Answers to Questions about Chiropractic:
Will My Atlas Misalignment
affect My Nervous System?

Samuel Homola, D.C.

Question

I have been going to a chiropractor for about four months. I originally went to resolve lower back pain after I had knee surgery. The doctor took x-rays and found that my atlas was a few degrees off. The first time he adjusted my atlas, I was on my side with my head on a stand of some sort while he put syringe-looking contraption up to an area below my left ear and released it a few times.

A few days later, he found, through a leg check, that I had lost my adjustment. He used the syringe device again, but this time without the stand. After that, he popped my neck, providing great relief. My neck was stiff for a few days, and shortly after that I began to hear popping noises (much like Rice Crispies in milk) coming from behind my left earlobe. If I applied pressure there, it would provide momentary relief but would also cause popping noises.

Over the remaining weeks, the chiropractor has repeated the same procedure, increasing the force and number of "releases" from the syringe contraption placed behind my left ear. After a couple of days, he says my atlas is out of alignment again.

I know how vital the atlas is to my nervous system, but I fear that repeated adjustments may be causing damage. Being only 21 years old and in otherwise good health, I am afraid of what problems might come later from my atlas misalignment or from the adjustments. My pain consists of chronic but tolerable aching in this area.

I also have a slight scoliosis. When standing before a mirror, my hips do not appear to be level. My ankles pop, and I have rather high arches in my feet. My father has one leg shorter than the other. I have TMJ [temporomandibular joint pain] from surgery done to extend my lower jaw after itâs growth plate was damaged in a bathtub fall at the age of five.

I feel as if I am falling apart! Please help.

Answer

There is no logical reason to believe that an "atlas misalignment" will cause lower back pain. Chiropractors who x-ray your neck when you have back pain cannot be relied upon to provide correct diagnoses or appropriate treatment.

The "syringe-looking contraption" (a spring-loaded mallet) for adjusting the spine has no real value. Using a "leg check" to determine the need for such an adjustment is just as dubious. It is not uncommon for one leg to be longer than the other and is not significant unless the difference is greater than 2 cm (about three-quarters of an inch).

Donât worry about the position of your atlas and its effect on your nervous system. It would take a dislocation, a severe injury, or a congenital deformity for the atlas to encroach upon your brainstem or your spinal cord. If you can rotate your head and neck freely, you do not have an atlas problem that can be corrected with manipulation.

The noise you hear behind your left ear when your turn your head could be from the movement of muscle tendons that have been disturbed by thumping on the left side of your atlas with the instrument you described. Discontinue the neck treatment and see if the noise disappears. If the noise persists, see an orthopedist.

Donât worry about your atlas, your slight scoliosis, and your alleged leg deficiency. None of these will affect your health now or in the future.

If the aching on the left side of your neck continues, ask a dentist or an oral surgeon whether the jaw surgery you had has affected the muscles and joints in your neck and jaw area or might be associated with your TMJ problem.

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Dr. Homola is a second-generation chiropractor who has dedicated himself to defining the proper limits on chiropractic and to educating consumers and professionals about the field. His 1963 book Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism supported the appropriate use of spinal manipulation but renounced chiropractic dogma. His 1999 book Inside Chiropractic: A Patient's Guide provides an incisive look at chiropractic's history, benefits, and shortcomings. Now retired after 43 years of practice, he lives in Panama City, Florida.

This article was posted on September 21, 2002.