IBD and Vagal Nerve Issues: the Gut/Neck Axis?

Is it possible some of us with IBD also have an underlying neck injury, which drives gut inflammation?

The average human’s head is about the weight of a bowling ball, so it’s not surprising the neck can experience trauma due to an acute injury, or chronic misalignment through smart phone use (text-neck!) , poor posture on the job, inactivity, etc.

For me, inflammatory conditions began with antibiotic use, but they got MUCH WORSE after a neck injury, sustained in a traffic accident, several years ago. Initial symptoms were a stuffy, blocked nose without congestion, then asthma, sinusitis, tinnitus, TMJ, constipation, IBS, and a few years later ulcerative colitis.

UC lead to inactivity, more time spent in front of a computer, degenerative changes in my neck, throw in a dose of Levaquin for food poisoning, then SIBO, food intolerances, hyperadrenergic POTS, heart palpitations, GERD, panic attacks/anxiety, and finally chronic fatigue.

I’ve had quite a few breakthroughs with health in the last few years, but the most profound occurred about a week ago when I realized many of these symptoms I’ve had for years (while directly linked to antibiotics use) are also mediated by my posture, specifically, if my neck is in an unhealthy kyphotic curvature (reverse of normal alignment) or wonderful, yet illusive, lordosis .

What’s the inflammation connection? The vagal nerve runs throughout the body, getting its name “the wanderer” from the widespread path it travels, but it threads its way through a narrow channel in the cervical spine, such that compression of soft tissues between the upper cervical vertebrae can impair a lot of vagal function. This is my layperson’s view. Let’s see if our experience bears this out.

Given that the “fight or flight” response includes a clenching of neck muscles, in preparation for fleeing, is it possible this reduction of parasympathetic response (relaxation) is partially a built-in biomechanical feature of our bodies? If so, chronic stress, with its attendant tightening of that upper cervical spine, may be a vicious cycle — one that we can fairly easily monitor and turn around!

In a previous post I mentioned the posture pump I’ve been using. It’s fairly inexpensive, and definitely effective, but also impractical for anyone out and about in the world. What if we could do something similar with no equipment? Enter the “Alexander Technique“.

I’m warning you: this practice is so simple, you may wonder if you’re doing much at all, but when performed properly, you’ll notice a big difference. For some, this perfecting of posture and movement may be all you’ll need.

I have developed the habit, in just a few short days, of “sitting tall” in my car, as I’m driving. I tilt my head back ever so slightly, so that my chin is jutting forward. Lordosis! I can feel my nasal passages opening, my sinuses draining. I also notice my blood pressure dropping, as pressure (I assume) is taken off my vagal nerve.

Furthermore, when I adopt this posture throughout the day, I notice the “heat” that fills my entire lower abdomen, and gives rise to gut inflammation, mucus in stools, dull pain — this totally goes away. Hmmm…

I know I’m not the only person who experienced the sudden onset of hyperadrenergic POTS after a neck injury. A cardiologist I consulted a few years ago about my POTS symptoms mentioned one hyperadrenergic patient of his who was a perfectly healthy woman until she got whiplash in a car crash. I’m in touch with another woman via Facebook who had a skiing accident. She hurt her upper cervical spine, and has had POTS (standard, low blood pressure form) ever since.

This is certainly sad, especially given how little the allopathic doctors understand about hyperadrenergic POTS, or UC and other forms of IBD — typically they are good at treating acute symptoms — but if permanent neck trauma is indeed part of a multi-factoral range of inflammatory triggers, we can at least try to heal vagal nerve function from the gut side of the equation.

Our enteric nervous system is a feedback loop, so the Gut/Brain/(Neck?) Axis works in reverse, and if we have mechanical impairment “upstairs”, boosting gut flora signaling via the vagal nerve, from gut to brain, may compensate for the neurological impairment in some people. I’ve been tinkering a lot with eating gut bugs (in yogurt, sauerkraut, my own homemade kefir and probiotics) that may promote parasympathetic (relax and digest) activity. More on that in a future post.

Does anyone else have a history of neck injury or strain that could explain more global issues? If so, I’d appreciate hearing from you in the comments section.

EDIT: since writing this article not long ago, I’ve spoken to huge numbers of IBD sufferers who had a neck injury immediately preceding the onset of their illness. I’d appreciate your feedback. If you’ve had a similar experience and would like me to include your story in a future post, send me an email via the contact form. Thanks! 

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9 thoughts on “IBD and Vagal Nerve Issues: the Gut/Neck Axis?

  1. Wonderful site. Plenty of useful info here. I’m sending it to a few pals ans additionally sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you to your sweat! dadabkedgfea

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Terry – How amazing! I have read in the past about how a misalignment of the atlas can cause adrenal fatigue, anxiety, IBS and a host of other ailments. And I’ve been having pain in the back of my head and neck for a long time, plus, of course, major gut issues. I’m am going to an upper cervical specialist soon to see what he can find. Thanks so much for sharing this. It’s quite possibly a big piece of the puzzle for many of us gut issue sufferers. And I’m going to check out the Alexander technique pronto!

    Liked by 1 person

    • hello, heidi — i’m really glad if this helps! in my own case, i’ve not had significant pain, just numbness/weakness in my hands and legs, when it was at its worst. the lack of pain made me discount soft-tissue damage, cervical stenosis, and other degenerative issues as a cause for my gut problems and other inflammatory/AI issues. i’ll be putting together another post that focuses more on what the vagal nerve does, and how our gut flora help it function. one suggestion: i’d be careful of going to a conventional chiropractor who does wild neck cracking adjustments. chiropractic has been helpful to me in the past, but only where a gentle “activator” tool was used. conventional adjustments actually caused me further injury, so just to be on the safe side, i’d avoid that. getting an MRI would provide you lots of great info, too.

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  3. I was in a car accident in September 1977. 9 days in the hospital, reconstructive surgery on my face and…….neck damage-no surgery or treatment. In June 1978, I was diagnosed with ulcerative proctitis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • thanks for the feedback, ed. this is sobering, as you’re one of several people i’ve heard from today, associating neck trauma with IBD. do you have any other symptoms of vagal nerve problems, like being stuck in a “fight or flight” state, racing pulse, reactive hypertension? some people experience just the opposite, which can include syncope (fainting) and generally low BP.

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  5. Pingback: Chronic Fatigue & the Gut-Neck Axis | GettingHealthierNow

  6. Pingback: Lufenuron Healing CFS/ME & Much More | Getting Healthier Now

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