Are you feeling frustrated over nagging and lingering neck pain?
Does it hurt and make you dizzy when you press on your neck?
Does it make you feel dizzy and imbalanced when you move your neck too fast?
You may be dealing with cervicogenic dizziness.
Our neck is composed of complex and comprehensive structures of bones, ligaments, tendons, and discs. In a perfect world all of these complex structures would work in perfect harmony together and never cause us pain or issue. Unfortunately, that’s just not reality.
Here is the honest truth that most surgeons don’t want you to know: disc bulges and herniations and signs of “degeneration” can be NORMAL. Not only that, actually most people can have these findings starting at 30 years of age.
So you might be asking...
if my neck pain isn’t caused by some serious issue or condition, why does it hurt me so much?
Why does touching or moving my neck make me dizzy?
Well, we are here to help give you some answers to help empower you to take control of your dizziness and pain!
Stay with me while we take a little dive into some anatomy (don’t worry, it’ll be quick).
Our balance system is controlled by 3 systems
Our eyes: our visual system
Our inner ear: our vestibular system
Our proprioception (this is a fancy word, we will call this joint sense) : This is the information of what my joints gather about my surrounding environment. For example, how your joints are able to respond and make changes for when you walk on sand versus on a sidewalk.
It is then the responsibility of our brain to make sense of all the information coming from these 3 systems and turn it into an action.
Each of these balance systems have specific reflexes that help them communicate with our body.
VOR: vestibulocular reflex (inner ear to eye muscles).
VSR: vestibulospinal reflex (inner ear to our bodies muscles and limbs).
VCR: vestibulocollic reflex (inner ear to neck muscle reflex).
So big picture...
Think of reflex right… like being in the pediatricians office as a kid and the doctor hitting your knee with a hammer, you didn’t have to think about your leg kicking… right? It just did it.. AUTOMATICALLY. That’s how these reflexes SHOULD work.
But sometimes these reflexes get slowed down or injured which can leave us feeling dizzy, imbalanced, light-headed, or sensitive to motion and even cause us pain from when we aren’t moving right because of them.
Here are the 3 major reflexes that help your balance system:
VOR is helping stabilize your eyes when my head is moving quickly
VSR is helping maintain your posture and upright position, even when I’m walking on unstable surfaces or standing on one foot.
VCR is helping control my neck muscles when my head is moving.
Let's apply that knowledge to the following example: running
VOR: is helping my eyes stabilize on the track or road ahead of me keeping my vision clear with my head bouncing up and down
VSR: helps me to adjust for the fact the road may go from being smooth to being cracked or uneven and helping my body making the proper adjustments
VCR: keeping my neck muscles engaged and helps my neck to coordinate with my vestibular system for when I'm turning or moving my head.
That's how balance and these system work (or should work) in unison together and without us having to think about it. So in reality, all these reflexes are working together all the time. That’s why you never hear of “VCR insufficiency” as a medical diagnosis.
Because unless you work on ALL the systems together, you will miss the bigger picture (and still be left dealing with symptoms).
Now that we got the anatomy out of the way, let's take a deeper dive in how the neck can effect dizziness.
The major reflex that supports the vestibular system and the neck is the VCR (.. and no, not the kind of VCR you have to rewind when you're done with it!).
However, to maximize our VCR (and other reflexes) it is important to address potential underlying conditions that are contributing to the strength of its output.
Here are a few tips how:
Maintaining a good neutral posture
Addressing and seeking treatment for any underlying muscle spasm, joint stiffness, flexibility, and strength issues. This can be with physical therapy, exercise, and/or mobility exercises.
Keep moving! The vestibular system CRAVES movement, to keep it strong and active you want to try to move as much as you can. This might look like starting slow and small by trying to move your head and neck in all directions 5 times every hour. The progress in speed as you feel more comfortable and less symptomatic.
It's important to not only pay attention to you are having pain in because there are areas of the neck, face, jaw and shoulder that can send signals or trigger points away from where you might be feeling pain.
A common example that everyone knows pretty well is when someone is having a heart attack. The individual may not be describing chest pain, but rather they may be describing pain into their left shoulder, upper back, jaw, etc.
That’s because the brain is doing a good job of saying something is wrong, but does a bad job of locating the source.
This means that you can have a tight muscle or joint in your neck, that can even refer pain into your eye or jaw, or maybe it doesn’t cause you to have pain at all, but by pressing it, it makes you feel dizzy.
Thankfully, we are not left without solutions for our neck pain and dizziness and cervicogenic dizziness is actually very treatable!
Working with a skilled vestibular and orthopedic physical therapist can help identify the root cause of why your neck pain is making you dizzy.
From there, it’s an integrated approach for treating your systems of balance (eyes, inner ear and joint sense) along with addressing other factors such your posture, flexibility issues, and weaknesses for a whole body approach for eliminating your cervicogenic dizziness for good!