How in the world can upper cervical chiropractic help with autism?
It sounds crazy right? Well, hear me out.
When I was opening my first practice I researched local groups to find places to speak. I, of course, wanted to “get the word out” about my practice, but also to share information about chiropractic. I found several area autism support groups. I heard so many testimonials from other upper cervical chiropractic doctors and their patients, and the science behind why it could help began to make sense. So, off I went to speak to the autism support groups.
When I finished my talk a large number of parents came up, and requested appointments for their children. I thought I must have really knocked it out of the park on that talk. What I realized was these parents were desperately trying to get help for their autistic children. I saw what they saw. A shining light in the kids eyes that was struggling to get out.
Now armed with an understanding of how to I analyze and correct spines, they began to come in with their children. I did thorough exams, took X-Rays, and finding a bone out of alignment in the upper neck, I adjusted it. At that point my job is done. It’s up to the incredible healing power of the body to do its job. Afterward, day by day, I had parents come in the door with huge smiles on their faces, as they told me of various improvements in their child’s behavior. The children were getting better grades, had better behavior in school and at home, had a reduction in allergies, improved speech, and so much more. The power of chiropractic proved itself over and over.
How is this possible? First of all, I’m not claiming upper cervical chiropractic is a cure for Autism. But, what I will tell you, is I have seen some amazing results. How it happens is actually pretty simple. Autism is for the most part a processing disorder. Brain signals get a bit jumbled, and aren’t able to communicate properly, this can lead to developmental delays and other issues.
The brainstem, (the lower portion of the brain), extends slightly into the upper neck and is involved in this communication. If one of the top two bones is misaligned, it can cause the brainstem to malfunction. This makes it difficult for the complex system of the brain and brainstem to function properly.
How does this happen in a young child? The birth process is a very common cause of upper neck issues, and the many falls toddlers generally experience when learning to walk can also be a culprit.
If this misalignment in the C1 and C2 is corrected, the brainstem can begin to function normally. This is the point at which we have seen some incredible results in Autism cases.
“We have gone through six rounds of antibiotics, and had tubes put in twice. He still has a double ear infection, and we don’t know what to do. It seems like nothing is working.”
Nothing is worse than when your child is in pain and nobody can seem to help with it. One of the things I love about the work I do, is that quite often through upper cervical chiropractic adjustments, I can eliminate the causes of problems many doctors have already given up on.
I questioned this very worried mother about prior treatment on her 3-year-old’s ear infections. He had had almost non-stop infections in both ears for the last year and a half. As she explained this to me her baby boy sat there tugging at his ears and crying on and off. I had a feeling I could help, and I had the statistics to prove it.
Like so many things, chiropractic isn’t a parents’ first thought when their child is sick—especially when it is something like an ear infection. I get it, after all their ear isn’t in their spine, and in fact, it where it is located looks like it has nothing to do with their spine. But I have some numbers that might change your mind. One study looked at 332 children with chronic ear infections. The results of using upper cervical chiropractic show that after being adjusted, 80% of the children did not experience another ear infection within the six-month period following their initial visits.
That is a pretty good success rate. In my office the success rate has been closer to 90%. The reason is pretty simple. The joints in the spine have receptors that send information up the spine to the brain. This information is then sent wherever it needs to go. If the joint moves the way it should, we get the right information to the brain. If it is stuck out of alignment, we get the wrong information.
One of the locations information is sent, is a muscle called the tensor veli palatini. Which is a fancy Latin name for the muscle that opens and closes the eustachian tube in the ear. If this muscle doesn’t do its job properly then the tube may not drain fluid properly. This sets up a great environment for bacteria. In this situation, an antibiotic might clear out the current infection. But given that the tubes are still not functioning properly, they will still not drain fluid, new bacteria will quickly set up in the fluid, and bam…. another ear infection.
This is why the proper alignment of the cervical bones is so important. Once they are aligned, the brain signals sent to the muscle will open and close the tubes, allowing them to function, and drain the ear properly. Which is exactly what happened with my 3-year-old patient. I did find he had a misalignment in the top bone in his neck. I corrected it and sent them home. They came back four days later, and the ear infections had cleared up.
