Can Head or Neck Injuries Lead to Mental Health Problems?
I’m going to take you somewhere interesting on today’s blog post. I was originally going to write a story about how some recent patients started to notice changes in their levels of anxiety, depression, and mental focus changed while getting adjusted. The problem is that telling that story, you start to raise some eyebrows about whether chiropractic can treat someone’s mental health status.
I’m not going to walk down that road today. We have to start with a premise first. Structural Chiropractic is not about treating invisible illnesses based on leaps of faith. It’s about correcting a physical distortion that is creating bodily problems both physical and mental. Let’s start with this: Can Head/Neck injuries cause mental illness?
Head Injuries and Mental Health
The link between head injury and mental illness is not controversial. Studies on soldiers returning home from war and professional athletes in contact sports have shown that trauma to the head is heavily linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, and cognitive impairment.
While the science on how and why this happens is still debatable, what isn’t debatable is that something is happening to the brain that is affecting mental function.
Whiplash Injury and Mental Health
In the realm of neck injuries, the link between mental health gets a little more nebulous. While there is an association between depression and whiplash, many times this is linked to the severity of pain that a patient is feeling. If someone goes down the path of chronic pain following a car accident, it’s easy to see how that person would get depressed.
How Does this happen?
The truth is, we don’t have a great idea on how these injuries influence the brain and mental health. In fact, our understanding of mental health conditions is severely lacking and under developed.
What we do know is that when the spine is structurally distorted, it does affect the way that the brain works. Fixated and locked vertebra can cause the brain to be bombarded by signals known as nociceptors. Nociceptors are the signals from the body that tell the brain that something is wrong or under duress.
When the brain is overwhelmed by these signals, then it can disrupt the brain and the way that hormones and neurotransmitters are released throughout the body.
Research on concussions and traumatic brain injury will also show that there can be physical damage to different parts of the brain following a head/neck injury. You may also see a condition where swelling or blood flow in the brain may compress and degenerate parts of brain tissue and actually cause the brain to shrink.
How Do You Know It Can Get Better?
The difficulty with the diagnosis and monitoring of mental illness is that you only have subjective tools to measure if the patient is getting better or worse. You can only ask a depressed person if their feelings of sadness and despair are changing. You can only ask a person with anxiety if they are becoming more or less anxious to stimuli.
Certain forms of neuroimaging can measure structural and functional changes in the brain of some patients with depression. Some of these structural changes have been correlated with depressive symptoms, memory problems, and autism, but none are truly diagnostic for the disease process that is taking place.
This is one of the reasons we need to make it a point to measure the function of the nervous system. While we can’t measure physical brain changes under chiropractic care, we can take some measurements on the systems your brain controls.
That’s why one of the measurements we use in the office includes a scan of someone’s Heart Rate Variability or HRV. HRV is a test that can evaluate the adaptability of the nervous system. It works by measuring how your heart rate changes over time.
When you start exercising, the brain tells your heart to beat faster to keep up with the body’s demand for oxygen. When you are unwinding and getting ready for bed, your brain tells your heart to slow down and prepare to enter sleep mode. If your heart isn’t responding to these stimuli appropriately, then it indicates a problem with your brain’s ability to regulate your body.
Let me be clear about this: people aren’t just scheduling appointments with my office because they are depressed or suffer with anxiety. Every now and then, we will get people who come in with ADHD or children with autistic spectrum disorder, but highest extent of people seeking help with mental health disorders.
Most people come into the office with anxiety, depression, and mental focus problems as part of a long list of Secondary Conditions. It’s actually pretty remarkable to see how people change when they get their head and neck corrected.
I was taking care of a car accident victim a few weeks ago, and she was coming in for neck pain from a whiplash. The pain was recent, but she was also having problems with anxiety and fatigue before the accident occurred.
Her HRV scan showed that her nervous system was completely geared towards fight or flight. That means that even a minor stimulus was causing her heart rate to elevate and her stress hormones to dump into her blood stream. After her first 2 weeks of getting her neck corrected, she actually noticed that she felt more at ease and calm than she had been in years. She was less anxious leaving the house, and she was less irritated at her friends/family for inconsequential behavior.
This was all before her neck pain began to go away. Her need for anxiety medication went on the decline before her need to get off of her pain medication.
It’s not some chiropractic magic trick. It comes down to understanding concepts of neurology and the physiology of stress. When you address input into the brain, you can sometimes affect a patient’s view of the world.
Did you like this article? Feel free to share it with the people you care about and see if a Complimentary Consultation is the next step to regain their health.