"My neck went out", "I pinched a nerve in my neck", "I can't turn my head!" These are common things we hear in the office and for the vast majority of people we're able to fix the issue within a few visits. But when it happens to me things aren't as easy! Cause who's gonna fix me? You? Who do I call? Where do I go? Well when it happened to me, I initially did what everyone else does... I hoped it would just go away.
So I woke up at 3am saturday morning lying almost on my stomach with my head turned to the side, which never happens. I sleep on my side, never on my stomach, and since this was the first time I've ever slept on my stomach I woke up in some pain. Plus lets not forget my black belt (not even close) giant (40 pound) 30 year old (3 year old) muscle bound (all bone basically) nephew that kicked me in the neck! So anyway, I woke up feeling like something was pinched or jammed in my neck. Every time I tried to turn my head I got a sharp pain deep in my neck. "So this is what everyone complains about" I said to myself, followed by "this kinda sucks." Hey it was 3am, I couldn't think of anything more eloquent to say to myself!
When I woke up a few hours later I knew that something was wrong and I had to do something. So of course I started to ice it, well that didn't do anything other than numb my neck up, which was kinda nice, but when that wore off I was still in a good deal of pain. I knew something was really jammed up. And at this point I got the idea of writing a blog post about what exactly was "jammed" or "pinched" in my neck, because I understand physiologically what it is, but I don't think most people do. So here we go.
To understand what gets "jammed" or "pinched" in the neck we have to take a look at spinal anatomy, and I'll try to make it really basic for those of you who hate anatomy. Whenever 2 bones come together they form a joint, just like where your thigh and shin bones come together you get a joint called your knee joint. Or where your upper arm and lower arm come together is called your elbow joint. In the neck we have 7 different bones (vertebrae) stacked on top of one another. Where each bone contacts the bone above it is called a Facet Joint and there's one on the right side and one on the left side. This is shown in the picture below where we see 2 of the vertebrae of the neck. This view would be looking at someone from the side.
In a normal spine these facet joints provide movement. Just like the knee joint enables the bones of the leg to flex and extend, the facet joints of the spine enable the head to look up, down, left and right. If we didn't have facet joints we wouldn't be able to move our heads, so they're very important. As you can see below, the bones actually glide on top of one another at the facet joint, as if you were rubbing your hands together. This is shown below.
Now to someone who's never looked at vertebra or facet joints before these 2 pictures may look identical, but look closer at the facet joints. In the second picture you'll notice that the bones aren't quite as lined up as they were in the first picture. Below you can see this in detail where I've added red lines on the joint surfaces of the 2 bones that make up a facet joint. You'll see that the bottom picture shows that the top red line has actually moved upwards, enabling someones head to make a "yes" motion.
This is how our bodies move, it's how we turn our heads, it's how we twist our torso, and how we bend our lower back. Every movement depends upon facet joints. This is one of the main reasons why people see chiropractors. They make sure that the facet joints are gliding properly. Each bone should glide on top of the other bone below it, but sometimes these joints can stop moving correctly, they can become "jammed" or "pinched" together, and this is what chiropractors refer to as being "out of alignment." Think about you rubbing your hands together in front of you but pushing them really hard together and then trying to keep rubbing. It's difficult to do and starts to actually hurt your hands, and the same thing happens in your neck.
Many medical professionals don't quite understand human movement and biomechanics so they like to say that the spine can't really go out of alignment. So is it truly out of alignment? Well yeah technically it is, we're talking about 2 vertebrae that come together to form a facet joint and those 2 vertebrae becoming stuck so that when a person tries to move their head the facet joint doesn't move correctly. That means the 2 bones now aren't gliding in the proper range of motion and by definition that would make this part of the spine "out of alignment."