Those were the last ear infections he ever had.
I was sitting in my office between patients, and I heard the front door open. Suddenly, I heard a lot of other sounds. My chairs scooting, what sounded like a matchbox car on the wall (it was), and a worn-out mother yelling at her little blessing to sit down before she “lost her mind.”
We had a lot of kids in the practice, and this was a fairly common occurrence, as we had developed a reputation for helping children with behavioral issues and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I was pretty confident that in the next week or two, this family's entrance to the office would be considerably different (read more quiet), and it was.
While we don’t “treat” ADHD, the fact is that it is often caused by a disruption in the nervous system. And, my job as an upper cervical doctor, is to look for disturbances to the nervous system. We almost always see problems caused by the spinal distortions in the upper neck. In fact, this link between the spine, brain stem dysfunction and ADHD is common.
Upper neck injuries in children are more common than you might think. Often, issues with the upper neck bones (c1 and c2, right below the skull) are the result of birth trauma. So many things happen that can affect the baby’s neck during birth causing it to become misaligned. This can include the cord getting wrapped around the child’s neck, the doctor’s use of forceps, Mom getting a c-section, or even just an extended labor. Anytime the head has to be pulled on to get the shoulders through the birth canal, it can cause damage. Add to that, falls while the child is learning to walk, car accidents, or any number of other slips and falls can misalign the bones in this delicate area.
Regardless of what puts the bone out of normal alignment, the resulting pressure can disrupt the way the nervous system communicates and functions. This malfunction can present itself in a number of ways, one of which is the “symptoms” of ADHD.
When a child comes in, we do a very specific exam to find out if this might be the cause of their issues. If so, precise x-rays are taken so we can see exactly how the bone is misaligned, and what needs to be done to put it back into it’s proper place.
Once we have that information the adjustment is gentle, pain-free, and doesn’t involve any twisting or “popping” of the neck.
Removing the interference from your child’s nervous system isn’t a 100% guarantee that all of their “symptoms” will disappear, but a healthier nervous system is a healthier kid. That’s a pretty good benefit all on it’s own.
Oh, and the little guy that drove the matchbox car on the walls was later voted most improved behavior in school, and... he may or may not have convinced me to play with his cars on my adjusting table. You'll have to come in and ask me about that!
After enduring car accidents when she was a young woman— none of which were her fault— Mary Steinhoff was left with chronic, debilitating pain that lasted for 29 years.
“I was in constant pain, [from] head to toe,” the 56-year-old from Morrisville, North Carolina said.
In fact, the pain was so bad that she couldn’t raise her right arm or lie flat. As a result, she battled insomnia and fatigue, sleeping just 2 to 3 hours every night for years. It was also challenging to drive and impossible to concentrate or read a book.
“It can be an excruciating journey physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she said.
It wasn’t until 2002 that she was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but she continued to live in pain as she tried virtually every treatment available: physical therapy, massage, aqua therapy, acupressure, medication, yoga, psychotherapy and prayer. She even bought a new mattress, tried a gluten-free diet and stopped eating sugar— nothing helped.
"I was desperate to fix this,” she said.
Although chiropractic treatment helped a bit, it wasn’t until she met Dr. Ray Drury, an upper cervical chiropractic doctor in Charlotte, North Carolina last year that she finally found some relief. Upper cervical chiropractors specialize in correcting a small misalignment of the upper neck known as the Atlas Subluxation Complex, according to the National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association.
Drury discovered that Steinhoff’s atlas, or C1 vertebra, was tipped 4 degrees forward, which meant that her neck was flat. Since it didn’t have a natural curvature, it was impossible for her to lay flat. He also discovered that her upper cervical spine was not only turned to the right, which caused her spine to turn left, but it was also severely twisted.
After her first upper cervical adjustment, Mary returned home, took a shower and started sobbing. When her husband walked in, alarmed, she rejoiced, “It doesn’t hurt to wash my hair!”
“It was startling to say the least,” she recalled.
What is upper cervical chiropractic?
