So you woke up and suddenly can’t move your neck?
Sound familiar? I had a patient who was home from college on break call in last week because she had woken up that morning with severe neck pain. She had experienced literally zero neck problems since her last adjustment 6 months ago, and as an NCAA soccer player she’s in otherwise perfect health. So what’s the deal?
It’s probably not a ‘pinched nerve’
Even though its a frequently-used explanation, nerves actually being pinched or compressed is much less common than you might expect. This is especially true when it comes to the nerves of the autonomic nervous system (which controls unconscious body functions), as they are outside of the spine. Even the nerves of the central nervous system exiting the spine are actually relatively difficult to physically ‘pinch’ in a healthy person.
That’s not to say inflammation surrounding a dysfunctioning joint can’t affect nearby nerves, but that’s a secondary effect, not the direct cause.
What’s the culprit?
There are several structures between the vertebrae of the spine that can become irritated by prolonged compression and/or torsion on the joint, particularly the facet joints.
Facet joints connect vertebra together while still allowing the spine to bend and twist. The joint is lined with cartilage and encased in a ligamentous joint capsule, and is responsible for the smooth gliding and sliding motion throughout your back and neck.
When you sleep in a non-neutral position for several hours, the cartilage of the facet joint can become inflamed from prolonged compression, the joint capsule can become entrapped (or pinched), and the soft tissues surrounding the joint can be strained or sprained. These structures can even refer pain to other parts of the body – for example, to the shoulder or down the arm.
To protect these irritated structures the body adopts pain-relieving postures and reactive muscle splinting. Muscle splinting isn’t the same as muscle spasm, which is why muscle relaxants are usually unhelpful. The muscles aren’t actually in spasm but simply trying to protect the joint from more damage.
Over the counter anti-inflammatories, stretching and icing can all be helpful, but often the pain and stiffness doesn’t fully go away until the facet joint that’s ‘stuck’ is decompressed and allowed to move normally again.
It’s a biomechanical problem, so it requires a biomechanical solution.
The fix? Get adjusted!
Thankfully there’s a simple solution, because at Ascent Chiropractic fixing joint function is exactly what we do. In the patient above’s case, a single adjustment and some myofascial soft tissue therapy had her back to 100% a few hours later.
Looking for a Brookfield chiropractor? We’d love to help you get out of pain and started with chiropractic care. Make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic in Brookfield by calling 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.