Treatments for Neck Pain and Cervical Instability: A review of upper cervical instability and symptom treatment with Ross Hauser, MD
Ross Hauser, MD
Treatment of neck instability – cervical spine instability
In our practice, we continue to see a large number of patients with a myriad of symptoms related to cervical neck instability including severe pain, problems of balance, headaches, and loss of mobility. These people are often confused, many times frightened by recommendations to complicated cervical neck surgeries they don’t understand.
Many of these people have been told that their problem is a problem of degenerative cervical disc disease. After years of prolonged pain and conservative care options such as chiropractic, massage, physical therapy, anti-inflammatories, pain medications, cortisone injections, and cervical epidurals that eventually fail, the only recourse, these people are told, is neck surgery.
It is therefore easy to see how cervical instability can change a person’s quality of life. With one bump on the head or a wrong twist of the neck, a whirlwind of symptoms start. Many MRIs, CT scans and x-rays later, each clinician gives another explanation for the person’s symptoms and they are thrust into a myriad of medications, treatments and surgeries without relief. Eventually the patient goes to pain management and is placed on long-term narcotics. Often the families and even spouses do not understand because the person “looks normal.” As physician after physician fails to relieve the suffering, doubt creeps in as to whether or not the person has a “real” illness. Relationships start to fail.
Neck surgery when all else has failed. But did “all else” include regenerative medicine injections?
Surgical recommendations are described in a way that seemingly makes sense as the only solution to degenerative disc disease.
- The surgery will help, the patient is told, because it will cut away the cervical vertebrae bone that is pressing on the nerves.
- The surgery will fuse the cervical vertebrae in place so the vertebrae do not shift out of place and press on the nerves again.
- Sometimes the cervical disc that has been flattened or herniated is also be replaced with an artificial implant.
But if these surgical options make so much sense, why were they not offered in the first place? The answer to that question is explained in the following articles:
- Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion | Does this surgery cause more cervical spine instability and deformity?
- Patients report problems with sexual function after cervical spine surgery
- Non-Surgical Cervical radiculopathy treatments
- Atlantoaxial instability | Cervical Fusion or Prolotherapy PRP Stem Cell treatment options
Surgical treatments for Cervical Instability – Disc, disc, disc may be wrong, wrong, wrong
In medicine, there are universally accepted equations. When pain cannot be controlled using conservative treatments including physical therapy, chiropractic, and pain medications, there has to be a surgical recommendation.
In neck and spine surgery, doctors focus on degenerative disc disease and its treatment, anterior cervical discectomy and fusion and cervical decompression surgery to remove whole or part of the cervical vertebrae to allow space on compressed nerves and to fix the instability by fusing vertebral segments together. In the case of C1-C2 instability, these two vertebrae are fused posteriorly (behind) to limit their amount of movement. The goal is to limit pressure on the nerves.
However, it may limit motion to such an extent that patients become completely unable to move that portion of their neck. In addition, fusion operations can accelerate the degeneration of adjacent vertebrae as the motion in the neck is distributed more on these tissues.
After two years, the same result between physical therapy and surgery was seen – no difference in the outcome.
The rush to surgery is based on the immediate goals of the patients, that is the alleviation of pain. Spinal cervical fusion and decompression seem to offer a solution – short term. This is supported in the medical literature. In one study in the medical journal Spine,(1) patients with cervical radiculopathy, treated with surgery and physiotherapy resulted in a more rapid patient improvement during the first year after surgery, with significantly greater improvement in neck pain and global assessment scores compared to physiotherapy alone.
However, the differences between the groups decreased after two years. In this paper where surgery was touted as being so successful – the researchers concluded: “Structured physiotherapy should be tried before surgery is chosen.” After two years, the same result between physical therapy and surgery was seen – no difference in the outcome.
Neck surgery when all else has failed. But did “all else” include a discussion with the patient that this may not be a disc problem at all but that their cervical ligaments need to be repaired?
CREEP – cervical degenerative ligament disease – why neck surgery fails
Some of the most debilitating conditions attributed to problems in the neck are those due to cervical instability caused ligament laxity. What does this mean? It means that surgery may not address the problems you are experiencing in your neck.
When spinal ligaments are exposed to continued compression or stress, they “Creep.” Creep is a medical condition that results from the deformity or elongation of the ligaments that hold the cervical spinal vertebrae in place. This is cervical neck instability.
