Nausea and gastroparesis caused by cervical spine instability

Ross Hauser, MD

Nausea and gastroparesis caused by cervical spine instability

When we see patients with problems of cervical spine instability, they usually present with many symptoms, not just one. These symptoms are not confined to neck pain, arm numbness, headaches, or the traditional symptoms of cervical spine instability or cervical radiculopathy, some of these symptoms these people describe can seem remote or unrelated to their neck problems, but they are not.  One of these symptoms patients may discuss with us is the constant presence of nausea and/or gastroparesis, a problem with their stomach’s ability to empty itself of food. While many readers may not be familiar with the term gastroparesis, they are familiar with the symptoms, heartburn, vomiting, sensation of being bloated, constant full stomach, and of course nausea.

In this article, we want to stress that nausea and digestive problems can be caused by many problems.

  • Many patients we see have nausea caused by cervical vertigo and cervicogenic dizziness, but these people may also have underlying problems that we will describe below with  digestive problems causing nausea, it may not only be their vertigo.
  • Many patients we see have a problem with compression of the brain stem. In our article upper cervical instability and compression of the brainstem, we point out that the nausea center is right in the lower part of the brainstem.  This causes many people to feel nauseated all the time and nobody can tell what’s causing it. These people have a history of seeing gastroenterologists and various gastrointestinal doctors and they would have no idea that the cause of this chronic nausea can be upper cervical instability.
  • In some patients we see, we can trace their digestive problems to compression of the vagus nerve, which will be discussed below. In our article Cervical spine instability as a cause of your digestive disorders, we present the case of a particular patient, who over the course of years developed many symptoms that lead her to many specialists including, gastroenterologists, ENTs, neurologists, pain doctors, etc. She has had the gradual onset of ringing in the ears, tinnitusmigraines, fainting spells, loss of balance, speech issues, voice issues and interesting to me is the GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease and other digestive problems.

Nausea can be difficult to pinpoint

As stated above, nausea can be caused by many problems. Nausea is sometimes a problem buried so deep in the patient’s medical issues that a great deal of work maybe required to find NOT THE SOURCE of nausea, but THE SOURCES of their nausea.

Listen to what we have heard from patients, these are possible sources of nausea. Possibly your causes of nausea.

  • Nausea from anti-inflammatory medications. A patient will tell us about their long history of anti-inflammatory medication usage and their need for other medicines to counteract the gastrointerstinal distress these anti-inflammatories cause.
  • Autonomic Dysautonomia. The patient is seeing us because they have been diagnosed  with problems of the autonomic nervous system which include nausea and vomiting.
  • They have, among other problems, a diagnosis of Cricopharyngeal Dysfunction where they have issues with their esophagus being able to take in food and this causes acid reflux and nausea.
  • The have been diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and this has lead to dizziness and the main culprit of their nausea. Which may or may not be true.
  • The patient has been diagnosed with complications related to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
  • The patient has been diagnosed with POTS (Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) and their nausea may be coming from their fainting attacks and irregular heart beat.
  • The patient has been diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome which is causing them problems of too much inflammation which is leading to symptoms of nausea and diarrhea.

This is just a small sampling of the problems our patients come to us for. The cause of nausea can be complicated.

Nausea and gastroparesis caused by cervical spine instability

In this video Ross Hauser, MD describes the problems and symptoms of nausea and gastroparesis caused by cervical spine instability.

Summary transcriptions and explanatory notes:

  • We are seeing many nauseated patients.
  • A lot of these patients have seen gastroenterologists, they have had endoscopy performed and the result have revealed nothing.
  • Some of these patients will ultimately get a a diagnosis of gastroparesis which simply means that their stomach is not working.

At 0:54 of this video Dr. Hauser refers to Vagus nerve compression and how this could cause gastroparesis.

Injury to the vagus nerve, the cause of nausea?

We have two vagus nerves. One on the left side of the neck and the one on the right side of the neck. Among the many functions of the vagus nerve is that it provides 75% of the total input for the parasympathetic nervous system, aptly called the rest and digest system. The vagus nerve is responsible for managing our intestinal activity as well as managing the sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.

  • Injury, compression or damage to the vagus nerve is believed to be a main culprit in the diagnosis of gastroparesis.
  • The vagus nerve supplies input to the stomach that helps manage your stomach muscles. If this input is compromised, in other words the vagus nerve is sending bad or confused messages to your stomach, your stomach muscles may not contract normally, your stomach may not push food out into your small intestines.
  • These confused messages causes a dysfunction in normal stomach acid secretion This means undigested food remains in your stomach longer than it should. This leads to the common symptoms of bloating, fullness, nausea, and finally when your stomach has had enough, the initiation of the vomiting response.
  • Another problem is a pyloric valve that stays closed. This can lead to a problem of pyloric stenosis (thickening or blockage). The pyloric valve or pylorus is the valve that separates the stomach from the small intestine. Nerve inputs from the vagus nerve opens and closes this valve when it is time for the stomach to release the broken down food into the small intestine.
      • Research note: There have been a considerable number of animal (rat) studies suggesting that stimulation of the vagus nerve can lead to an emptying of the stomach. One study (1) suggests vagus nerve stimulation electroceutical therapy for remedying gastric and emptying  disorders that are poorly managed by pharmacological treatments and/or dietary changes. We use many tools in our office to assess problems of vagus nerve compression and how to treat these problems to restore normal function without the need of a vagus nerve simulator implant.

