The sensation where your head feels too heavy for your neck is actually very common, but not exactly a proper diagnosis. Fortunately, it is a relatively simple phenomenon to explain, and also frequently pretty straight forwards to address with the right information and the right type of treatment. Let’s look at some basic physics first. Your skull (including the mass of your brain and the fluid contained within it) weighs approximately 3-5Kg. There is a common analogy that we sit, stand, and move around with the effective weight of a bowling ball on our shoulders. The point here is that your head is heavy, to begin with!
Your skull sits atop a specialised vertebra in your spine known as your atlas or C1 vertebra. This vertebra weighs only a few grams and is much, much smaller in size (hence its name “Atlas” after the Greek mythology figure). By means of the muscles and ligaments in your neck that normally support the weight of your head, plus the orientation of the normal curve in your neck, your body is able to maintain this balance where you are able to sit, stand and move without noticing the weight of your head at all. However, it is when this balance is upset - when the normal centre of gravity is offset between your atlas and your skull - that is common when people notice that their head feels too heavy for their neck.
Now, here is where the question about what to do about a head that feels too heavy for your neck comes into play. There is one school of thought that says that the problem is all about bad posture and weak muscles and that in order to fix your heavy head feeling, the only thing you need to work on is your posture and strengthen your neck muscles. While we don’t disagree that posture and exercise are important, it is our experience that this strategy is putting the cart before the horse.
By downloading the ChiroWebMD mobile app you can better control your patient portal.
Instead, we look at things differently that it is a type of physical injury where the normal centre of gravity between your skull and atlas has been shifted, and that is what is causing the posture, abnormal muscle tension, and heavy head feeling in the first place. Therefore, it is essential to correct this underlying distortion first in order for your neck exercises to work as well as they are supposed to.
The Head feels too heavy for the neck but brain scans, CTs and MRIs are normal
What we are talking about when your head feels too heavy for your neck is frequently a very tiny problem, but one that your nervous system is still able to detect. Consider as an example if you’ve ever gotten dust, sand, or a piece of hair caught in your eye. The diameter of a piece of hair is 0.15mm, and yet it can cause excruciating pain! My point is simply that even very small things can cause disproportionately large problems.
So when it comes to diagnosing the cause of what your head feels too heavy for your neck, the common approach using CTs and MRI scans is to look for large lesions such as brain tumours, fractures, dislocations, lacerations, infections, etc that would be causing your symptoms. Unfortunately, when scans come back as being “normal” many people just give up right there when the truth is that you may be very close to discovering the truth.
When it comes to a heavy head sensation, the cause is seldom a pathological condition as described above, but a functional condition where much closer attention to detail is required. Every human being is built differently on both the outside, but also the inside. Therefore, unless your individual anatomical differences are taken into account, and unless the scans are viewed the exactly right way, the mechanical problems between the skull and the atlas vertebra that produce a heavy head feeling often are missed.
And while some may argue that misalignments and offsets between the skull and atlas are too small to make any difference (often 2mm), we should like to point out that these types of offsets typically represent a 20% deviation from the true neutral centre of gravity between your head and your neck. How do you suppose your car would perform if your alignment was off by 20% there?
Furthermore, if you consider the sensitivity of your nerves is 10x more powerful than that, even if this particular problem is not causing your direct pain like headaches, migraines, neck pain, or shoulder pain (which are all actually very common!), your brain is likely subconsciously aware of the problem to the point that you can actually feel like something is amiss. Hence that descriptive but non-diagnostic sensation where your head just intuitively feels like it is too heavy for your neck.
Upper Cervical Care for a Head that feels too heavy for your neck
For helping people who feel like their head is too heavy for their neck, one of the most precise and powerful approaches is a special division of general chiropractic known as upper cervical care. Upper Cervical is a unique style of chiropractic that does not use any twisting, stretching, cracking, or manipulation. Developed and researched in the USA, the upper cervical focuses on the unique relationship between the top vertebrae in the neck (the atlas and the axis, or C1 and C2 vertebrae respectively), the base of the skull, and the delicate array of nerves and vascular structures in that area that control and coordinate every function in your body.
There are many styles of upper cervical care including the NUCCA and Atlas Orthogonal Techniques. The approach we find is most accurate is what is known as the Blair Technique, which involves those specialised types of diagnostic images that we described earlier in this article where we are able to measure the exact location, direction, and degree of misalignment between your atlas, axis, and skull that is likely related to you head heaviness feeling.
With this information, we are able to prescribe a personalised approach to care including an adjustment or correction that is custom-tailored just for you based on your unique body anatomy so that the vertebrae can be restored to their normal alignment and motion with the least amount of force possible. In fact, the Blair adjustment uses only the amount of force you would need to click a pen; yet directed in just the right way to the right centre of your body, it can make a profound difference in restoring the alignment between your head and neck, which in turn restores the communication between your brain and body.
If you have been dealing with the feeling like your head is too heavy for your neck, we would like to hear from you. Our practice, Atlas Health, is located in North Lakes (north Brisbane) where we care for people around Australia with a variety of health conditions focused on a misalignment between their head and neck. We are happy to offer a 15-minute phone consultation at no charge so that you can discuss your individual needs and ask any questions that you might have so that you can decide if upper cervical care is right for you. Contact us through this webpage, or call us direct at 07 3188 9329.
Aprill C, Axinn MJ, Bogduk N. Occipital headaches stemming from the lateral atlanto-axial (C1-C2) joint. Cephalgia. 2002;22(1):15-22.
Braaf MM, Rosner S. Trauma of cervical spine as cause of chronic headache. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. May 1975;15(5):441-446).
Bragatto MM, Bevilaqua-Grossi D, Benatto MT, et al. Is the presence of neck pain associated with more severe clinical presentation in patients with migraine? A cross-sectional study. Cephalalgia. 2019 May 27:333102419854061. doi: 10.1177/0333102419854061. [Epub ahead of print]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31132869
Edmonds J. The cervical spine and headache. Neurology, 1988;38(12):1874-8.
Gaul C, Meßlinger K, Holle-Lee D, Neeb L. [Pathophysiology of Headaches]. [Article in German]. Dtsch Med Wochenschr. 2017 Mar;142(6):402-408. doi: 10.1055/s-0042-111694. Epub 2017 Mar 22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28329901
Mingels S, Dankaerts W, Granitzer M. Is There Support for the Paradigm 'Spinal Posture as a Trigger for Episodic Headache'? A Comprehensive Review. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2019 Mar 4;23(3):17. doi: 10.1007/s11916-019-0756-2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30830498
Millstine D, Chen CY, Bauer B. Complementary and integrative medicine in the management of headache. BMJ. 2017 May 16;357:j1805. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j1805. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28512119
Teng CC, Chai H, Lai DM, Wang SF. Cervicocephalic kinesthetic sensibility in young and middle-aged adults with or without a history of mild neck pain. Man Ther. 2007 Feb;12(1):22-8. Epub 2006 Jun 14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16777468
Whittingham W, Ellis WB, Molyneux TP. The effect of manipulation (toggle recoil technique) for headaches with upper cervical joint dysfunction: a pilot study. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1994;17(6):369-75.
Wong JJ, Shearer HM, Mior S, et al. Are manual therapies, passive physical modalities, or acupuncture effective for the management of patients with whiplash-associated disorders or neck pain and associated disorders? An update of the Bone and Joint Decade Task Force on Neck Pain and Its Associated Disorders by the OPTIMa collaboration. Spine J. 2016 Dec;16(12):1598-1630. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2015.08.024. Epub 2015 Dec 17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26707074