- The surgery that cuts away the cervical vertebrae bone that is pressing on the nerves – does not correct or prevent CREEP recurrence
- The surgery that will fuse the cervical vertebrae in place so the vertebrae do not shift out of place and press on the nerves again, MAY NOT be needed at all if CREEP can be repaired and prevented by the use of non-surgical regenerative medicine techniques.
- Regenerative medicine injection techniques such as H3 Prolotherapy explained below, work on the same understanding as fusion surgery, but with big differences.
- The regenerative injections repair the ligaments.
- The injections strengthen the ligaments’ ability to hold the vertebrae in its natural position. Which is what the fusion seeks to do.
- The big difference is that with fusion surgery you will lose a great amount of ability to turn your head from side to side and up and down. In Regenerative medicine injections the treatment repairs and allows for this natural movement of your head.
The concept of ligament laxity or cervical neck instability being caused by ligament damage is not so simple for doctors to understand. This may be why patients with neck problems walk around for years without hope or optimism that their problems can be solved.
An amazing study came out of the University of Waterloo in Canada and was published in the November 2017 edition of the Spine Journal.(1) Briefly here was the problem and the goal of the study:
Loose ligaments are not normal
- Predicting physiological (normal) range of motion (ROM) using a finite element (FE) model (a numeric scoring system) of the upper cervical spine requires the incorporation of ligament laxity.
- COMMENT: The doctors understand that ligament laxity (CREEP) is a problem of stability and instability To come up with a scoring system to define the normal range of neck motion, you need to understand how loose ligaments are not normal.
Patients suffer from big problems caused by little damage to the ligaments
- The effect of ligament laxity can be observed only on a macro level of joint motion and is lost once ligaments have been dissected and preconditioned for experimental testing.
- COMMENT: It is hard on any level to accurately determine the amount of ligament damage to the amount of instability because even small injuries or damage, sometimes undetectable, cause big problems. This is what we call cervical ligament microinstability.
Patients suffer because Ligament laxity is a mystery
- As a result, although ligament laxity values are recognized to exist, specific values are not directly available in the literature for use in finite element models.
- COMMENT: Ligament laxity is a mystery, defining it within mathematical equations for the scoring system is difficult. This is why cervical neck pain patients have a difficult time finding the right medical care. Their conditions if based on degenerative ligament disease is a mystery.
Patients suffer because cervical ligament laxity is a mystery
Identifying what is happening in the cervical spine, why ligaments are not even thought of
Physical therapists in Belgium wrote in the medical journal Manual Therapy, “Classifying nonspecific neck pain patients into subgroups based on clinical characteristics might lead to more comprehensive diagnoses and can guide effective management.” The subgroups were:
- Articular: pain and motion restriction in extension (moving head side to side back and forth)
- Myofascial: pain related to the muscles of the neck and shoulders
- Neural: related to nerve and muscle pain
- Central: related to possible narrowing of the spinal canal
- Sensorimotor control: Loss of physical function in the face and neck region.(2)
While these symptom classifications should be obvious signs of a patient in distress, the cause of the problems are not so obvious.
Cervical instability can be difficult to diagnose for the average practitioner. This is largely due to the low reliability and validity of radiographic studies including functional (motion) radiographs and many clinical examination measures that are still under debate and are rather questionable.
Unfortunately, there is often no correlation between the hypermobility or subluxation of the joint (excessive movement of the vertebrae), clinical signs or symptoms, or neurological signs or symptoms. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all which further broadens the already very wide spectrum of possible diagnoses for cervical instability.
In one study from the Department of Neuroradiology at the University of Munich, “healthy” volunteers who experienced no neck pain or headaches had MRI’s that showed so many things wrong that the investigators had to conclude that the MRI had “limited diagnostic value in patients with whiplash-associated disorders.” Why? because MRI cannot show the problems of the cervical ligaments. (3)
Treating cervical ligament instability and its symptoms
- Without addressing the cervical ligament laxity, CREEP, conditions that originate from joint instability can wreak havoc on a patient’s life in the form of chronic headaches, migraines, neck pain, TMJ syndrome, ear, and mouth pain, to name a few.
