Sinus Congestion, Allergies & How Chiropractic Can Help (Plus: A DIY Vagus Nerve Hack)
“My sinuses just opened and I can breathe again!”
That was a patient last week who had come in to Ascent Chiropractic for help with tension headaches (which, by the way, are now totally gone) but left being able to breathe clearly for the first time in months. It’s more common than you might think, but explaining the reason why is a little more complicated than the usual “fix joint/muscle dysfunction and the pain goes away” that I see every day.
So how does what we do at Ascent affect chronic congestion, sinusitis and allergy symptoms?
There are many causes for chronic sinusitis and congestion, including bacterial/viral infections, nasal polyps and deviated septums. But many of the patients who see changes in their sinus problems at our office have a long history with ENTs, allergists and primary care physicians who’ve prescribed decongestants, steroids, antihistamines and other allergy drugs with little or no effect. So when the usual culprits are ruled out, what’s left?
Those with difficult-to-treat chronic sinus problems rarely suffer from only one issue. They’re often also dealing with tinnitus (ringing in the ears), eustachian tube drainage problems, vertigo, sinus headaches, vision problems or facial pain. But they almost all also complain of upper neck pain.
In fact, 84% of those who report dealing with chronic sinus congestion headaches also say they suffer from neck pain. Almost half of patients who report chronic ear fullness or tinnitis also suffer from an upper cervical functional disorder.
In other words, if you’ve got chronic sinus problems (or inner ear issues), there’s a good chance that you probably have upper neck (aka cervical) problems too.
And this is what’s often missed by specialists: these things are likely all connected.
So How Does My Neck Affect My Sinuses?
Instability and misalignment at the cervico-occipital joint (where the top vertebra in your neck meets your head) can cause inflammation and swelling around the cranial nerves that exit the base of your skull. Specifically, we’re talking about a cranial nerve called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve begins in your brainstem and oversees a vast range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to your throat, sinuses, inner ears and respiratory, circulatory, and digestive symptoms.
Furthermore, the vagus nerve regulates the body’s immune response through a vast network of nerve fibers known as your parasympathetic nervous system. These parasympathetic nerve fibers release a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that reduces inflammation and promotes a rested, relaxed state.
The sinuses of the head and face also receive input from another cranial nerve, the trigeminal nerve, and a “nervous system junction box” called the superior cervical sympathetic ganglion that sits directly in front of the second vertebra in your neck (or C2). All of these structures can be stretched, compressed or inflamed when your upper cervical spine isn’t aligned and working like it’s supposed to.
Researchers from the American Journal of Biomedical Science & Research have even gone so far as to say that “chronic sinusitis is almost always associated with somatic dysfunction of the cervical spine.”
See where this is going?
If you correct the misalignment, instability and dysfunction going on in your upper neck and cervico-occipital junction, reduce the inflammation/pressure on the vagus and trigeminal nerves, and let the parasympathetic nervous system do its job, your sinus tissues and the soft tissues surrounding your eustachian tubes can calm down and return to a state of “rest and relaxation” instead of being in a constant pro-inflammatory state.
A 2012 study published by JMPT of patients with chronic sinusitis treated with manual manipulative therapy (what we do at Ascent Chiropractic) found that patients “exhibited a significant decrease in craniofacial pain and increased pressure pain thresholds and reported less severity of their symptoms.” The researchers concluded that manual therapy treatment “could be considered as an appropriate alternative treatment of chronic rhinosinusitis.”
The DIY Vagus Nerve Hack
So what if you need relief right now? We’ve talked before about using acupressure to stimulate the parasympathetic nerve endings directly over the frontal sinuses. Here’s another quick, easy hack to activate the vagus nerve where it passes through the carotid triangle in your neck that you can do literally anywhere to induce a relaxation response in your sinuses.
To perform this move take a medium-sized massage ball and gently place it on the right side of the upper neck right under your ear. Put some pressure into the tissue and then gently twist the ball across you neck. You want to be gentle with your twist and you want to move your head in the opposite direction as you are doing this. Ease up on the pressure as you pass over the center of your neck. Then, continue to rotate the ball to the other side of your neck while naturally rotating your head in the opposite direction.
So what should you expect to feel?
1) Relaxation in your face and neck musculature.
2) A sigh, swallow, or yawn (a sign of relaxation of the autonomic nervous system).
3) Warmth in your face.
4) The ability to breathe more clearly.
5) Less pressure in your inner ears.
The Ascent Chiropractic Difference
Not every chiropractor is the same. At Ascent Chiropractic in Brookfield, we specialize in gentle, hands-on, low-force chiropractic adjusting techniques, in conjuction with the best of physiotherapy techniques, to get results that are unmatched anywhere.
Suffering from chronic congestion or sinusitis? Make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic by calling 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.