Atlas misalignment as a possible cause for headaches and migraines
There are many different reasons and root causes for headaches and migraines. Gut health and food intolerances, hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle, psychosocial factors, such as the inner attitude, stress response, as well as energetic factors. It wasn’t until very recently that I learned about the role that the cervical spine – or more accurately, the first vertebra, the atlas – can play.
The atlas is the first vertebra in the spine, and together with the axis, it connects the skull and the spine.
Could my headaches and migraines be related to a misalignment of the atlas?
Signs of problems with the neck or the atlas:
Pressing certain points in your neck, the temples, and on the forehead helps to relieve the pain a little bit
Tensions and/or cracking noises in the jaw joint
Tinnitus or fluttering noises in the ear
Dizziness and vertigo
Muscle tensions in the neck along your spine down to the scapulae (shoulder blades) – There are muscular structures (e.g. the trapezius muscle) from the shoulder blade all the way up to the neck and the vertebrae!
Working overhead or extending the arms upwards – for example in the yoga pose downward facing dog triggers headaches or migraines
Muscle tensions in the lumbar spine region (lower back) – e.g. pain in the sacrum and blocks in the sacroiliac joint (SIJ)
Problems in the hip region and joints as well as different leg lengths
What are the reasons for a misalignment of the atlas?
A misalignment of the atlas (C1), the uppermost cervical vertebra can occur due to multiple reasons.
Atlas deformity since birth
Accidents like falls and whiplash injuries. A whiplash injury is an abrupt and forceful back-and-forth movement of the neck – like cracking a whip. This most commonly occurs in rear-end collisions, but also in other accidents like bike accidents.
The most common cause though is a wrong posture over a prolonged period, like sitting slouched over the desk or the phone.
All of the above cause the force distribution in the neck to be out of whack. As a result, the tensions and pulling on surrounding muscles and ligaments are responsible for the vertebra or vertebrae to be worked out of their natural alignment.
The most common causes for an atlas misalignment are an accident or a wrong posture over a prolonged period - such as sitting slouched over the desk or the phone.
The resulting pain is not because of the atlas that is in the wrong position, but because of all the muscles and facia causing too much tension. To treat this condition, it makes no sense to push and pull on the atlas. You rather want to relax the muscles that then allow the vertebra to slip back into its natural alignment. You also want to make sure that your muscles reach their natural right function, range of motion, flexibility, and endurance.
To treat this condition, it makes no sense to push and pull on the atlas. You rather want to relax the muscles that then allow the vertebra to slip back into its natural alignment.
What can I do to treat a misaligned atlas?
You want to realign the atlas, so it is back in its natural position. An atlas correction can be indirectly carried out by an experienced osteopath and additionally some exercises you can do at home.
An osteopath or manual therapist will do myofascial therapy and trigger point therapy. Here, certain pain points are pressed, which sends a message to the brain to relax, and this causes the tension in the muscles and fasciae to normalize.
The result of the relaxation is that vertebral bodies are no longer pressed together as strongly by the surrounding structures – the pain decreases.
Through working with an osteopath and doing exercises the tension in the muscles and fasciae normalize. This will allow the atlas to slip back into its right position.
Also, when the narrow spaces where the nerves pass through are less compressed, you get a better blood flow in the nerve.
Additionally, there are some exercises that you can do on your own to loosen up the surrounding ligaments and muscles. This also shoots signals to the brain that then signals the muscles to loosen up. As a result, this will allow the atlas to slip back into its right position.
Here are some great exercises you can do at home. They mostly address a muscular structure that is also known as the migraine chord, because most migraines with a musculoskeletal origin start there. This area is like a lasagne of multiple muscular layers, including the splenius cervicis, the levator scapulae, and the suboccipital muscles.
The exercises mostly address a muscular structure that is also known as the migraine chord, because most migraines with a musculoskeletal origin start there.
How to prevent the atlas to slip into misalignment again?
Through continuous and progressive exercises and relaxation of the surrounding muscles, fasciae, and tissues.
Be aware of your posture, especially when working on a computer during the day. During the night, make sure you have a good sleeping position, preferably on your back with a good pillow that supports your neck.
Take Vitamin B 12 supplements. It is beneficial for the proper functionality of your neck muscles.
ReferencesAtlas Corction: Cause, Treatment, & Exercises | Liebscher & Bracht
Atlas Correction: Cause, Treatment, & Exercises | Liebscher & Bracht [accessed 2020-12-04]
Interview Anne Goldhammer-Michel with Rene Gräber (German) [accessed 2020-12-03]