What is Upper Cervical Care?
Upper cervical care is a unique branch of healthcare within the chiropractic profession that focuses on proper alignment of the upper vertebrae in the neck. The importance of these vertebrae (the first called C1 or the atlas, the 2nd called C2 or the axis) has to do with the vital structures it surrounds. The most important structure in this area is the lower brain stem, which extends out of the skull into the upper neck, before transitioning into the spinal cord. The significance of the lower brainstem is that it controls most of the vital automatic functions of the body including heart rate, digestion, breathing, blood pressure, and many reflexes. Also passing through this area are the postural reflexes, that unconsciously control muscle tone throughout the spine. In addition, this area is critical for regulating the body’s inflammatory response.
The upper cervical procedure used at Spectra Wellness Solutions is called the Advanced (Atlas) Orthogonal procedure. This non-invasive technique starts with taking very specific three-dimensional x-rays, which are digitally analyzed to determine exactly how the atlas vertebra has misaligned. Once the x-rays have been studied, the exact vectors to be used in the correction are calibrated into an adjusting instrument, and a table-mounted spring loaded instrument is used to re-position the misaligned structures.
The specificity of the Advanced (Atlas) Orthogonal procedure allows patients to be corrected within their normal range of motion, and does not require any twisting, popping or gross manipulation. This non-invasive approach can be used with patients with pre-existing disc injuries or arthritic degeneration, and is safe for all ages.
Q: What makes the Atlas vertebra so special?
Of the 24 bones in the spine, the lower 23 of them have near identical anatomy. These commonalities include cartilaginous spinal discs between all of the joints in the front, and angled, interlocking joints (called facets) in the rear. These two structures limit the amount of motion in the spine. The atlas vertebra is different as it has neither facet joints, nor spinal discs between it and adjacent structures. This makes it much more freely movable, allowing for much more range of motion (around half of the total movement in the neck occurs between the top two bones), but makes this area more vulnerable to structural misalignment.
The lower brain stem is the part of the nervous system where the brain transitions into the spinal cord. This occurs at the bottom and rear opening of the skull, at the upper neck. The majority of unconscious functions occur in this area, such as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and reflexes like coughing and swallowing. Extending down to the middle and lower neck are clusters of brainstem nerves that control the muscles of the head, neck and face, sensations to most of the face, mouth and tongue control, and a variety of other functions.
The vertebral artery passes directly through the atlas vertebra, prior to bringing blood into the head. The vertebral artery is responsible for bringing blood to the entire brain stem, and the middle and back of your brain. As you can see, significant rotation of the atlas vertebra can create a “kink” of this critical artery.
Because of the unique anatomy of the atlas vertebra, and its proximity to these critical structures, it is essential that it be properly aligned.
Q: Advanced Ortho..what? I’ve never heard of this procedure.
Within the chiropractic profession there are different specialties, some of the most common ones being auto-injuries, sports practices, or family practices. Some of the less common specialties include chiropractic radiology, internal medicine, and the upper cervical spine.
The upper neck became an area of focus and specialty within the chiropractic profession as early as the 1930’s, with a focus on using precision radiology to study the area coming shortly thereafter. Hand-held instruments started replacing manual manipulation in the 1970’s and the use of table-mounted instruments similar to what is used at Spectra Wellness started in the 1980’s.
Today there are over a dozen techniques within the Upper Cervical Chiropractic specialty, and these techniques are taught at almost every Chiropractic school in America. The protocols used at Spectra Wellness are called the Advanced (Atlas) Orthogonal technique.
Q: Do I have to keep coming back forever?
A: No! Traditional chiropractic treatment plans are based on the idea that spinal health is dependent on outside intervention. Most chiropractors believe that you will ALWAYS need “maintenance” adjustments (sometimes as frequently as every week) for the rest of your life. The Spectra Wellness approach is to address structural alignment through reflex muscle control, joint mobilization, and movement re-training. Using these strategies, motivated patients are given the tools to be able to maintain their corrections indefinitely.
Q: My back hurts, why is he adjusting my neck? Will the doctor adjust anything else?
Low back pain is one of the most common ailments in North America, as it is the 2nd most common reason for missed workdays, and up to 80% of Americans will have it at some point in the their lives(Archives of internal medicine, 2009). Unfortunately, most people (health providers included) don’t realize that posture is largely driven by unconscious reflexes, and these reflexes affect spinal alignment. In fact, a 1992 animal study in the International Orthopedics Journal found that you were able to create scoliosis just by stimulating certain parts of the brain stem.
When the top bones in the neck have subtle misalignments, they can affect these postural reflexes, indirectly affecting the back. The Spectra Wellness approach to back pain deals with first normalizing these reflexes (which starts at the neck), THEN treating the back if necessary, AND THEN fixing any potentially compromised movement patterns. Despite focusing on the upper neck, one of the most frequently seen conditions seen Spectra Wellness chiropractors is lower back pain, and it responds tremendously well to re-aligning the upper cervical spine.
Q: Can this treatment work for (insert condition here)?
A: Maybe. We most commonly see changes with orthopedic-type conditions including neck pain, back pain, shoulder issues and all kinds of joint pain. We also frequently see neurologic-type conditions like headaches and dizziness. However, because atlas vertebra position is intimately related to proper function of the lower brainstem, any number of health conditions can potentially respond favorably to atlas vertebra alignment.
If you have a condition or know someone with a condition that has not responded to traditional medical approaches, upper cervical alignment could be the missing link.
Q: Will I get my neck cracked?
A: Rarely (only if you prefer it). While Spectra Wellness chiropractors are trained in the manual spinal manipulation performed by most chiropractors, they prefer to take a much more specific and non-invasive approach to correcting the neck. The top bone in the neck is adjusted using a percussion sound wave instrument, using a procedure that is dependent on precise x-ray analysis. The correction is performed with the spine in a neutral position, within the normal range of motion, without any twisting, popping or cracking. This non-invasive approach can be used with patients with pre-existing disc injuries or arthritic degeneration, and is safe for all ages.
Q: I already have X-rays, can we use those?
Unfortunately, no (but we still want to see them). Traditional medical X-ray, MRI or CT scans are designed to find significant medical problems and are an essential part of modern healthcare. However, the subtleties involved in detecting the upper cervical misalignment require that the patient is specifically positioned prior to the images being taken, and traditional x-rays do not require this level of detail.
Spectra works exclusively with Rose Radiology on Kennedy in South Tampa, where Spectra chiropractors have trained a select number of their radiology technicians in the intricacies of taking precision upper cervical films. If you have previous x-rays, they can tell us a lot about the state of your condition, but may not help us with a specific correction to the upper cervical spine.