The cervical spine is the thinnest and most flexible part of the human spine. It is tasked with supporting the weight of the head in the upright position while allowing turning in multiple planes — looking left, right, up, down and behind.
The cervical spine protects the brain stem and spinal cord; is directly behind the esophagus and trachea, and contains two important blood vessels on either side that bring blood to your brain. Last but not least, the cervical spine houses the nerves that control your arms and hands.
Given all these vital functions, it is wise to take good care of your cervical spine in a proactive way.
The cervical spine is naturally designed to curve, where the apex is at about the level of the Adam’s apple.
This curve behaves much like a spring in a car’s suspension; or the slight upwards curve you see in any bridge design. Long ago, architects discovered that the load capacity of bridges could be dramatically increased simply by integrating curves or arcs into the design. Like a neck curve, a bridge curve or arc distributes weight over a greater area so that gravity cannot concentrate over one small area and cause structural failure.
If the neck curve helps distribute the weight of the head in the upright position, what do you suppose might happen if the curve straightened out or started to bend in the opposite direction like the one to the left?
If you lose your cervical curve over time, which could happen from years of poor posture or trauma like multiple rear-end car collisions, you will probably not notice it until several years pass. The change in biomechanics shifts a greater burden of support to your cervical discs and vertebral end plates. This promotes disc degeneration. The once thick and healthy discs lose fluid content, lose strength, allow the center material to bulge out (herniate, protrude or rupture) and cause bony protuberances called osteophytes to form all around the edges of the vertebrae and facet joints.
For some unfortunate people, the bony projections narrow the passageways where the nerve roots and spinal cord pass through (a condition called spinal stenosis) and neck surgery is necessary to prevent nerve tissue from permanent damage, paralysis and severe paresthesias (numbness, tingling) in both the arms and legs.
So the bottom line: be conscientious about the importance of the health of your cervical spine. Don’t get blind-sided by an MRI diagnosis of “multiple-level, severe degenerative disc disease with advanced neural encroachment.”
I’ve seen such cases where patients were oblivious to what was developing inside their necks. They dismissed their neck stiffness and aches to “getting older” or simple muscle strain. When massage and chiropractic provided only temporary relief, they had a cervical MRI done which revealed the formidable origin behind these symptoms, and the next step was neck surgery. Neck surgery of this nature involves removing the damaged disc, shaving off the osteophytes and inserting a bone graft to promote fusion of adjacent vertebrae.
Prevention is the best approach. You don’t have to have neck problems to start preventive measures. In fact, the vast majority of patients who have early to moderate stage degenerative disc disease have no complaints. It’s like a cavity — you don’t feel anything as the pit erodes the tooth enamel, but as soon as it hits a nerve, you will definitely be aware of its presence. But by that time, you’ll need invasive procedures. In the case of a cavity, it means either a filling or tooth extraction; in the case of a cervical disc, it might mean cervical decompression surgery.
Below is a video that summarizes the importance of maintaining a healthy cervical curve (“lordosis”) and exercises to maintain or restore your neck curve so that it can better withstand the physical demands placed on it and hopefully preclude the need to visit an orthopedic surgeon years down the road.