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Are Neck Adjustments Safe for Treating Neck Pain? Separating Fact from Fiction

When you think of neck adjustments, does something like this pop into mind?

I'm sure you aren't the only one! I often meet people who are scared of getting their neck adjusted because of what they have seen in media or stories they have heard 3rd hand. Even when I was little, I remember in martial arts movies how a quick snap of the neck from Bruce Lee equated to instant death. It's something that is ingrained in our psyche, and for good reason. The thing is, the people who often demonstrate those huge scary motions to the neck are not trained professionals in healing arts like chiropractic. Much like that GIF above, it's usually a lay person who is "horsing around" or someone who thinks* they know what they are doing but has actually had no formal training in anatomy and physiology. The truth is many people manipulate the spine, but few can (and should) correct a spinal issue with a specific adjustment.

The tiny structure of the neck is vitally important to our whole body's function. That's because the spinal cord, the lifeline from our brain to our body, lives inside the spine. If there is disruption or damage to the spine, it will affect that delicate nerve tissue. With the neck, because it's the first outlet from the brain, it is a vulnerable area of the spine and susceptible to injury.  I may be dating myself, but do you remember Christopher Reeves? He was SUPERMAN and fracture in his upper neck from a horseriding accident led to total paralysis of his body.

Knowing that our necks are essential for our overall form and function, it's no wonder why we feel the need to protect our necks and are fearful of any unnatural forces there. That's exactly why we should seek a professional when we do have pain and problems in such a delicate area. We could also try to avoid the potential causes of neck problems. Often times neck problems are due to trauma, like roller coasters, car accidents, and falls from sports and exercise . Of course, sometimes we can't help being put in compromised situations that can cause neck problems. Many times, we have had patients with neck pain just from sleeping! The chance of an accident leading to something so severe as Christopher Reeve's case is not likely, but neck injury can lead to common symptoms like neck pain and muscle tension, reduced range of motion, headaches, tinnitus, torticollis, or arm and wrist numbness or tingling pains.

Pain and problems that arise from injury to the neck do require and often benefit from chiropractic adjustments. I do want to note that there is a difference between chiropractic adjustments and manipulation. Although both require some amount of force to increase range of motion and are associated with a popping or cracking sound, there is a fundamental difference. Chiropractic adjustments are specific, and manipulations are broad and general. Further, the Gonstead method is a chiropractic technique that focuses on precision in diagnosing the joint that is the true underlying cause of the problem, and how to adjust it as specifically and as neutral as possible. We strive to work WITH the body and not AGAINST it to affect only the joint that needs it and nothing more or nothing less. Manipulations want to increase general movement, so there is often no assessment between joints to decide which one needs to move, and no specific contact point. Because of that, they tend to need more force and require bigger overall motions to make "popping and cracking" sounds.

This is what a chiropractic adjustment looks like in our office: specific contact, neutral position, controlled, and relaxed for the patient and doctor.

It is common for most people to mistake chiropractic adjustments and broad manipulations as the same thing. In my experience, the ones who are scared to get their neck adjusted are actually scared of broad manipulation of their neck, as they should! You definitely should not let someone perform gross manipulation on your neck, or even worse, try to do it yourself! There is definitely too much importance to the preservation of your spine to let anyone take a "crack" at it (excuse the pun, I couldn't resist).

 If we know that our neck will eventually or may have already been exposed to trauma and become injured, do we continue living with pain and dysfunction that will only get worse with time or do we do something about it? What CAN we do about it?

What you SHOULD do:

  1. Get an assessment from a trained professional - detailed examination including x ray imaging is so essential for proper diagnosis

  2. Get adjusted by a chiropractor! We are specially trained experts in the biomechanics and anatomy of the spine and nervous system. We have gone through rigorous training and study in order to best help people who suffer from aches, pains, and altered physiology from trauma to the spine.

  3. Minimize risk of injury and re-injury by following recommendations by your chiropractor, primary care physician, physical therapist.

  4. Stay active! Remember that movement is life. When we get injured, our pain often prevents us from our normal activity. Sometimes that is a good thing as we need to rest to recover. It's a fine line though, because if we rest and reduce activity for too long, it can impede other areas of our health.

What to avoid:

  1. Avoid or ignore the pain/problem. Small problems are easy to avoid, especially when we are scared of the remedy. However, when it comes to a structural/spinal issue, it won't go away on its own. The symptoms may change, but the underlying structural weakness will still be there. The longer a structural problem has been there, the more permanent damage is evident and the more wide ranging symptoms and the longer it takes to resolve. All too often I see patients who come in with symptoms like neck pain and soreness, headaches/migraines, TMJ issues, originating from the spine and when we do further investigation we find evidence of trauma that has been there for years, sometimes decades.

  2. Try to pop or crack our neck ourselves. This is true for the spine in general. Why not? Glad you asked! The most common way that people "crack" their own necks is by taking a fist to their chin, and rotating all the way to one side, and pushing past that further with that fist until they hear a cracking sound. I don't know about you, but it doesn't look terribly different from those movie martial arts neck twists of Bruce Lee's day. If you are scared of that motion, why would you do it to yourself?

  3. Get your spine manipulated by an untrained person. Don't let that buddy who likes to make a lot of popping and cracking sounds by bear hugging do it to you! I have had people even tell me that they ask their kids to step on their back when they are in pain and want relief!

I want to note that the fact that your body "feels like it needs to pop" is a good thing! It means that your brain-body connection is in tune to where your body's awareness of a problem is in tact and it's bringing it to your attention before it becomes a big health concern and should be celebrated! It just needs to be taken care of properly. In a specific chiropractic adjustment for example, the effects can last anywhere from 6-12 hours up to a couple of days instead of just 15-20 minutes!

To Summarize:

Chiropractors are specially trained experts in the biomechanics and anatomy of the spine and nervous system. We have gone through rigorous training and study in order to best help people who suffer from aches, pains, and altered physiology from trauma to the spine. The spine is multifaceted, dynamic, and the different regions behave differently due to their anatomy. This is why specificity matters. As a Gonstead diplomate, I have spent extra time and effort to hone my skills with the Gonstead technique because it is so widely renowned for its precise approach to each and every bone of the spine. We follow the principles and physics of the body to find the cause and make the best correction to it. This is why we can make adjustments that can have a greater impact and longer lasting effect than gross manipulation.

Ultimately, I completely agree and understand that adjustments of the neck can be intimidating and downright scary. It's a tiny structure holding up our big brains in our skulls and it's very vulnerable to forces outside our control. Necks are also super sensitive, and we naturally want to protect where we feel vulnerable. That is EVEN MORE REASON why we should seek professionals like myself and my chiropractic colleagues to address any issue or concern when it comes to the neck that's already sustained injuries. We are DEFINITELY better than taking things into your own hands (literally) when it comes to your spine!

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