Chiropractor Dr. Michelle Bean goes to work. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
Standing as straight as possible in Dr. Michelle Bean’s chiropractic office at the Santa Cruz Chi Center, I’m surprised to hear the following: my right shoulder slopes lower than my left and my head and neck tilt a bit in the opposite direction. Most unnerving, my right leg is shorter, or pushed up further into my hip, than my left one.
“One of the main goals of the human body is to keep the eyes horizontal,” says Dr. Bean. “When you’re holding a purse, that shoulder immediately drops and your head tilts to one side. Your entire body underneath it has to compensate to get the eyes back on a horizontal plain.”
Slouched on a chair in her quiet office is the obvious and oblivious culprit: my large, over-stuffed bag, which hangs off my right shoulder on a daily basis. In many parts of the world, humans balance their loads on top of their heads, or at opposite ends of a pole slung across their upper backs. And even while the human head is like a 10-12 pound bowling ball siting on top of a tiny four-ounce bone, says Dr. Bean, this method of carrying is actually healthier for the spine. “It’s an absolute balance,” says Dr. Bean.
The human spine is an intricate structure made up of 33 vertebrae—9 of which are fused together to form the sacrum and coccyx, or tail bone—and the others separated by fleshy discs to allow us movement, and the ability to get into “Downward Dog” in yoga class. These precious bones protect the most fascinating and enigmatic system of the body: the nervous system.
Running the entire length of the inner spine, from the brain stem at the base of the neck all the way to the pelvis, is the spinal cord; a gateway of nerves that controls our entire sensory experience as humans, says Dr. Bean. Feathering out from the spinal cord are nerve endings, which enervate every single cell in the human body, and deliver sensory messages back to the brain at lightning speed.
Chiropractors claim that when a vertebra is out of whack, it can affect the nervous system in numerous ways, causing everything from allergies and breathing difficulty to compromised kidney and liver function. It can also have an emotional effect, they say.
“I’ve had people, where I’ve put them on the table and I’ll adjust them and realign their bodies to center, and they have an emotional release,” says Dr. Bean. “Because, if you can release the way that the body is holding itself, you can change the way the nerves are sending experiences into the brain. So, literally, the way we are carrying ourselves affects the way we feel.”
Getting out of whack is easy to do—driving all day, typing all day, or just drinking a little too much wine and falling asleep at an awkward angle will do it. What’s more, any time you sit for over 30 minutes without moving, the spine begins the process of degeneration, says Dr. Bean.
“When someone’s spine is misaligned and they sit for too long, the discs will wear away unevenly, occurring at an increased rate in the area of spinal misalignment.”
Those who have ever experienced slipped disks or sciatica know the sharp pain associated with bones rubbing on nerves. But dull aches and stiffness in the back, neck and shoulders are a common symptom that there’s an area of the spine that’s locked up and not moving.
“A lot of people don’t know that,” says Dr. Bean. “They think they just need to rest, or need a massage.”
While degeneration of the spine is a natural part of aging, shrinking discs, and the bone spurs that will eventually form in locked areas of the spine, cannot be undone—only halted or slowed.
“The only method for the discs and joints of the spine to repair and regenerate from daily trauma caused by the force of gravity is by the pumping action of motion. Moving the body will eliminate waste and pump in nutrients to the joints and discs,” says Dr. Bean, who recommends getting up from your desk every half hour, even if it’s just to walk around your chair.
After my first proper spinal adjustment sends a pop, pop, pop through my very-locked neck, I feel exhilarated. Later, I’m exhausted, and hopefully, a little less lopsided.