture assumed for so many people while texting, this posture has now become commonly known as "text neck."  Research from Panjabi states that for every inch the head moves in front of the body, the spine takes on 10 more pounds of pressure.  This leads to what research is calling the 42lb and 60lb head.  When in reality the head weighs 10-12 pounds, this added stress caused by gravity causes increased strain, tension, and damage specifically to the neck (although can be the source and cause of deterioration and pain in the lower back as well). 

On an Xray, an individual with anterior head carriage will typically demonstrate early-onset arthritis.  He or she may have decreased space for the disc (or compressed discs).  These discs are what allow the spine to have shock absorption and allow there to be space for the nerve to exit the spinal cord to send communication from the brain to the rest of the body.  When these nerves are compressed (due to the increased force of gravity affecting the spine), their function is impaired.  This can cause improper signaling to the neck and upper back muscles, nerves that go into the shoulders, arms, and hands, as well as organ systems like the eyes, ears, nose, throat, thyroid, and head.  My lack of curve and anterior head carriage resulted in chronic tendonitis (even as a teenager).  So many that deal with hand numbness, arm numbness, chronic shoulder, elbow, and wrist injuries actually have a problem in their neck that gives us a much more accurate picture of the root cause.  I have also seen chronic sinus infections clear as a patient's neck heals, improving nerve function to the sinuses, head, eyes, ears, nose, and throat. 

A New, More Holistic Approach to Neck Pain

At Body In Balance, we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to function at their optimal potential.  This means that if you are looking at healing neck pain, improving the health of the spine, or looking at how you can prevent suffering from neck pain, there are steps to take that can make a huge difference in your ability to have the best quality of life.  We look at pain as a signal to pay attention to--and then work to determine the root cause of the problem.  Our goal is to help you heal, feel your best, and then address the problem at a deeper level than just a short-term fix.  Our goal is that as you heal your physiology, you can prevent this issue in the long term as well.  Why would you go back to the physiology that caused the neck pain when we can heal the root issue and move forward with health and wellbeing?   For many patients with neck pain, gentle, effective, non-force Network Spinal Analysis (NSA) Chiropractic care is the place to start, but because we believe in a whole-body approach, we provide many other services to help address factors that may be contributing to your neck pain.

NSA Chiropractic:  NSA is a gentle, non-force chiropractic technique that uses an in-depth analysis system to determine the patterning and cause of dis-ease and dysfunction within the spine (no twisting, cracking or popping!).  Our chiropractors use several tools to analyze the condition of the spine and then determine a plan to improve the function of the spine.  NSA helps decrease the stress on the spinal cord, nerves, disc, ligaments, and tendons of the spine.  With less tension and pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, information signaling from the brain to the rest of the body is optimized, along with healing.  Adjustments are gentle and relaxing, as well as incredibly effective at improving the health of the spine.

Nutrition: Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is not conducive to lowering pain levels.  Reports have stated that the SAD is a common factor for increasing inflammation--a major player in pain.  The team at Body In Balance can provide individualized plans for decreasing inflammation (thereby decreasing pain), weight loss, as well as order blood panels that help patients determine foods that are specifically creating inflammation in their bodies.  Our team of chiropractic doctors, nutritionists, and health coaches are here to support you along the way.   

Functional Rehab and Fitness:  Having poor core strength, and tight and weak back muscles (especially upper back muscles) are a common issue for many with neck pain.  Others have a strong core, but their core has been supporting the incorrect structural alignment for years.  Sitting throughout the workday with a computer is a common factor for so many Americans with neck pain--as well as other factors such as poor posture and slouching.  At Body In Balance, as the spine starts to heal and move into proper alignment patterns, we want to build core strength to support the new, proper positioning of the spine.  Body In Balance chiropractors work with a team of on-site personal trainers at the Body In Balance Fitness Center to provide our patients with customized programs for building proper core strength and mobility.

Massage:  We all know that massage can be incredibly relaxing, but at Body In Balance, our team of massage therapists work with our chiropractors to provide therapeutic massage.  They are able to target specific muscles and tendons for the release of tension that can help support the patient's individual healing process.  While providing amazing stress relief, massage can also provide an incredibly important component to the healing process.

The Mission

Our mission is to empower our community to create healthy lifestyle habits.  Whether you are looking for decreasing neck pain or want to work on your overall health, Body In Balance is a starting point to create a plan for enhancing your health and wellbeing.  Our team of professionals will provide guidance as they determine what is needed to actually fix the problem, versus putting a band-aid over the issue.  

When I learned that I had anterior head carriage and a lack of cervical curve, I was 22 years old.  I had many years of studying, being at a computer, and learning ahead of me.  At that time, I had no idea that this lack of curve was causing chronic neck pain and tension.  As I worked on correcting this through chiropractic care, exercise, nutrition, stress relief, and better habits, my world changed.  I am hoping this information can spur you into taking action, finding out the actual health of the spinal curve posture, and nerve health.  Please share this article with someone you know and love that may need our help.  As always, create health by choice, not by chance.


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