- There is also much overlap in the symptoms caused by cervical instability and CREEP, and especially upper cervical instability (C0-C2): cervicocranial syndrome, atlanto-axial instability, whiplash, post-concussion syndrome, and vertebrobasilar insufficiency.
- The ligaments that hold the cervical vertebrae in alignment can be damaged via a sudden trauma, such as whiplash or concussion as well. If you are suffering from whiplash please read this article next Whiplash and whiplash-associated disorders, please read this article if post-concussion syndrome is an issue for you.
Symptoms and conditions impacting the Vagus Nerve
- We have seen cases where autoimmune diseases can be traced to the impairment of the vagus nerve. When vagus nerve function is inhibited and the correct nerve impulses are not getting through because of the impairments caused by upper cervical instability, a person can get:
- Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, (immunological condition of repeated episodes of the symptoms of anaphylaxis (allergic reactions).
- Eustachian Tube Dysfunction, this subject is covered in Dr. Hauser’s video and article: When cervical spine instability causes ear pain, ear fullness, sound sensitivity and hearing problems. This problem can also be traced to cervical vertigo and cervicogenic dizziness, tinnitus,and Meniere’s disease.
- Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) We have help alleviate the problems of POTS by cervical spine stabilization with Prolotherapy.
Please see Strenuous Dynamic Vagus Nerve Testing at Caring Medical Florida. Caring Medical Florida initiated a strenuous dynamic vagus nerve testing protocol to help patients assess the current status of their vagus tone and optimize recovery of it.
In this video and explanatory notes, Ross Hauser, MD explains the various unresolved symptoms that you may be suffering from that can be traced to upper cervical spine instability. This is a good overview of our treatment program. Use this contact form with questions.
Treatment of Upper Cervical Instability with Prolotherapy
Ross Hauser, MD at Caring Medical Florida. Notes of this video are below with time marks.
- For about 30 years I have been successfully treating upper cervical instability with Prolotherapy. (This is an injection treatment that helps stabilize and normalize the natural curve of the cervical spine. This treatment is explained and demonstrated below.)
- Over the years we have developed a chart of the many symptoms and health challenges caused by upper cervical instability. We have had success in treating these problems.
This is the chart in the video. It shows these many and various disorders; from neck and facial pain, headaches, dizziness, drop attacks, swallowing and digestive problems, hearing problems, vision problems, nerve compression and pain, etc. These disorders will be discussed below.
(1:19 of the video) Upper cervical instability can also affect the cervical sympathetic ganglion which sits at C2. The sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system. It helps make adaptations to your current situation. For instance, if you are witness to a crime or an accident or something bad, your body shifts into “fight-or-flight mode.” Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate dramatically increase. The blood vessels shift blood away from the intestines into the muscles, enabling you to run or fight depending on the situation. This also happens automatically.
Tension on the spinal cord
(1:26 of video)
When a person has cervical instability, specifically upper cervical instability, there is a greater tension on the spinal cord. The spinal cord can pull on the brain stem. This pull or traction can cause all kinds of problems within the relay centers that are in the brainstem.
- For instance, the nausea center is in the brain stem, cervical instability may cause you to feel nauseated all the time.
- The brain stem is where blood pressure control and heart rate center is. Someone who has arrhythmias and nobody knows the cause it can be from cervical instability. Please see our article – Heart Rate Variability.
Loss of blood flow to the brain
(At 2:22 of the video)
- Vertebrobasilar insufficiency – Drop Attacks, Bow Hunter Syndrome: The vertebral artery runs in the transverse foramen of the cervical vertebrae. If the cervical vertebrae are moving too much you can get compression of the artery that supplies about 1/3 of the blood to the brain.
- The vertebral artery supplies the brainstem and the cerebellum so Vertebrobasilar insufficiency can cause drop attacks, dizziness, impairments of the cranial nerves, balance problems.
- Please see our article Using Transcranial Doppler & Extracranial Doppler Ultrasound Testing at the Hauser Neck Center. Transcranial doppler (TCD) ultrasound provides real-time measurements of the blood flow in the arteries that go to the brain.
Intracranial pressure (At 3:05 of the video)
- Upper cervical instability can also obstruct cerebral spinal fluid flow, increasing Intracranial pressure. There are a lot of people who constantly feel pressure in their head, if you’re one of those people you may have upper cervical instability.
