A lot of people are starting to recognize the role that posture plays in overall health. Things like text-neck has made it’s way to major publications like the Washington Post, and the perils of slouching have been written about ad nauseum.
I won’t get into that today, because I think there’s a problem that is a lot more important but gets far less attention. Most doctors will ignore this, but chances are it’s a major contributor to headache, balance disorders, vision problems, and overall brain health.
Today we’re going to break down your head tilt.
Cute for Puppies and Sorority Poses, Bad for Patients with Neurological Issues
First we should clarify a couple of things. When we discuss head tilt, we’re not talking about the tilt that comes on when you intentionally tilt your head for a photo. If you are intentionally creating a momentary head tilt, it’s not a big deal. There’s no such thing as a bad posture if you are willfully and intentionally trying to create a specific shape with your body in gravity.
We only classify postures as negative when your body is doing something that it is not intending. If I ask you to stand up as straight as you can and your head tilts to side, it paints a much different picture of your brain than if I asked you to purposefully hold your head to the side. An inability for you to create a straight upright posture suggests that you have a deficiency in your brain’s ability to control your muscular system. You can read about that in greater detail here:
So what’s the big deal if your head tilts to the side?
It’s a sign that your brain is perceiving the world around it incorrectly.
If your brain is getting wrong information from your senses, then it can’t produce the right response to the world around it.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal when we’re talking about posture, muscles, and bones, but let’s apply the same idea to some of your other senses:
- If you have a problem with one of your eyes, how will that affect your ability to catch a baseball?
- If your ears are hearing a high pitched noise all of the time when everything is quiet, how will that make you feel?
- If your skin is constantly itching, but you have nothing on your skin that is irritating it, will you keep scratching?
All of these are examples of your brain perceiving the environment incorrectly and they all lead to specific conditions from a lack of depth perception, tinnitus, to neuropathic itch. When left for a long time, these conditions can have a significant impact on your enjoyment of life.
So what are the consequences of a chronic head tilt?
The Physiology of Head Tilt
How your brain decides to hold the head up involves a lot more neurology than most people expect. Generally speaking, we think about head tilts being a result of tight muscles pulling the head out of place. When we use this model, treatments become a matter of rubbing one muscle and stretch another and the head will be straight again.
For better or worse, the way the brain moves the head is WAY more complex than that. Your brain decides where to put your head in space based on the interplay of your inner ear organ, your eyes, and the small muscles of your neck. Here’s how it works:
So this is what happens when the system is working okay. When the system works, you can tilt your head when you choose to, but your brain will bring your head back to the normal upright position after it has achieved its purpose.
We see this system break frequently when someone has injuries like whiplash or concussion. The impact of these injuries disrupts normal function of all three systems. It scrambles the inner ear which distorts your eye movements. It also wreaks havoc on the muscles and ligaments of your neck.
What Happens When Your Head Tilt Breaks?
This is why the biggest problems associated with whiplash and concussion injuries are balance and vision issues. You can’t keep your perception of the world straight if your eyes, ears, and spine are giving you inaccurate information about gravity!
When your head and neck get scrambled by a hit and you disrupt these 3 systems, your body takes on an abnormal head posture which can make the other systems work inappropriately. One of the first things I’ll ask someone during a consultation is to sit up as straight as they can, and I’ll look at where they put their head in space. Very often they look like this:
But let’s be honest here; you don’t really care if you have a head tilt, crooked eyes, and tight muscles if it’s not causing you any pain or discomfort right?
Here’s the thing, your body can compensate like this for a little while. But if you’ve ever had to rely on a back up system before, you probably know that backup systems aren’t ideal and they’re more prone to glitches and failure. Your body is the same way with its own back up systems. They will get you out of a pinch for a short time, but they will eventually fail. Or even worse, you may suffer another injury while you are compensating and have even more damage to the brain.
So as your back up systems start to fail and your eyes and neck aren’t working normally you will start to have problems like:
- Feeling off balance
- Neck and back pain
Why? Because if your eyes don’t move well, then it leads to difficulty reading or tracking targets in space. If your neck doesn’t move well, it causes pain and headaches. If you have all three systems saying different things, your brain has no idea how to determine it’s sense of balance.
Your Brain Hates Mismatches
Your brain hates it when its sensory organs give it conflicting information causing sensory mismatches. It hates it more than your significant other hates it when you walk out of the door with a brown belt and black shoes.
All kidding aside, these sensory mismatches are the main trigger for the balance issues that can make people miserable. When you combine that with the fact that the balance system shares connections to your autonomic nervous system, then it gives us an understanding for why balance problems can really wreak havoc on our stress response system.
The abnormal movement of the eyes and head are also likely to create persistent headaches and pain in your joints and muscles from abnormal loading patterns.
While the symptoms can be bad enough, the biggest concern is the impact that these maladaptive patterns have on the functioning of the brain as a whole. If you can’t orient your world properly, then the parts of your brain that are responsible for normal function start to degrade while the parts of the brain that are producing these abnormal patterns get stronger. This persistent abnormal head pattern can change the way blood flow and oxygen get to various parts of the brain and lead to further problems with thought, focus, and movement.
If we want to make a real impact on the health of your brain, then we have to allow the brain to stop compensating and get your head on straight again.