Acid Reflux and the Phrenic Nerve

“Doc! Since you started adjusting me I haven’t had any acid reflux!” I hear this almost every day. It’s either heartburn, acid reflux, tightness in the chest or whatever. This even happens in cases that have persisted for years.

Recently, one patient happily informed their medical doctor about the abrupt stop to 15 years of heartburn problems after starting chiropractic care, to which the family physician responded that there is no connection between the spine and acid reflux, so that’s impossible. I was surprised with that response. Perhaps the patient misunderstood the doctor, or simply the doctor wasn’t sharp on their anatomy.

The explanation is actually quite simple, and is the reason that so many people over the past century have seen this same result after chiropractic care.

As a matter of fact, here’s a quote from a paper written over 50 years ago on the topic:

“Many a patient has presented to the doctor of chiropractic in a state of desperation, having already spent thousands of dollars on cardiac and gastrointestinal testing that proved negative. Their elusive symptoms included tightness in the chest, restricted breathing, heartburn, acid reflux and a bounding pulse in the abdomen. Not only were they miserable, but frightened at the lack of a diagnosis. The chiropractor’s unique and hands- on examination found pressure, irritation and tenderness along the patient’s neck at the level of cervical vertebrae 3, 4 or 5. Following the chiropractic analysis and adjustment of the misaligned spine, the symptoms subsided, often readily.”

So what’s the connection between the neck and acid reflux disease? The phrenic nerve.

The phrenic nerve passes from the cervical spine, levels C3, C4 and C5, down through the lungs to the diaphragm. In school, the saying “C3, 4 and 5 keep the diaphragm alive!” was used to help remember the details about the phrenic nerve.

This nerve controls the diaphragm, a thick sheet of muscle that forms a floor beneath the lungs and heart. In order for food to get to your stomach, it has to pass through the diaphragm to get there.

It is commonly understood that the spine can pinch a nerve and cause a spasmed neck or back, tingling or burning arm or leg. When it pinches or irritates the phrenic nerve; the diaphragm, being a muscle, it is subject to tension and spasm. This restricts breathing, and if spasm of the diaphragm is pronounced, the opening through which food passes is altered, causing acid reflux from the stomach and possibly what is called a hiatal hernia. Likewise, the same muscle tension can close upon the aorta and vena cava, causing a throbbing heartbeat.

Asthma, heartburn, or tightness and aching under the ribs are often the result of a diaphragm under tension because of spinal pressure on the phrenic nerves.


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