All of us, at one time or another, have probably been told to stand or sit up straight. The primary structure that allows us to follow that wise advice and demonstrate good posture is our spine. Likewise, when our posture is poor, this puts strain and pressure on the spine and supporting structures and can create problems down the road.
This emphasis on a straight posture may, understandably, make you envision your spine, which stretches from the base of your skull all the way down to your pelvis, as straight. However, if you could stand sideways in front of a mirror and see all the way through to the spine, a normal spine would have three gentle counterbalancing curves. If there is too much curve at any point or not enough, this can be a problem. Today we’re going to talk about the straightening of that normal neck curve, or, using the medical terminology in case you see it on your X-ray, the straightening of the normal cervical lordosis.
What Is the Cervical Lordosis or Normal Neck Curve?
Straightening of the normal cervical lordosis is a bit of a mouthful, but the cervical lordosis is simply the normal inward curve in the cervical spine, or neck. There is also a lumbar lordosis (an inward curve in the lumbar spine). Between the two, in the upper back, there is a thoracic kyphosis, which is a normal outward curve in the spine. These curves balance the head and help you stand with minimal effort. Additionally, they also keep the forces between each vertebral disc (at the front of the spine) and its associated facet joint (at the back of the spine) equally distributed. Straightening of the cervical lordosis, then, means straightening of the normal neck curve.
What Causes the Neck Curve to Straighten?
While traumatic injuries to the neck (e.g. car accident) may be a direct cause of straightening of the neck curve, there are other issues that may straighten our cervical spine over time. In our modern technology-centered world today, where some people can spend hours each week hunched over their handheld devices, it’s all but thrown the “sit up straight” advice right out the door.
Other causes for cervical straightening could be a sedentary lifestyle. If you come home from work each day and sit on your couch for the rest of the evening, especially if you are noticing tightness in your chest wall or hips as you sit, this may be causing a problem all the way up in your cervical spine. The entire spine, as well as the entire body, is an interconnected machine, and stress in one area of the spine, for example, can create problems anywhere along the spinal chain as other areas attempt to compensate for the stress. The normal process of aging can also create problems with the curve in the spine, so regular spine maintenance is important as you reach middle age and beyond.
Why Is It a Problem if the Neck Curve Straightens?
If you have lost this normal curve in your neck, you may be experiencing regular neck and/or head pain and perhaps even the feeling that your head is too heavy for your neck. Why? Because the cervical spine can no longer properly support the weight of the head, which requires the counterbalance between the cervical curve (lordosis) and thoracic curve (kyphosis). This causes the muscles to pick up the slack to balance the head. However, this isn’t the job those muscles are intended to do, so this added stress on the muscles creates neck and head pain.
Straightening in the cervical spine can also cause biomechanical problems, put pressure on other areas of the spine, and can eventually lead to degenerated discs as it causes added weight to be placed on the discs. Research on straightening of the cervical lordosis has also shown that it may also disrupt the flow of blood into certain areas of the brain as blood travels through vessels that must pass through holes in the cervical bones.
Can You Reclaim Your Normal Neck Curve?
If your neck curve has straightened, there are some ways you may be able to reclaim your neck curve. Chiropractors can use manipulation and traction machines to gently and gradually work that curve back into your neck. Physical therapists can provide supportive stretching exercises that will provide relief to those tight muscles that are working overtime. Unless there is an extreme traumatic injury necessitating it, neck surgery isn’t something we would typically recommend. However, precise injections of your own PRP or stem cells into the stressed structures in the neck may also help.
Another important factor to reclaiming your normal neck curve, or helping it to not straighten in the first place, is that age-old advice: sit up straight! Yes, even when interacting with your smartphone. In addition, staying active and addressing pain or discomfort in your neck early instead of allowing it to linger will go a long way toward nurturing and maintaining the normal curve in your neck.