- When Intracranial pressure is increased you can get changes in your vision, you can get double vision or you can get graying of the vision. You can even see an image and you look away and you still see that image. There are all kinds of vision problems that are from upper cervical instability.
- If you have vision issues and nobody can help identify the problem I suggest an examination for upper cervical instability.
You can’t clear your head (3:50 of the video)
When cerebral spinal fluid flow is disrupted, it’s almost it’s as if the brain becomes a toxic toilet. You need normal cerebral spinal fluid flow to be normal to flush all the toxins and all the waste products from all the activity of the brain out. If these is impeded flow you will suffer the problems of not being able to focus or remember. You feel like a brain fog has surrounded you. This can be caused by upper cervical instability.
When I treat people with upper cervical instability, one of the main things these patients report is that they just feel so much better. Their thinking is clearer, their energy goes up.
Trigeminal nerve and trigeminal neuralgia (4:45 of the video)
It is well known in neurology, that trigeminal neuralgia and even migraine headaches are because of irritation of the trigeminal nerve. It turns out that the cervical trigeminal nucleus in the spinal cord goes all the way down to C3 so upper cervical instability can affect this nucleus which can give you facial pain can give you trigeminal neuralgia can give you Cervical dystonia and spasmodic torticollis all kinds of cranial nerve symptoms.
If you have had any of these disorders, any of these symptoms, dizziness, vertigo, migraine headaches, balance problems, brain fog, autoimmune disease, allergy symptoms, you should consider upper cervical instability as the cause of your conditions. If so this can be easily documented by a digital motion x-ray (DMX) and treatment with Prolotherapy.
Treating and repairing cervical instability with Prolotherapy
The cervical ligaments are strong bands of tissues that attach one cervical vertebra to another. In this role, the cervical ligaments become the primary stabilizers of the neck. When they are damaged or weakened or simply loose they also became the primary DE-stabilizers of the neck and a primary cause of upper cervical instability. Your head begins to move in a destructive, degenerative manner on top of your neck. When this occurs you can develop the many symptoms discussed above.
Actual Prolotherapy treatment
Caring Medical has published dozens of papers on Prolotherapy injections as a treatment in difficult to treat musculoskeletal disorders. We are going to refer our 2014 study where we published a comprehensive review of the problems related to weakened damaged cervical neck ligaments.
Prolotherapy is referred to as a regenerative injection technique (RIT) because it is based on the premise that the regenerative/reparative healing process can rebuild and repair damaged soft tissue structures. It is a simple injection treatment that addresses very complex issues.
This video jumps to 1:05 where the actual treatment begins.
This patient is having C1-C2 areas treated. Ross Hauser, MD, is giving the injections.
- The patient was experiencing vertigo, tinnitus, severe neck pain, migraines, and other problems based around C1-C2 instability.
In 2015 our research team published our finding in our paper “The biology of prolotherapy and its application in clinical cervical spine instability and chronic neck pain: a retrospective study.” This peer-review research was published in the European Journal of Preventive Medicine.(1)
Here we wrote: “In an effort to facilitate the diagnosis and treatment of clinical cervical spine instability and chronic neck pain, we investigated the role of proliferative injection Prolotherapy in the reduction of pain and recovery of constitutional and neurological symptoms associated with increased intervertebral motion, structural deformity and irritation of nerve roots. . . 95 percent of patients reported that Prolotherapy met their expectations in regards to pain relief and functionality.”
Treating cervical ligaments – published research from Caring Medical
The capsular ligaments (the ligaments of the joint capsule) are the main stabilizing structures of the facet joints in the cervical spine and have been implicated as a major source of chronic neck pain. Such pain often reflects a state of instability in the cervical spine and is a symptom common to a number of conditions such as disc herniation, cervical spondylosis, whiplash injury, and whiplash-associated disorder, post-concussion syndrome, vertebrobasilar insufficiency, and Barré-Liéou syndrome.
When the capsular ligaments are injured, they become elongated and exhibit laxity, which causes excessive movement of the cervical vertebrae.
- In the upper cervical spine (C0-C2), this can cause symptoms such as nerve irritation and vertebrobasilar insufficiency with associated vertigo, tinnitus, dizziness, facial pain, arm pain, and migraine headaches.