In some cases, our patients are recommended to use a vagus nerve stimulator between our Prolotherapy treatments. Prolotherapy treatments which are our main treatments are explained below in the research.

 Vagus nerve stimulators can stimulate the nucleus tractus solitarius. When food touches your mouth, your body begins sending chemical and mechanical messages to stimulate the gastrointestinal tract to prepare the digestive system for the food intake. The vagal nerve conveys primary afferent information from the intestinal mucosa to the brain stem. Activation of vagal afferent fibers results in inhibition of food intake (Sends signals to tell you to stop overeating), gastric emptying, and stimulation of pancreatic secretion.

Vagus nerve stimulators can stimulate the nucleus tractus solitarius. When food touches your mouth, your body begins sending chemical and mechanical messages to stimulate the gastrointestinal tract to prepare the digestive system for the food intake. The vagal nerve conveys primary afferent information from the intestinal mucosa to the brain stem. Activation of vagal afferent fibers results in inhibition of food intake (Sends signals to tell you to stop overeating), gastric emptying, and stimulation of pancreatic secretion.

Vagus nerve stimulators can stimulate the nucleus tractus solitarius. What does this mean?

When food touches your mouth, your body begins sending chemical and mechanical messages to stimulate the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to prepare the digestive system for the food intake. A good explanation of what happens next and the vagus nerve involvement is explained in this paper published in the journal  Current medicinal chemistry.(2)

  • The vagal nerve conveys primary afferent information from the intestinal mucosa to the brain stem. Activation of vagal afferent fibers results in inhibition of food intake (Sends signals to tell you to stop overeating), gastric emptying, and stimulation of pancreatic secretion. Afferents nerves terminating near to the mucosa are in a position to monitor the composition of the luminal (large intestine, small intestine,) contents.

So this is what is going on with the vagus nerve:

  • Monitors food intake to avoid overeating or gorging
  • Helps move food down the esophagus, into the stomach, moves food out of the stomach and into the small intestines and ultimately the large intestines.

So where does the nucleus tractus solitarius come into play?

  • The nucleus tractus solitarius are the first neurons to understand that eating is occurring and the first to help process digestion related vagal afferent signals. Simply, addressing vagus nerve impairment addresses digestive problems from the moment food touches your mouth.

The vagus nerve and the digestive tract

  • A decrease in vagus nerve input impacts the path of food from the esophagus, to the stomach, through the digestive tract to the duodenum, the part of the small intestine that immediately connects to the stomach the stomach.
The vagus nerve supplies input to the stomach that helps manage your stomach muscles. If this input is compromised, in other words the vagus nerve is sending bad or confused messages to your stomach, your stomach may not push food out into your small intestines. This means food remains in your stomach longer than it should. This leads to the common symptoms of bloating, fullness, nausea, and finally when your stomach has had enough, the initiation of the vomiting response. In this illustration, dysfunction of the pyloric sphincter between the stomach and the small intestines is is isolated as a problem of vagus nerve compression or injury.

The vagus nerve supplies input to the stomach that helps manage your stomach muscles. If this input is compromised, in other words the vagus nerve is sending bad or confused messages to your stomach, your stomach may not push food out into your small intestines. This means food remains in your stomach longer than it should. This leads to the common symptoms of bloating, fullness, nausea, and finally when your stomach has had enough, the initiation of the vomiting response. In this illustration, dysfunction of the pyloric sphincter between the stomach and the small intestines is is isolated as a problem of vagus nerve compression or injury.

Cervical vagopathy – poor vagus function

Dr. Hauser describes the term cervical vagopathy. This relates to poor vagus function and it is seen as a precursor to illness and makes recovery from diseases difficult. Low vagus nerve function has four main manifestions on the human body that increase the risk for almost all human diseases: chronic inflammation, elevated oxidative stress, sympathetic dominance (a condition of feeling overwhelmed by burden which leads to stress and is fed by the adrenaline (fight-flight) action system, and coagulopathy (problems with blood clotting) which can lead to joint inflammation, joint swelling and joint pain. Next the treatment of this problem with Prolotherapy.

Treatment Prolotherapy

  • To get the brainstem and all the nerves working correctly one has to address and tighten the cervical ligaments in the back of the neck as well as get the cervical curve back to its normal lordotic configuration. The way we do this at Caring Medical is with Prolotherapy treatments.

Starting at 1:45 of the video

  • A brief mention of Digital Motion X-ray (DMX) to help diagnose cervical spine instability. DMX imaging is explained further below.
  • Dr. Hauser suggests that understanding nausea through cervical spine instability that is demonstrated on DMX image, you can focus  on treatments that will resolve these problems. Resolve the instability, you can resolve the symptom of nausea.

Upper cervical instability affects the medulla and the area postrema

  • Another way that cervical instability causes nausea that the upper cervical instability affects the medulla.