The first spinal adjustment ever performed was on the upper cervical spine in 1895 by Dr. D.D. Palmer, who restored a deaf man’s hearing. Although the practice faded out over time, it has seen a resurgence in the past 15 years and is the fastest growing area in chiropractic, said Drury, who is also the author of “The Best Kept Secret in Healthcare."
The concept of upper cervical chiropractic has to do with the brain stem, which comes out of the head through the top two bones of the neck, known as the atlas (C1) and axis (C2). The brain stem works like a switchboard operator, controlling all of the messages between the brain and the body.“If one of those bones gets even slightly out of line it can interfere with the messages between the brain and the body,” Drury said.
Using gentle adjustments to the upper cervical spine, the treatment can help people with things like ear and sinus infections, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, sleeping disorders and digestive problems, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, immune disorders, trigeminal neuralgia and seizures.
In fact, a recent study conducted in Italy found that upper cervical chiropractic adjustments on patients with chronic venous cerebral-spinal insufficiency and multiple sclerosis had improved function in multiple areas of the body after just 6 weeks.
Instead of treating the symptoms as Western medicine does, upper cervical chiropractic looks to identify and treat the root cause.
“We don’t treat conditions, we treat the body. When everything is balanced and nothing is interfered with, the body is a self-healing organism,” Drury said.
The amount of adjustments needed and how often depend on the individual, the degree of misalignment and how long the individual has had the misalignment.
“As it holds longer, they need to see us less and less,” Drury said. A treatment can also cause soreness, particularly if you’ve had pain for several years.
It may not be for everyone
Although there is a possibility that upper cervical chiropractic can help those with serious conditions like MS and fibromyalgia, “unfortunately, the research backs up more of what I would call the biomechanical or neuromusculoskeletal aspect,” said Dr. Erik Korzen, a chiropractic physician, professor and advocator in Mokena, Ill..
Korzen says those conditions can include tension headaches, poor posture, nerve irritation due to arthritic or degenerative changes, which can cause symptoms like numbness, tingling and headaches.
There are also certain conditions where upper cervical chiropractic is contraindicated, such as significant osteoporosis or degenerative changes. To avoid damange, individuals with Down syndrome must have X-rays taken before having treatment, in order to see if they have skeletal abnormalities. Although treatment may help people who have seizures, manipulation could actually trigger an episode, depending on the type of seizures.
Plus, adjustments that involve an excessive amount of rotation could actually cause more damage, and over time, can cause laxity in the ligaments.
As more research is conducted and technologic advances are made, clinicians are faced with deciding to either use treatment for conditions that aren’t backed by research and may cause harm or avoid the risks altogether by not using treatment that has the potential to help, Korzen said.
Now, nearly a year after starting treatment, Steinhoff can completely lift her arm, lie down and sleep for 4 to 6 hours each night. She recently also finished reading an entire book, is making plans to be more social and is hopeful about the future.
“I know that I’m probably never going to be free of chronic pain but to be able to manage it day to day is such a blessing,” she said.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.
By Claudia Anrig, DC
Upper cervical technique is not new to the chiropractic profession. It started with the toggle (HIO) technique, developed by Dr. B.J. Palmer, followed by other upper cervical techniques, such as Grostic, NUCCA, orthospinology and atlas orthongal.
In preparing this article, I interviewed Dr. Julie Mayer Hunt, a second-generation upper cervical chiropractor who is board certified in orthospinology and has earned diplomate status in chiropractic pediatrics. She is currently a board member of the Society of Chiropractic Orthospinology and the Academy of Upper Cervical Chiropractic Organizations (AUCCO).
According to Dr. Mayer Hunt, "The upper cervical spine is one of the most vulnerable areas of the spine and is a critical area to keep free from nerve interference." She cites a study published in theJournal of Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics that identified approximately 58 articles regarding chiropractic care of the pediatric patient.1 All of the literature reviewed involved upper cervical adjustments (UCA) and reported the overall level of improvement as a result of rendering specific chiropractic care. Many of the studies involved cases in which any of a myriad of conditions frequently affecting children was resolved completely. Moreover, the response time of a UCA often was seen within one to three treatments. The conditions cited included infantile colic, glaucoma, irritability, head trauma, hemiparesis, projectile vomiting, tonsillitis, sinusitis, bronchitis, nocturnal enuresis, allergies, sleep disorders curvature of the spine, fever, otitis media, asthma, ADHD, headaches, torticollis and seizures. The JCCP study summarized studies involving more than 1,000 children under chiropractic care; the findings suggested the focal area of care involved the upper cervical spine.
