Depending on who you ask, you could get a multitude of answers.
What makes you feel annoyed or frustrated? You develop these feelings when your brain is overloaded with signals of discomfort or stress. These signals can be physical pain felt by your senses. Lights can be too bright. Sounds can be too loud. Odors can be nauseating. Foods can be too spicy. The sense of touch affects your whole body – the skin, the lining of our digestive tracts and respiratory tract, and coverings of organs. It includes pressure, pain, tickle, hot, cold, stretch, pull, numbness, and tingling. We are aware of some of these signals, but much goes unnoticed in the background. Chemical changes need to be sensed and then acted upon by our organs and glands. Our organs are also sensitive to pressure changes, like fullness, pressure on valves, even gravity. Over 80% of our signals going up to the brain have to do with proprioception. Proprioceptive messages have to do with movement and joint position in space, balance, coordination, fluidity in motion, and body awareness.
Very few of these messages will reach our conscious brain. In the upper neck, we have the medulla oblongata of the brainstem. The nerves in this area are meant to filter the information coming to the brain. Incorrect messages are stopped here, and duplicate messages are condensed to make way for important messages, like pain or danger.
In addition to messages from our physical body, the brain also processes signals related to our thoughts and feelings. Even though these signals don’t originate in the body, they also must go through the same gating system of the medulla oblongata before reaching the conscious brain. Here, we become aware of these thoughts and feelings and can choose to keep or ignore them.
With all these varied signals having to go through the same gates to reach our conscious brain, is it any wonder why if you’re very hungry, this feeling can seemingly overtake your whole brain and you can’t think about anything else except food? Your whole personality can change too, hence the term “hangry”. Similarly, if you’re feeling prickly pain all over from itchy clothes, it’s difficult to concentrate on what other people are saying. When the distress is severe, like you’re in shock, grief, or beyond exhausted, you may temporarily lose touch with reality. You can be in a daze, going through the motions, but not consciously feeling or thinking anything at that time.
What determines when something becomes “too much”? Does the size of the mosquito bite determine its itchiness? Why do strawberries smell delicious to some people and revolting to others? How can the same comment to be perceived as complimentary to one person, but insulting to another? Just like running a 5 km race is a breeze to some and an impossibility to others, it’s not so much about the act itself, but more about the person’s perception of it. Is it really that some people are more sensitive than others? Yes and no. Some people are typically easier to irritate than others, but even a calm person can be more irritable depending on the situation (think about the cranky toddler who didn’t nap long enough, or some women before their menstrual period).
When signals go up to the brain, they often pass through the medulla oblongata twice. The first time, signals that pass will go on to the limbic system, our primitive brain, which we call the emotional brain. Here we have our instinctive responses or reflexes, such as pulling your hand away from a burning stove or avoiding food when you feel sick to the stomach. This is the area that’s active at birth, and develops most significantly during the first 6 years of life. It’s where you associate people, environments, activities and objects with safety, attachments and needs being met versus threats to safety, attachments and needs being met. Attachments in this context means people you bond with and turn to for support, guidance and love. It is here that an early experience with a dog may determine whether that person will fear dogs or see them as friends for perhaps the rest of their lives. Because the thinking brain (cortex) is highly immature, the associations the young child makes is fully based on emotions, not reason.
From the limbic system, signals go back to the medulla oblongata. From here, most signals go straight to action (or non-action when all is okay) and some also send a signal to the conscious brain. At this point in time, the conscious brain can decide if the default action is the best one to take, or if you should consider other possibilities first. Very young children cannot do this. If they want a ball, they go after it, even if it means running into a busy street. When you’re tired, stressed or scared, you will once again have difficulty thinking through a problem and respond reflexively rather than with logic or reason. Thus, if your early experiences are full of fear, shame, negativity and disappointment, then these are your default conclusions. You can even convince yourself that you attract all this negativity because it seems to be all around you.
Generalized irritability can also be the result of overload at the level of the medulla oblongata. When too many signals marked “urgent”, “danger”, or “pain” arrive at the same time, it can have difficulty filtering the information. Then, when too many of these signals reach the limbic system or if your limbic system associates all these signals with danger or pain, you will get exaggerated feelings of pain, fear or overwhelm. Your conscious brain subsequently gets a distorted view of reality.