The medulla, short for medulla oblongata, is part of the brainstem. The signals of the vagus nerves, in fact almost of the nerves of the body have to travel through the medulla through various nerve pathways or tracts.

  • Important in this discussion is that the medulla is the center for nausea and nausea control via the area postrema. Here is the connection: The area postrema, is the area of the medulla that makes you vomit when you have toxins in your stomach or excessive nausea. This area connects to the nucleus tractus solitarii,  and other autonomic control centers in the brainstem. Everything is connected and interacts. Any one of these processes disturbed by cervical spine instability putting pressure on the vagus nerve or the brainstem or other related structures will cause the problems of nausea and gastroparesis.
  • Anything that impacts the medulla or the brainstem, that area above the cervical spinal cord that can give you nausea.

Addressing cervical spine instability with Prolotherapy injections:

We have published dozens of papers on Prolotherapy injections as a treatment in difficult to treat musculoskeletal disorders. Prolotherapy is an injection technique utilizing simple sugar or dextrose. We are going to refer to two of these studies as they relate to cervical instability and a myriad of related symptoms including problems of digestion and a sense of chronic nausea in relation to the brainstem. It should be pointed out that we suggest in our research that “Additional randomized clinical trials and more research into its (Prolotherapy) use will be needed to verify its potential to reverse ligament laxity and correct the attendant cervical instability.” Our research documents our experience with our patients.

In 2014, we published a comprehensive review of the problems related to weakened damaged cervical neck ligaments in The Open Orthopaedics Journal.(3) We are honored that this research has been used in at least 6 other medical research papers by different authors exploring our treatments and findings and cited, according to Google Scholar, in more than 40 articles.

What we demonstrated in this study is that the cervical neck ligaments are the main stabilizing structures of the cervical facet joints in the cervical spine and have been implicated as a major source of chronic neck pain. Chronic neck pain often reflects a state of instability in the cervical spine and is a symptom common to a number of conditions, including disc herniation, cervical spondylosis, whiplash injury and whiplash associated disorderpost-concussion syndrome, vertebrobasilar insufficiency, and Barré-Liéou syndrome. The obvious should be pointed out, many people who have been diagnosed with these problems also suffer from a variety of digestive problems and swallowing difficulties.

Cervical Spine Stability and Restoring Lordosis

The cervical spine has a natural curve. It acts as a spring or shock absorber for the head. When this curve is gone because of injury, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome, or degenerative cervical disc disease, not only are the arteries and nerves between the vertebrae not protected from the impact of walking or running or jumping or a bumpy car ride, they are subjected to compression from cervical spine instability caused by cervical ligaments that have also been damaged by injury or wear and tear and no longer hold the neck in correct alignment.

The cervical spine has a natural curve. It acts as a spring or shock absorber for the head. When this curve is gone, injury, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome, or degenerative cervical disc disease

The cervical spine has a natural curve. It acts as a spring or shock absorber for the head. When this curve is gone, injury, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome, or degenerative cervical disc disease

Digital motion X-Ray C1 – C2

The digital motion x-ray is explained and demonstrated below. This is one of our tools in demonstrating cervical instability in real-time and motion.

  • Digital Motion X-ray is a great tool to show instability at the C1-C2 Facet Joints
  • The amount of misalignment or “overhang” between the C1-C2 demonstrates the degree of instability in the upper cervical spine.
  • This is treated with Prolotherapy injections (explained below) to the posterior ligaments that can cause instability.
  • At 0:40 of this video, a repeat DMX is shown to demonstrate correction of this problem.

The challenges of cervical instability are many. Fixing cervical neck instability is not something can be treated simply or easily, it takes a comprehensive non-surgical program to get the patient’s instability stabilized and the symptoms abated. We believe that if you have been going from clinician to clinician, practitioner to practitioner, doctor to doctor, there is a good likelihood that you have problems of cervical neck instability coming from weakness and damage to the cervical ligaments. Our treatments of Comprehensive dextrose Prolotherapy and in some cases Platelet Rich Plasma Prolotherapy can be an answer.

If this article has helped you understand the problems of nausea and gastroparesis and you would like to explore Prolotherapy as a possible remedy, ask for help and information from our specialists

Treating and repairing cervical instability with Prolotherapy: research papers

References

1 Lu KH, Cao J, Oleson S, Ward MP, Phillips RJ, Powley TL, Liu Z. Vagus nerve stimulation promotes gastric emptying by increasing pyloric opening measured with magnetic resonance imaging. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2018 Oct;30(10):e13380. doi: 10.1111/nmo.13380. Epub 2018 May 24. PMID: 29797377; PMCID: PMC6160317. [Google Scholar]
2 Li Y. Sensory signal transduction in the vagal primary afferent neurons. Current medicinal chemistry. 2007 Oct 1;14(24):2554-63. [Google Scholar]
3 Steilen D, Hauser R, Woldin B, Sawyer S. Chronic neck pain: making the connection between capsular ligament laxity and cervical instability. The open orthopaedics journal. 2014;8:326. [Google Scholar]

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