How (and Why) To Protect Your Cervical Spine Nerves

November 28, 2018

Cervical spine nerves are highlighted in a computer-rendered view of a man's ske
Cervical spine nerves play a vital role in your body

Cervical spine nerves are rooted in the neck and can become injured or otherwise irritated

Jonathan Thompson

Like all topics related to the nervous systems, the issue of cervical spine nerves can be an intimidating matter to consider. In reality, this collection of nerves plays a key role in how your body functions as a unit. That's why it's vital to keep this portion of your spine's anatomy healthy. But, how can you protect these nerves? More to the point: What is the cervical spine?

Defining the Cervical Spine

In order to fully understand what it takes to protect your cervical nerves, it's important that you first have some clear definitions in mind. So, what is the cervical spine? Mayfield Brain & Spine provides a breakdown of the five distinct sections of the human spine — the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral and coccyx. Each portion of the spine supports and provides structure to a corresponding part of your body. For the purposes of this discussion, however, the focus is the cervical spine.

Although the name may be a little misleading, the cervical spine makes up the structure of your neck and consists of seven vertebrae. These bones differ in structure from vertebrae found in other portions of the spine, allowing your neck to enjoy a greater range of motion than your lower back, for example. Each cervical vertebra is separated by a disc, acting as a cushion to prevent the bones from rubbing against each other. These discs also help to make space for the eight cervical spine nerves that are rooted in this section of your spine.

According to Veritas Health, the cervical nerves are responsible for providing sensation and movement to many parts of your body, including the head, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists and hands. The first three cervical nerves, for example, control your head and neck and allow you to breathe naturally. Respectively, the following five control functions relating to the shoulders and diaphragm, upper body muscles, wrist extensors and biceps, triceps and hands.

Potential Issues

As is the case with your entire spine, cervical nerves can become irritated, pinched or otherwise damaged. When this happens, the function of the affected nerve — and the part of the body it empowers — can become impaired or lose function altogether. Unfortunately, this can happen for many reasons.

A trauma, such as a fall or car accident, that fractures a vertebra could damage the surrounding cervical nerves. Similarly, irritation in the joints of the neck can cause swelling, which can put pressure on the nerves. Other health conditions, such as arthritis or the development of bone spurs, may also contribute to pain and other symptoms in the cervical spine. Because of the wide variety of functions these nerves play, as well as the many factors that can cause problems for them, it's important to be mindful of protecting your cervical nerves.

Practical Steps

But what can you do to actively protect your cervical spine? To a large extent, guarding against this type of injury is about prevention. If your entire cervical spine — including all of the joints, muscle and connective tissue — is healthy, your nerves will be free to do their job safely and effectively.

For most people, this would involve making several small changes to your daily routine to reduce your risk of neck strain and injury. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Check your sleep position. Waking up to a stiff or sore neck is a fairly common experience for many adults, but it really shouldn't be. Sleep is an important time for your spine to rest and recover from the stresses placed on it throughout the day. You should be able to lay comfortably in your bed. While the typical recommendation is to sleep on your back, this position doesn't work for everyone. The Spine Health Institute explains how certain "sleep strategies" can optimize your spine health in different sleeping positions. The trick is to listen to your body and find a position that allows you to rest comfortably.
  2. Watch for neck strain at work. According to Scientific American, sitting at a desk all day has been linked to reducing life expectancy and causing a variety of other health concerns, mostly because office furniture isn't properly designed. Your monitor, for example, should be set roughly at eye level. If you have to look down — or even up — in order to properly view the screen, it's going to put undue pressure on your neck. Even if you don't spend your day sitting in front of a screen, the same principle can be applied to just about any work station.
  3. Balance the load. Your neck can also endure strain and injury when you're up and moving, particularly if you're carrying any amount of weight. NBC shared a report on how briefcases and handbags negatively affect spine health due to the uneven distribution of weight people experience when walking with these. This imbalance forces your neck and shoulders into an unhealthy and unnatural position. To overcome this, try to carry weight evenly whenever possible or consider using a supportive backpack instead.

Your cervical spine nerves provide several extremely important services to your entire body. By making a few slight adjustments to your daily activities, you can prevent these nerves from suffering injuries and allow them to do their vital jobs effectively.

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