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Dr. Mark J. Kirk &
Dr. James McNally
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Thoracic Spine Subluxation


Vertebral subluxation complex (VSC), which chiropractors often refer to simply as a subluxation, is a fitting title for a condition that's extremely complex. It involves five recognized components and, to further its complexity, patients may not be aware that they have a problem because initially there may be no pain or discomfort.

VSC can occur in every part of the spine, including the thoracic spine, or middle back, which is the longest portion of your spinal column. The thoracic spine is located between the bottom of your neck and the top of your low back. You can feel it if you hunch your back forward, reach around and touch the long bony column that protrudes. If your condition is worsening, then you may feel pain here, and certain movements such as leaning back may aggravate it.

But the complexity of subluxations is that they can affect other areas of the body as well, and these problems can be present long before people notice a health problem. A subluxation can affect multiple areas of the body because it is a condition of the spine, which is the central core of the body's communication system.

The brain and body communicate via messages that travel through nerves located along the length of the spine. These nerves, along with the brain, collectively make up the central nervous system. The nerves exit the spinal column through holes, formed by vertebral joints, and send out an extensive network of branches that carry information to specific parts of the body, controlling the health and function of almost every cell, tissue and organ. Research suggests that subluxations affect how these body parts function by interfering with the brain-body communication system. Imagine a healthy nervous system surrounded by clean water, and the interference as muddy and murky water that starts to pollute it.

A variety of external and internal factors can cause this. Since chiropractic's inception, trauma, toxins and emotional stress have been identified as primary causes of subluxation. Traumatic causes include car accidents and falls; chemical toxins include alcohol, drugs and environmental pollutants; and emotional stress includes everyday problems such as worrying and anxiety.

When any of these is present, it can lead to the beginning of VSC, and possibly the entire five stages of the condition. The first stage is kinesiopathology, which begins when spinal joints become stuck, forcing the joints around them to work harder in order to compensate. Unfortunately, this compensation does not change the fact that the spinal joints aren't functioning properly, and thus the spine's normal curvature can distort and the stuck joint can contribute to nerve irritation.

Most often, this occurs when malfunctioning spinal bones stretch, twist or pull nerve tissue. When this is serious enough it can lead to neuropathology, the second stage of VSC, which can involve either extreme nerve irritation or a pinched nerve. Pinched nerves, which are quite rare, can produce feelings patients frequently describe as "pins and needles" or a numb sensation surrounding and far from to the spine. Irritated nerves can also affect the parts of the body that they communicate with, thereby increasing a person's susceptibility to disease.

This interference in the nervous system can lead to the third component of VSC, myopathalogy, which involves abnormal muscle function. With myopathology, nerve impulses can diminish to the point that they understimulate muscles, which causes them to weaken and atrophy, or become too strong and overstimulate muscles, which causes them to work too hard and tighten, and potentially go into spasm. This can lead to inflammation in muscles and joints, which can cause further complications by spreading to the rest of the soft tissues in the spine.

If that happens, it can lead to the fourth component of VSC, histopathology, which involves abnormal function of soft tissue. This occurs when abnormal spinal joint function diminishes blood supply and leads to long-term swelling of structures like ligaments, disks and other soft tissues.

If people don't seek care during any of these stages, VSC can affect the whole body. This is pathophysiology, the fifth and final stage of VSC, when degenerative changes in the spine begin to spread. At this stage, calcium deposits may have built up, and are eventually recognizable as bone spurs and other abnormal growths. When this happens, your body has gone to the extreme of compensating for a malfunctioning or traumatized joint by actually creating a growth similar to new bone. It has slowly transformed immobile, untreated joints into solid blocks of calcium. Known as subluxation degeneration, this final component of VSC becomes more common as people get older.

While it takes many years for someone to develop problems associated with the final component of VSC, the condition can begin at any age. That's why it's important to visit your chiropractor, as he or she can check for subluxations and provide you with optimal care. Your chiropractor may use an adjustment to correct your subluxations, which involves a quick, usually painless thrust that realigns faulty joints and allows the body to heal. Combined with proper spinal care, this can prevent VSC from progressing into a more serious condition.