The Upper Cervical Spine & Numbness in Your Hands
Injuries to the upper part of the neck are extremely common and associated with a huge array of neurological, muscular and other health conditions including migraines, headaches, vertigo, dizziness, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, trigeminal neuralgia,
TMJ disorders, low back pain, and also pain and numbness in your hands and fingers. Your atlas (C1) and axis (C2) vertebrae at the base of your skull can exert physical tension on your spinal cord if they misalign.
This tension may produce neurological problems below including tingling and numbness in your hands ala "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome" or some other type of Double Crush/Thoracic Outlet problem. Allow me to explain the sequence of events.
It all starts with a physical injury that affects the upper vertebrae in the neck: the C1 (atlas) and the C2 (axis). The type of injury I’m talking about isn’t the kind that breaks or dislocates anything. It is the type of injury that is severe enough to damages the muscles and ligaments that support the normal position of the vertebra. It is the type of injury when you feel sore for a day or so, but then think you got away with it because the “problem went away.”
These injuries can include any number of childhood falls, sports collisions, or other whiplash-type events that cause your head to snap back-and-forth (including a fall on your tailbone). There are two major problems with an injury to C1 or C2 vertebrae. First, the muscles that hold these vertebrae in place have to collateral support. In other words, if these muscles, ligaments, or even nerves are damaged, your body contains to back-up mechanism to realign them on its own!
Its an inherent design flaw in the construction of the human body that time has not yet ironed out. The consequence is that your body innately recruits other muscles to support the head: namely the scalene muscles. Unfortunately, these muscles were never designed for this task, and as they tighten, they pull the head forwards.
As a short-term adaptation, this strategy works well. As a long-term strategy, however, this adaptation ultimately leads to excessive pressure on the joints in the neck, increased probability of osteoarthritis, and increased tension through the muscles on the front and back of your neck.
Do you recall what I mentioned before about “poor posture” that it is the body’s innate response to a neurological injury? This process is what I was talking about. In terms of pain and numbness in your hands, there are two ways this can manifest:
- As the scalene muscles tighten, they increase the likelihood that you will develop Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which is made commonly worse when you sleep on the most affected side).
- As the joints in the lower neck become arthritic, they may create physical pressure on the C5-C8 nerve roots, which can be the start of the Double Crush Syndrome.
The Upper Cervical Spine May Have the Greatest Impact Yet!
As I mentioned before, many of the common treatments for Double Crush, Thoracic Syndrome, and poor posture patterns involve stretching the tight muscles. However, if the neurological reason that the muscles tightened in the first place remains - that is, the injury to the upper neck is not corrected - then those muscles will tighten straight back up as soon as you finish the stretch.
But that is not the only reason that the C1 and C2 have such an important role in the development of “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome” and other pain disorders in the hands. I only said it briefly, but these vertebrae and physically tethered onto your spinal cord and brainstem.
If they shift from their normal alignment for an extended period of time (months, years, or decades), the spinal cord itself may be stretched. In the case of Double Crush, I talked about the percent-impact that pressure along the length of the nerve has.
When we add this highest level - the spinal cord - into the equation, the relative percentages (for illustrative purposes) change again: 5% hands, 10% tight muscles, 25% lower neck … but then 50% for the cord originating from the very top of the neck! It explains one final distinguishing characteristic that differentiates the different types of pain and tingling in the hands. Peripheral or spinal nerve problems usually appear on one side of the body only.
If the problem appears on both sides, however, it means that the origin is likely central: i.e., the spinal cord. Chronic low-grade pain in the neck, tightness in the shoulders are two of the most common symptoms that suggest you have a misalignment in your neck ... and if you experience numbness in your hands too, well, there's very likely a connection that Upper Cervical Care may be able to help.
Moreover, cord tension is typically more diverse than any of the other causes of numbness or tingling in the hands. It typically shifts to different parts of the hands from one day to the next (including the fingertips only). It can follow specific nerve pathways sometimes, but then different nerve pathways at other times.
It can also include other sensory changes that include temperature or even color changes (sometimes called a Raynaud’s Phenomenon). It is my experience that cord tension is the most common cause for pain, tingling, “pins and needles” or numbness in your hands.
In my opinion and in the absence of pathology (such as spinal cord damage which can be detected on an MRI), this tension can be frequently traced to an injury of the upper neck or of the cranial bones (including jaw).
The unfortunate thing is that so few people have considered how a problem with the movement of the joints in the upper part of their neck could be related to the problems they are experiencing in their hands.
I have worked with a number of GPs, physiotherapists, and neurologists who all understand this relationship - so they get it! - but it still surprises me the number of people who have never even considered the link! It is my hope that by sharing this information with you that it will provide you with additional information and a non-surgical, non-pharmaceutical option to get to the bottom of your “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome” problems.
Upper Cervical Care - A Different Approach
An Upper Cervical Chiropractor corrects misalignments of the upper neck that your body cannot self-correct. In the Blair approach, we use a highly specialised to determine what your unique bone structure is, determine how that is impacting the function of your nerves, and then make an appropriate correction without twisting or cracking the neck.
The approach that we use that may be able to help you is called a “Blair Upper Cervical Chiropractic” adjustment. Upper Cervical is a specialised approach very different from what most people think of as chiropractic. First, there is no cervical manipulation.
All corrections are made with a minimal impulse and without cracking or twisting the neck. The key to success is the precision we take. We perform a series of physical, neurological and specialised imaging tests (i.e., customised x-ray) to determine exactly what is going on in your neck - how have the C1 and C2 vertebrae misaligned - and then we make a specific correction for your unique condition.
This approach is not a direct treatment for “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome,” but works on the principle that the human body has the innate capacity to heal itself. It is when something is interfering with its normal ability to do so that it requires an “adjustment.” Considering especially what we know about the C1 and C2 vertebrae that there is no “back up” self-correction mechanism, the adjustment we make is tailored to allow the C1 and C2 to come back within your body’s neuromuscular control.
Then, as your body is able to heal - reducing the cord tension, reversing the structural adaptations it has made, and improving your posture - we expect your health and symptomatology to improve. That is the Blair Upper Cervical approach to health and the way that we work to help people suffering from pain and tingling, numbness, and other abnormal hand sensations.
I hope that this information has been valuable to you. First, I hope you have a much better understanding that pain, “pins and needles” or numbness in your hands is not always because of “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.”
In fact, as you are now aware, many cases of “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome” are not actually Carpal Tunnel Syndrome at all! There may be a combination of factors going on affecting blood flow, the peripheral nerves, the spinal nerves, and even the spinal cord itself.
The second part then is getting an accurate assessment of what’s actually producing the symptoms and numbness in your hands. I’ve uploaded the better part of my brain on the subject, and I hope it gives you an additional sense of clarity.
To know for certain, the only way is to have a look. If you have wondered if you are experiencing “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome” - or especially if you’ve been trialing the conventional treatments but not experiencing any significant improvement, I would encourage you to seriously consider us or your nearest Upper Cervical Specific Chiropractor.
Please contact us an 07 3188 9329 or send us an email if you have any questions and would like further information about how we may be able to help you. Finally, if this information has been valuable for you, please leave us a message to let us know your thoughts. We appreciate it and hope sincerely that it will help you discover the answers that you are looking for.