- In the lower cervical spine (C3-C7), this can cause muscle spasms, crepitation, and/or paresthesia in addition to chronic neck pain.
- In either case, the presence of excessive motion between two adjacent cervical vertebrae and these associated symptoms is described as cervical instability.
Therefore, we propose that in many cases of chronic neck pain, the cause may be underlying joint instability due to capsular ligament laxity. Furthermore, we contend that the use of comprehensive Prolotherapy appears to be an effective treatment for chronic neck pain and cervical instability, especially when due to ligament laxity. The technique is safe and relatively non-invasive as well as efficacious in relieving chronic neck pain and its associated symptoms.
Back to our 2014 research headed by Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, PA-C, published in The Open Orthopaedics Journal. Here we outline that the problems of the cervical neck are not always problems of degenerative disc disease but problems of degenerative ligament disease. This explains why traditional treatments focused on the discs will not be successful in the long-term.
The use of conventional modalities for chronic neck pain remains debatable, primarily because most treatments have had limited success. We conducted a review of the literature published up to December 2013 on the diagnostic and treatment modalities of disorders related to chronic neck pain and concluded that, despite providing temporary relief of symptoms, these treatments do not address the specific problems of healing and are not likely to offer long-term cures.
The objectives of this study are to provide an overview of chronic neck pain as it relates to cervical instability, to describe the anatomical features of the cervical spine and the impact of capsular ligament laxity, to discuss the disorders causing chronic neck pain and their current treatments, and lastly, to present Prolotherapy as a viable treatment option that heals injured ligaments, restores stability to the spine, and resolves chronic neck pain.
There are a number of treatment modalities for the management of chronic neck pain and cervical instability, including injection therapy, nerve blocks, mobilization, manipulation, alternative medicine, behavioral therapy, fusion, and pharmacologic agents such as NSAIDs and opiates. However, these treatments do not address stabilizing the cervical spine or healing ligament injuries, and thus, do not offer long-term curative options. In fact, cortisone injections are known to inhibit, rather than promote healing.
Research on 21 patients with cervical instability and chronic neck pain
In our research published in the European Journal of Preventive Medicine we presented the following findings:
- Ninety-five percent of patients reported that Prolotherapy met their expectations in regards to pain relief and functionality. Significant reductions in pain at rest, during normal activity, and during exercise were reported.
- Eighty-six percent of patients reported overall sustained improvement, while 33 percent reported complete functional recovery.
- Thirty-one percent of patients reported complete relief of all recorded symptoms. No adverse events were reported.
We concluded that statistically significant reductions in pain and functionality, indicating the safety and viability of Prolotherapy for cervical spine instability.(5)
Please see related articles:
- Ross Hauser, MD. Reviews of Diagnostic Imaging Technology for Cervical Spine Instability the diagnosis of cervical spine instability, the ability to get to the root cause of the patient’s problems is still perplexing to many health care providers.
- Dynamic Structural Medicine Ross Hauser MD Review of Treatments for Cervical Spine Instability. Without normal spinal alignment and movement, neurologic structures that travel through the neck are at risk. Once alignment, curve, or stability are compromised, the body starts making compensatory changes down the spinal kinetic chain and symptoms develop.
Cervical Curve Correction
Most patients who are seen here at the Hauser Neck Center are coming because they have cervical dysstructure, a breakdown of the cervical curve. While Prolotherapy is part of the treatment course for those found to have cervical spine instability, almost everyone needs to work on their cervical curve while at home. Thus, most patients are recommended to have some sessions of Curve Correction with our team to help them re-establish a healthy, lordotic curve. Our team develops an individualized plan of exercises, workstation recommendations, orthotic devices, and/or pillow and sleep position recommendations to help encourage the best cervical curve during all hours of your day. These exercises become part of a patient’s homework between Prolotherapy treatments. Together, it can produce profound improvements in the structural integrity of the neck and symptom relief!
Summary and contact us. Can we help you? How do I know if I’m a good candidate?
We hope you found this article informative and it helped answer many of the questions you may have surrounding cervical spine instability. Just like you, we want to make sure you are a good fit for our clinic prior to accepting your case. While our mission is to help as many people with chronic pain as we can, sadly, we cannot accept all cases. We have a multi-step process so our team can really get to know you and your case to ensure that it sounds like you are a good fit for the unique testing and treatments that we offer here.
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