What can cause an overload of distressing signals to reach your brainstem? Basically… any widespread severe or unrelenting trauma or stress. These traumas or stresses can be physical, like falling head over heels down the stairs, emotional like being bullied, or chemical, like a bad hangover. Chronic stresses can include years of hunching over a computer, eating a poor diet or prolonged sleep deprivation. The stronger the signal and the more frequently it’s repeated, then the nerves become “primed” to deliver that message more quickly. The nerve then becomes an express superhighway for that distress.
Another source of excessive negative signals is physical or chemical irritation to the nerves themselves. This can be due to pressure on the nerves, pinching, pulling or damage to the protective covering (myelin). Nerves are exceedingly sensitive as they pass through bony openings as the exit from the spine to go elsewhere in the body. It is for this reason that proper alignment of the spine plays a big role in overall health. Chemically, if the fluid around the nerves, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), is not flowing well, then used neurotransmitters (chemicals for nerve impulse transmission) don’t leave the transmission site (synapses) and may cause the same nerve to re-fire, even repeatedly. Thus, one negative event can seem like 20, and the brain wouldn’t know the difference. Medications and other chemicals that cross the blood-brain barrier can also damage nerves and affect their sensitivity and nerve impulse conduction. CSF flow is regulated by the Vagus Nerve (in the upper neck) and rhythmic movements of the pelvis. Ever wonder why someone who can’t think clearly is described as not having his “head on straight”, or needs to walk around and “clear his mind”?
The brainstem itself can be under physical or chemical strain. Cranio-cervical syndrome describes in detail the impact of injury at the junction of the base of the skull (occipital bone) to the upper neck (C1 and C2 vertebrae), overlying the brainstem itself. Whiplash injuries, birth trauma, concussions and injuries to the head or neck put strain on this area and can create measurable misalignments to the bony structures. Upper cervical chiropractors, specially trained in analyzing and correcting misalignments of the cranio-cervical junction, have been honing their techniques in this region for over 70 years. With their detailed x-ray analysis, upper cervical chiropractors can even measure to what degree your head’s “not on right”.
The body has in place a way of dampening negative signals. This also occurs in the limbic system. Positive (joyful, secure, relaxing, calm and loving) signals to the limbic system triggers a release of endorphins, which then lessens the magnitude of stress. Such is the case when you are elated or in love, and it seems even gravity doesn’t affect you. When you are in this state of mind, challenges don’t seem unsurmountable and pains more bearable. You feel more resilient to stresses in life. As mentioned earlier, 80% of messages to the brain should have to do with proprioception. If your joints are at ease and all is working fine, the majority of messages to the brain are reassuring and you will get a lovely dose of endorphins. Wouldn’t you feel calm if 80% of your thoughts were, “I’m okay. Everything’s going as it should.”
Even though you have 306 bones in the body and only 24 of them are in your spine, movements of the spinal bones (vertebrae) make up 50% of the proprioceptive input to the brain. The upper cervical complex is especially important and is responsible for 50% of your spine’s proprioceptive input to the brain. Therefore, isolated exercises of your extremities, like biceps curls or stationary bike, will produce much less endorphins than full-body exercises, like swimming or dancing. To get the full benefits, you’ll want every joint moving properly, especially in the spine, and this is how chiropractic care is so beneficial on a regular basis… not only when you feel pain.
Who knew that something “getting on your nerves” can be a literal reality? Chiropractors. And pediatric chiropractors, especially, see how “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree”. Reducing nerve distress and misalignments in the spine and upper cervical region early on can create a positive, resilient mindset that will benefit your children the rest of their lives. With kids, chiropractic for pain relief is often the least of a parent’s concerns. Nerve distress and negative mindset can create larger problems such as behavioural issues, trouble with cognitive function and learning, increased susceptibility to illnesses, poor coordination, emotional issues, and a harder time dealing with challenges of growing up and everyday life. These problems can and do persist into adulthood if steps aren’t taken early on. It takes time and commitment to re-set nerve and brain sensitivities and patterns. If this is the journey you wish to take, (we care for kids and adults), please start by downloading our Baseline Health Questionnaire and we can begin the conversation.