Dr. Kirk Eriksen best describes the upper cervical biomechanics as not moving in only one plane of motion. During normal cervical movement, coupled motion occurs. Coupling is defined as motion in which rotation or translation of a rigid body about or along one axis is consistently associated with simultaneous rotation or translation about or along another axis. During normal range of movement, coupled motion helps reduce tension on the nervous system. This is accomplished by offsetting pure lateral flexion or rotation, with small amounts of movements in the X, Y or Z axes.2
One feature of an upper cervical subluxation is that the occipito-atlanto-axial articulations have misaligned in an uncoupled fashion. This condition is measured radiographically in a neutral posture, with the spine at rest. The body must continually adapt, from a biomechanical and neurological standpoint, to this type of subluxation.2
The birth process alone can contribute to upper cervical trauma and instability. Abraham Towbin, MD, reported the results of a study on newborn spinal cord/brainstem injuries that he conducted at the Harvard Department of Neuropathology.3 He performed autopsies on more than 2,000 newborns that died shortly after birth. In his report,Latent Spinal Cord and Brain Stem Injuries in Newborn Infants, Dr. Towbin stated: "Spinal cord and brain stem injuries often occur during the process of birth, but frequently escape diagnosis. Respiratory distress is a cardinal sign of such injury."3
A study by H. Biedermann, published in the Journal of Manual Medicine, high lights the importance of checking the newborn following delivery. In his evaluation of 1,000 newborns, he discovered that 119 cases revealed kinematic imbalances of the suboccipital spine. The finding of suboccipital strain equated to approximately 12 percent of the population group.4
Upper cervical techniques traditionally use the supine leg-length evaluation to determine necessity for adjusting the atlas. When evaluating the pediatric patient with the supine leg check, a leg-length difference is often readily apparent, usually half an inch or greater. Dr. K. Eriksen notes the following hypothesis regarding the short leg findings:
"The spinocerebellar tracts are located along the lateral edge of the spinal cord and are located at the most probable site of maximal mechanical irritation via the dentate ligaments. These proprioceptive tracts are primary pathways for regulating muscle tone and joint position sense. The spinocerebellar tracts are arranged in a laminar fashion (although somewhat angulated) with the most lateral fibers innervating the most caudal structures (i.e., legssacrallumbarthoracic cervical [very limited]). Irritation of these tracts could lead to muscle tone imbalance of the pelvic girdle resulting in a functional short leg."5
Upper cervical chiropractors also note postural corrections as a byproduct of specific upper cervical adjustments. These doctors advocate that one of the benefits of chiropractic care for the pediatric population is eliminating spinal stress (weight of the head centered and structurally/neurologically balanced) on the child's developing spine.
A resource regarding upper cervical techniques for both pediatric and general practice is Dr. Erikson's book, Upper Cervical Subluxation Complex: A Review of the Chiropractic and Medical Literature. The book reviews the anatomy and kinematics of the upper cervical spine, and explains how impaired biomechanics causes neurological dysfunction and physiological concomitants.5 This textbook is not intended to be about chiropractic technique; rather, the text provides the "why" as opposed to the "how" of upper cervical chiropractic care.
To learn more regarding specific upper cervical techniques for pediatrics, access the following resources:
Dr. Lee Angle
Dr. Lee Angle is originally from southern West Virginia. After having his life changed through Upper Cervical Care he chose to pursue it as a career. He has been practicing Upper Cervical Chiropractic for over nine years. Dr. Angle previously worked as a certified personal trainer. This background allows him to educate his patients on proper movement and exercises to speed their recovery and enhance their Upper Cervical Care.