But if your definition of "out of alignment" is a stack of blocks with some blocks sticking out the side then you won't understand this type of alignment. We're talking about how the spine is moving, not how the spine looks on a static X-ray picture, it's all about functional movement. Think about when your car is "out of alignment." Do you see it? Or do you feel it? You feel it right? The only time you actually see the alignment problem is when the tires wear out or something breaks. Normally you just feel the car start to shake and veer to the side, but if you look at the car from the outside you don't see anything at all. But functionally your car is moving incorrectly, it's actually out of alignment. Same thing goes for the spine, you don't normally see the issue, you feel it, and damage is only seen after months or years of the problem persisting. But if you're looking at an X-ray and expecting to see the picture below then you're gonna think this "out of alignment" statement is nonsense cause you'll never see this.
We're talking about proper spinal movement being altered and thus effecting alignment. But if you look at an Xray of a human spine you'll never see one of the blocks (vertebra) sticking out to the side. The terminology is what gets many people, and many doctors, confused. But I digress.
Let's get back to the most important part of this post... my neck! It was still killing me. So what actually happened to my neck? Well what happened was that I slept on my stomach which places the head into extension and that compressed my facet joints and they "pinched" or got "jammed" together. This causes inflammation and pain. So every time I tried to turn my head or look up and down my facet joints weren't gliding like they should so it felt like something was jammed or pinched together in my neck. And that's exactly what was happening.
What happened to my neck is what happens to thousands of people every day, and isn't just caused by sleeping wrong. It can be caused by a trauma, tight muscles, degeneration in the neck, sitting too long and a plethora of other reasons. Most people who have neck pain or low back pain have problems in their facet joints. The pain is easily fixed when the facet joints are returned to normal movement. When they aren't fixed in a timely manor, or if the facets get jammed very close together, the nerve that comes out right next to the facet joints becomes irritated and then you've got a pinched nerve. This causes pain typically behind the shoulder blade, on the outside of the shoulder, or down the arm but it all stems from the facet joint irritation in the neck.
Now I know what you're saying as you sit on the edge of your seat... "So what did you do for your neck?" well first off, thanks for caring! Second, I toughed the day out because my chiropractor was out of town. Then I woke up on sunday, even more swollen and more angry at my neck. So I finally made it out to see my chiropractor and he was able to pinpoint which facet joints were stuck and he adjusted those areas. I could now move a bit better. Was my pain gone? Nope!
Why not? Well my pain didn't go away instantly because that's not how the body works. For the previous 2 days my body was swelling from my injury, the muscle tissue had become tight and knotted, and my neck was filled with substance P (a chemical that causes pain). So did seeing my chiropractor cure me? Well not right away, all he did was get my facet joints moving again so that my body could start to heal, whereas before I wasn't able to start the healing process cause things were "stuck" together. But it takes time for the body to heal itself. So the remainder of the day I iced and by that night I was starting to feel a whole lot better. By monday, I was back in the office feeling better and treating patients who were dealing with the same problem I had all weekend. I followed up on monday night with a second adjustment which seemed to cure the residual "pinch" I was still feeling. But if I hadn't been able to see my chiropractor I would have been in pain for many days, if not weeks, from a simple "jammed" facet joint in my neck.
1. Facet Joints are where 2 vertebrae come together. They enable us to turn our heads, and bend our bodies. Without proper Facet Joint motion we get tight, stiff, and eventually jammed in our spines.
2. Facet joints that aren't moving properly is what chiropractors call "out of alignment" and causes swelling, pain, dysfunction and a feeling of "pinched" or "jammed" in the neck/back or muscles near the neck/back.
3. The sooner you can get the facet joint moving again the quicker you will heal. The longer you wait the more it will swell up and the longer it will take to heal. See your chiropractor the day that you feel the pain.
4. The adjustment won't cure your pain instantly, it will just enable the body to start to heal. Once the healing process starts the inflammation will decrease as well as the pain. It may take 1 adjustment, or it may take 5 or even 10 adjustments, it all depends upon how far "pinched" the spine actually becomes.