Is Your Brain Hibernating?

[originally published in KCN, July 2002/ cartoon provided by]

It’s pretty much common knowledge that chiropractic is effective for various forms of low back pain, neck discomfort, and headaches.  We see these conditions all the time.  The literature supports what we do, and we are fairly adept at explaining how it all works.  But there are some conditions that chiropractic treatment ends up benefiting without our even setting out to do so — and explaining these, well, often leaves us speechless.  Patients have reported improvement in vision (I’ve had patients pull U-turns and return to the office to tell me about this one), concentration span, learning ability, memory, or general feelings of well-being.  They sometimes will report decreases in tiredness, clumsiness, irritability, depression, or anxiety.  I even remember one patient told me he was able to sing better after an adjustment.

And don’t think this is unique to my office.  Chiropractors across the country have dozens of cases they can recall like these.  A common, yet bizarre enough occurrence, for popular author, John Grisham, to want to weave it into his book The Testament.  It seems that in this recent book of his, rumors were circulating that a well known person in town was having an affair.  People couldn’t help but jump to this conclusion because she was notably full of more energy and had an exuberance about her that just didn’t fit the profile they had originally pegged for her.  Eventually the rumor was shot down when it was discovered that she was not having an affair at all, but instead was seeing a chiropractor (for clinical reasons of course) in the neighboring town.

Can I explain all this?  Not really.  Our traditional explanations really fall a bit short.  However, this may change.  I recently stumbled across a pretty interesting theory in a chiropractic text that, while still needing to continue running the rigors of scientific scrutiny, might shed some light on the subject.  The theory is known as “Brain Hibernation”.   Interestingly, its application to explain some of the bizarre effects that are sometimes seen with a manipulation/adjustment was not postulated by a bunch of chiros, but a couple of medical doctors:  a general practitioner with an interest in spinal manipulation and an ophthalmologist with an interest in migraine headaches.  They realized the need for such a theory when they began to notice that their patients who were being treated for headaches via spinal manipulation would often comment that some other health complaint was relieved as well (such as tiredness, glare distress, or dizziness).

Their theory, in simplified terms, basically says that one may experience decreased brain functioning due to a lack of blood to the brain — a lack of blood that is caused by constriction of the arteries to the brain because of stress in the neck “caused by misaligned or malfunctioning vertebrae.”  This lack of blood falls just under the threshold of what is considered normal for cellular functioning and just above that of what a stroke would cause:  cellular death.  Therefore, as they explain, this normally causes no loss of “core brain functions” — such as eating, walking, talking, and existing — but rather has an affect on the more sophisticated brain functions, not necessarily essential to our existence, such as “higher math.”  They say that this condition is common and is not dependent on a major trauma but might be the result of a seemingly minor event.

The following list of signs and symptoms are theorized to be caused by brain hibernation due to a lack of proper blood flow:  giddiness/dizziness, lethargy/excessive tiredness, difficulty sleeping/insomnia, depression, nervousness, restlessness/anxiety, miserable/irritable, disoriented, personality change, hyperkinesia in children, “Whining Child Syndrome”, tantrums, headache, problems with memory, learning disabilities, poor concentration, difficulty thinking, clumsiness, changes in visual acuity, visual disorders, auditory difficulty, mixing up words, losing track of conversation while talking, loss of interest in sex.

[A bit of a disclaimer:  The list above is given for informational purposes.  It is my hope that somebody might be helped by it.  It is not my intent, however, to indicate that chiropractic will have an affect on any of these conditions for your particular case.  The art of diagnosis is complex and can involve many possibilities — some of which take precedence before others can be considered.   That having been said, however, one thing is certain, the spine as being a potential source of problems such as these is almost always left out.  Maybe it needs to be considered more often — especially when it appears that you are finding no answers].

The conditions affected, according to the theory, can have degrees of severity, in that as the amount of ischemia (lack of blood flow) increases, the number of functioning brain cells decreases — making the disability more severe.  In other words, Brain Hibernation proposes that “it requires more ‘brain power’ (active brain function) to be happy (not irritable), to have a good memory (not forgetful), to perform complicated physical tasks (not be uncoordinated), to be bright and alive (not tired), to be articulate when speaking (not mixing words, stuttering, or losing track), to perform complicated mental tasks, to have full visual fields, and to be headache free.”

Unfortunately, many people suffering from Brain Hibernation may be given a psychologic label (and often medication, as the text points out) or told they are growing old.  Because their disability does not show any measurable parameters, and they do not respond to the usual methods of treatment, they are, regrettably, largely ignored.  The text points out as an example that “a child may be criticized and ridiculed as to intelligence or ability when in fact he or she has the potential but the cerebral dysfunction [brain hibernation] does not allow the child to use his or her assets.”  Consequently, while they are able to operate in day to day life, it typically will take more effort and willpower to do so — even for achievements that are quite moderate.  Frustrating, when the cure might be so simple.

A sleepy brain is definitely an interesting theory.  And one that quite possibly might be a way in which we can explain some of the more interesting results we seem to achieve.  While Brain Hibernation has some pretty good scientific backing in and of itself, its relation to misaligned vertebrae and chiropractic adjustments has yet to be cemented.  Further study, of course, is always needed and is currently being conducted.  Meanwhile, the anecdotal stories will continue to flow from amazed chiropractic patients — and perhaps, John Grisham books.   So if you find yourself in a chiropractor’s office for a routine case of lumbago, beware, you might get more than you bargained for — you just might start some rumors around town.

sources used for this article:
Grisham, John.  The Testament (pg. 354). 1999.
Terrett.  The Cerebral Dysfunction Theory.  chapter 18  in  Foundations of Chiropractic Subluxation by Gatterman.  Mosby.  St. Louis.  1995.
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One Comment on “Is Your Brain Hibernating?”

  1. […] Here’s another one for my son’s chiropractic blog.  When he asked me to draw up a brain that was sleeping, I didn’t think it would be too […]

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