Answers to Questions about Chiropractic:
Will Extension-Traction Normalize
the Curve of My Cervical Spine?

Samuel Homola, D.C.

Question

Once or twice a year for the last decade, I have ended up with a very stiff and sore neck, probably from tension and poor posture while working at a computer with my head is hunched forward. I have often sought chiropractic treatment and found a small number of sessions of manipulation to be beneficial. When I try to improve the stiff neck just through ice, gentle stretching, and pain killers, the pain has often seemed to last longer.

Because I would like to prevent or reduce future incidents, I have started daily gentle stretching of my back and neck (yoga-like). I also recently saw a chiropractor who suggested that I add daily head-backward stretching, such as over the back of a chair (using traction with a light weight to facilitate stretching), to improve my posture or "normalize" the curve of my spine (as indicated by an x-ray). I have been doing the backward stretching for six months (five minutes/day) and feel that my posture is better. I have noticed that there is no longer a "bump" in my spine at shoulder level. The chiropractor also wants me to continue regular manipulation to improve/maintain the curvature of my spine.

Is this regular backward stretching/traction dangerous (e.g., constriction of blood vessels)?

Is this backward stretching likely to help my posture and correct a "forward-head syndrome" caused by an exaggerated neck curve?

Are monthly neck manipulations of any value as a preventive measure?

Answer

I do not recommend "backward stretching/traction" that pulls the head back, forcing extension of the cervical spine. This procedure might have an adverse effect on the vertebral arteries, as in the case of strokes that have occurred in beauty shops while the neck is extended over the edge of a wash basin. If you carry your head forward because of a hunched posture and an exaggerated neck curve, it seems unlikely that extension-traction, which further exaggerates the cervical curve, would improve neck posture.

The "bump" in your spine at shoulder level, at the bottom of your neck, is a normal "vertebra prominens" formed by the spinous process of the 7th cervical vertebra. This bump will be more evident when posture is poor or after weight loss.

I do not recommend neck manipulation as a "preventive maintenance" measure in an attempt to alter the cervical curve. Such treatment places a strain on neck and vertebral arteries and is risky for some people. A simple exercise program to strengthen neck and back muscles and improve posture should be adequate to maintain a neck curve that is normal for you.

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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 page was posted on August 27, 2002.