If you have been recently diagnosed with cervical spine stenosis, you may be wondering if there is any option besides medication or surgery.
Cervical stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal in the cervical spine. The most common reasons are attributed to osteoarthritis, spondylosis, and degenerative disc disease. Disc bulges especially have the potential to indent or cause mechanical pressure on the spinal cord or the nerves that exit the spine from the neck into the hands (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome).
Many of the most common symptoms associated with cervical stenosis include neck pain, muscle tightness, and weakness, numbness, or tingling into the hands or fingers. Signs of cervical stenosis can be seen with routine x-rays but are usually diagnosed with CT or MRI scans.
The conventional medical approach for cervical stenosis is surgery. And it actually makes sense!
If there is a pebble in your shoe rubbing against your foot, take the pebble out! So if there is a bone or disc in your neck causing compression of your spinal cord or nerves, get it out!
So when things get completely stuffed in the neck, surgery may actually be the best option. However, many of the best neurosurgeons agree that surgery should be the last option … and only if all more conservative approaches haven’t been able to help.
Some of the natural approaches to help people with cervical stenosis include massage therapy, physiotherapy, chiropractic, and osteopathy.
For many people diagnosed with cervical stenosis, these therapies are actually able to help so that surgery can be avoided. For other people, they don’t quite seem to work, in which case surgery is necessary.
Does surgery always work for cervical stenosis?
Alas, there is still a group of people who, even after successful surgery, still experience the same symptoms that they did before.
They still have numbness, tingling, weakness, and pain in their hands, shoulders, and neck.
One possibility may be that the stenosis caused nerve damage that will take a long time to heal.
However, there may be another possibility that there is another hidden point causing the cervical stenosis: one that the surgery did not actually fix.
Again, there is definitely a time and place when surgery for canal stenosis is necessary.
Nevertheless, before you go ahead with surgery - or if you have had surgery but still experience the same symptoms - I want to show you how there could be a mechanical problem in the upper part of your neck that needs attention too.
Cervical Stenosis is like pulling on a piece of string
A new study has identified that cervical stenosis does not only have a local effect on the spinal cord but that it actually creates mechanical stretch and tension all the way through the neck.
Think of your spinal cord like a piece of string attached to a balloon (your brain). The string is anchored into the base of your skull, the top three vertebrae in your neck (C1, C2, and C3), and your tailbone (sacrum) by a series of ligaments known as myodural bridges.
So if you have something like a bulging disc in your neck causing canal stenosis, it can cause the string to stretch. And guess where the points of tension will be?
The tension in the string will travel all the way up to the top and down to the bottom.
This is one of the reasons why so many people with symptoms associated with canal stenosis also experience pain and other problems in other areas of their body:
- Headaches or migraines
- Sciatica or low back pain
- Neuralgia or fibromyalgia
This is true not only for classic types of cervical stenosis with disc bulges but also the less-widely considered example of a mechanical problem with the alignment of your upper neck that we’re going to consider next.
Upper Cervical Alignment - A Hidden Cause of Canal Stenosis?
The top vertebra in your neck is known as the atlas or C1. Its function is to support the weight of your skull, protect your brainstem, and allow your head to nod up-and-down and rotate side to side.
Approximately 50% of your total neck movement actually comes from this one area just above and below your atlas.
The reason that the atlas is able to move so much is that it is the only vertebra in your spine that does not have an intervertebral disc that locks and limits it motion.
The atlas is capable of movements in 360o planes beneath your skull.
The opening at the base of your skull where your spinal cord extends from your brain is called the foramen magnum. Normally, the foramen magnum is directly in line with the opening through the ring of the atlas.
Your atlas actually represents the very top of the cervical spinal canal.
Now, I want you to imagine what would happen to that opening between the foramen magnum and your spinal canal if your atlas was to shift off center and get stuck in an abnormal position. In effect, this would cause narrowing of the space right at the very top of your spinal cord!
In other words, a misalignment that causes the atlas to shift from its neutral position beneath the foramen magnum can be a potential source of canal stenosis.
Here’s the thing: there’s no disc up there! And especially if symptoms are in the hands, when cervical stenosis specialists may look at MRI images, they are focussing on the lower part of your cervical spine where all the discs and damage are.
… But what they may not realise is that there can still be another point of stenosis up at the very top that you can’t quite see unless you are paying very close attention to the alignment between the skull and the C1 vertebrae.
To add insult to injury, many brain MRIs actually don’t go all the way down to C1 … and many cervical MRIs don’t go all the way up either! As a result, many of these potential points of cervical stenosis are missed!
This may well be why some cases of known cervical stenosis do not respond to conventional treatment, whether conservatively or with surgery.
It is because there is more than one point of stenosis … and the second one is just not as obvious.
Atlas Treatment and Cervical Stenosis
Because the atlas is at the very top of the spinal cord, if the mechanical tension is transmitted all the way down the string, it may be possible for a C1 misalignment to produce symptoms anywhere in the body.
It is why there is an entire division of healthcare known as Blair Upper Cervical Care that focuses on the alignment of the atlas and the upper neck in neuromuscular disorders including cervical stenosis.
Blair Upper Cervical care is a branch of chiropractic developed not in the USA that does not use any twisting, cracking or spinal manipulation.
Its foundational premise is that every human being is built differently on both the outside and inside. By using a unique form of analysis involving physical, neurological, and also advanced imaging studies, a Blair upper cervical chiropractor is able to determine the exact location, direction, and degree of misalignment of your atlas and in your neck.
When that is known, a treatment plan may be recommended that does not involve any neck cracking. The entire process is designed to be custom-tailored for the individual, and thus using only as a light force as possible to help the body heal without drugs or surgery.
As we’ve previously alluded, there can still be significant issues elsewhere in the neck or other parts of the spine that ultimately do require surgery for cervical stenosis.
However, if a misalignment involving the atlas is contributing to the problem in any way, it may well be an additional important piece of the puzzle that may be able to help people experience the best possible outcomes.
Cervical Stenosis and Brisbane Atlas Chiropractor
Dr. Jeffrey Hannah is the principal Blair upper cervical chiropractor of Atlas Health located in North Lakes (north Brisbane).
Our mission is to help people dealing with chronic health challenges including cervical stenosis to find long-term solutions so that they can enjoy the quality of life that they desire most. Dr. Hannah is an advanced certified instructor in the Blair technique and is an international lecturer, author, and recognised leader in the field of upper cervical specific chiropractic care.
If you would like more information, we would like to offer a complementary 15-minute phone consultation where you can speak directly with Dr. Hannah to discuss your particular condition and ask any questions you might have about cervical stenosis so that you can decide if care may be right for you.
Simply click the Contact Us link on this page, or phone us direct at 07 3188 9329 to arrange an appointment.
We hope this article has been informative and valuable, and that we may be able to assist you.
Atlas Health Australia - “Hope, healing, and wellbeing from above-down, inside-out.”
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