The majority of people think Chiropractors are just “back” doctors because we focus on the vertebrae, or bones of the spine. But the bones themselves are only half of the equation when it comes to understanding the what (science), how (art), and why (philosophy) of Chiropractic. Just understanding the bone aspect of our work is only looking at the ‘structure’ part of the health equation and ignores the equally (if not more) important aspect of health: Function. Why we work with spinal bones in particular, is their relationship to the neural tissue that they surround and protect. It is understanding the functional supremacy of neural tissue, and to a greater extent the brainstem, that sets the stage for Chiropractors to associate themselves with the bones of the spine. Chiropractic looks at the intricate link between function and structure of the body. One of the greatest expressions of this link is found at the upper cervical spine.
The bone/nerve relationship has been at the foundation of Chiropractic since its genesis: “Chiropractors are especially interested in nerves and bones. By the nervous system we become cognizant of our surroundings, because of impressions made upon their peripheral endings. It is through them that we regard the outer world. By the knowledge thus derived we are able to adapt ourselves to our environments, receive sensations and direct motions. By a knowledge of their ramifications and functions Chiropractors are enabled to reinstate tone by placing this system of nerves in a normal position and relation. All parts of the body are intelligently connected by the bodily functions acting as a unit through this nervous system. It is through the nerves that all functions and actions are conducted; they are the channels of communication through which life is manifested and maintained...The bones are the framework of the body. We owe to them, in a great measure, our shape and vigor. By their arrangement the viscera are maintained in proper position, one which is neither lax nor tense. By their displacement nerves may become tense by being stretched; bones being the only hard substance which will not yield. On the contrary, they displace the soft tissue in proportion to their own displacement. Thus by bone displacement nerves are injured…” - D.D. Palmer, Discoverer of Chiropractic
The master control system, regulating all the other organs, glands, and tissues of our body is the Nerve System. The Nerve System is composed of neural tissue. Neural tissue is the softest, most delicate tissue of the body. Its soft, delicate nature contributes to the tissue’s ability to conduct electricity greater than any other tissue found within the body.
The primary way the Nerve System communicates with the rest of the body is through intelligently controlled electrical impulse messages, called a mental impulse which is generated from the brainstem. A mental impulse is how the Nerve System communicates with the body and fulfills the functional needs of each person. Mental impulses can travel as fast as 120 meters per second. That is around 270 miles per hour. When the mental impulse navigates unimpeded over the neural tissue, a greater quality of health can be expressed.
The Nerve System can be separated into two main parts: The Central and Peripheral Nerve System. The Central Nerve System consists of three main parts: the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord. They are surrounded and protected entirely by the skull and spine: the cranium and vertebrae. Once the neural tissue leaves the confines of the skull or spine, it is now labeled the Peripheral Nerve System.
The cranium and vertebral bones are made of osseous tissue. Osseous tissue is the hardest, most resilient type of connective tissue found within the body. Its resilient nature contributes to the tissue’s ability to protect against combative forces that could damage the more delicate tissues of the body, especially neural tissue. The brain is protected by eight cranial bones: the occipital bone, two temporal bones, two parietal bones, the sphenoid bone, the ethmoid bone, and the frontal bone. The brainstem is protected by one cranial bone and two vertebral bones: the occipital bone, the atlas vertebra, and the axis vertebra. The spinal cord is protected by the other twenty-four spinal vertebrae. Other types of connective tissue; such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments, attach to the bones to help keep the bones in their proper alignment and movement patterns.
The skull and spine (osseous tissue) encircles the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord (neural tissue). The hardest tissue protects the softest tissue. This is not by chance, but by design. The skull and spine act as a shield to the delicate neural tissue. When in normal alignment, the circumventing skull and spine allow enough space for the Central Nerve System to function normally.
The area of transition between the skull (occipital bone) and spine (atlas and axis vertebra) is an important relay station in the link between structure and function. There is a delicate balance between structure and function; nowhere is this more crucial than in this area. This is where the brainstem is located. The brainstem is the connection between the brain above and the body below. This is why the brainstem shares both cranial and vertebral bone protection. Analyzing the human person though, there really isn’t a separation between the brain above and the body below. The line of demarcation between the brain and body is not a distinct “line in the sand” but a interlaced lock that provides holistic harmony.
When dealing with kinesiology (the mechanics of movement), structure will assist function and vice versa. The shoulder, a more commonly understood body part, will be used as our example. The main function of the shoulder is to allow for a great range of motion potential. Human beings experience the world through our five senses; the shoulder allows us to better interact with our environment through these five senses.The shoulder joint, created from indentations in the humerus and scapula bones, is called a ‘ball and socket’ joint; the convex shaped end of the humerus bone connects to the concave shaped end of the scapula bone. The shoulder is a shallow ‘ball in socket’ joint though; this helps contribute to the impressive amount of motion. To make up for the shallow joint, muscles and ligaments help strengthen and stabilize as best they can. It is the muscles and ligaments that give us our flexibility to run, jump, and move around the way we do. Although the shoulder has a great capacity for motion, stability is compromised. When stability is compromised, there is a greater susceptibility for damage and injury. There is a higher percentage of sprains and strains with the shoulder compared to other joints such as the elbow joint.
The upper cervical spine also allows a great potential for motion, compromising stability in the process. The upper cervical spine consists of three individual joints, but because of their inseparable nature, the area is labeled as one joint, the ‘occipito-atlanto-axial’ joint. The upper cervical spine has to rely heavily on muscles and ligaments to assist in the strength and stability of the joint. The upper cervical spine is also very susceptible to injuries such as sprains and strains. Because of the high concentration of neural tissue in the form of the brain stem, there is a high percentage of another type of injury unique to this area, a vertebral subluxation.
When either the occipital bone, the atlas bone, or the axis bone, become displaced or misaligned within the joint, it can put abnormal pressure on the brainstem tissue. This abnormal pressure effects the tone at which those mental impulses are conducted throughout the body. The ‘tone’ of the mental impulse refers to the quality at which the intelligently controlled electrical impulse messages are sent out by the brainstem and received by the body for interpretation. When the tone of the brainstem is interfered with, a less than normal quality of health is expressed in the functions of the body as a whole. And without complete wholeness, complete wellness can’t be achieved.