Skip to Content

How do you release atlas bone?

The atlas is the first cervical vertebra and forms the joint connecting the skull to the spine. It is named after the mythological titan Atlas who held the celestial spheres upon his shoulders. The atlas bone plays an important role in the movement and rotation of the head and neck. Releasing tightness in the atlas can help improve overall alignment, reduce neck pain, alleviate headaches, and increase range of motion. There are several manual therapy techniques that can be used to release the atlas bone. These include muscle energy techniques, mobilization, chiropractic adjustment, craniosacral therapy, and massage. Understanding the anatomy and function of the atlas is key when trying to release restrictions and improve mobility.

Anatomy of the Atlas

The atlas is ring-shaped and consists of an anterior and posterior arch with no vertebral body. It has articulating facets on the superior and inferior aspects that connect with the occipital condyles of the skull and the axis vertebra below. The transverse ligament helps hold the dens of the axis in place and provide rotational stability. Other ligaments such as the anterior longitudinal ligament, posterior longitudinal ligament, and alar ligaments provide support and restrict excessive movement. The atlas surrounds and protects the spinal cord as it emerges from the foramen magnum of the skull. It also houses the vertebral arteries that supply blood to the brain. On each side, the atlas has a transverse process where muscles like the rectus capitis lateralis and oblique capitis superior attach.

Key Features of the Atlas:

  • Anterior and posterior arches
  • Lateral masses
  • Transverse processes
  • Superior and inferior articulating facets
  • Transverse ligament

Function of the Atlas

The atlas serves as a conduit between the cervical spine and skull. It allows nodding and rotation of the head. The atlanto-occipital joint formed by the atlas and occipital condyles permits flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and slight rotation. Meanwhile, the atlantoaxial joint between the atlas and axis allows for 50 degrees of rotation to each side. This is made possible by the pivot-like dens of the axis vertebra. The atlas provides support for the skull while still allowing multi-directional movement. Dysfunction in this area can negatively impact the biomechanics of the cervical spine and head.

Signs of Atlas Restriction

When the mobility of the atlas becomes impaired, it can manifest in several ways. Here are some signs that the atlas may be restricted and require release:

Limited Head and Neck Range of Motion

Reduced ability to rotate, flex, or extend the head and neck can indicate tightness and compression of the atlas vertebrae. This is especially noticeable when turning the head side-to-side.


The upper cervical spine is often implicated in cervicogenic headaches. Irritation of nerves or vertebral arteries caused by dysfunctional atlas alignment could contribute to headaches.

Neck Pain

Impaired mobility of the C1 segment can lead to instability, muscle spasms, and neck pain. The sensation may be felt directly over the atlas area near the base of the skull.


Some patients experience dizziness, vertigo, or imbalance with atlas problems. This is connected to its role in proprioception and coordination of head movements.

Shoulder or Arm Pain

Disorders of the upper cervical spine like atlas dysfunction can refer pain into the shoulders, arms, or hands via nerve pathways. Numbness or tingling may also be present.

Poor Posture

Abnormal positioning of the atlas can disrupt healthy spinal curves and cause forward head posture. There is often loss of the normal cervical lordosis.

Causes of Atlas Restriction

There are many possible causes for impaired mobility of the atlas vertebrae. Common causes include:


Past injuries such as whiplash from car accidents, sports collisions, or falls can jam the atlas out of alignment. Even minor traumas that do not cause pain immediately can lead to joint restriction over time.

Muscle Tension

Chronic tightness in the muscles surrounding the neck and upper back can pull the atlas out of position. Trigger points in the suboccipital muscles linking the atlas to the base of the skull are especially problematic.

Poor Posture

Sustained forward head posture places excessive stress on the cervical spine and can hyperextend or jam the atlas. Rounding of the shoulders also contributes to poor neck biomechanics.


Wear and tear of the bones, discs, facets, and ligaments can reduce mobility. Osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, bone spurs, or disc herniations involving the C1 segment can lead to stiffness.

Congenital Defect

In rare cases, people are born with an abnormal atlas shape or fused vertebrae. This creates an inherent restriction and likelihood of developing related symptoms.

Releasing the Atlas Bone with Manual Therapy

There are many hands-on techniques that can be applied to help unlock the atlas vertebrae and improve function. A few of the most effective methods include:

Muscle Energy Technique

This osteopathic approach uses gentle muscle contractions to mobilize stiff joints and relax hypertonic muscles. The posterior and lateral neck muscles are engaged isometrically in a controlled position to release the atlas.


Mobilization techniques move the joints through their full range of motion to break up restrictions and restore mobility. The atlas can be mobilized in flexion, extension, and rotation using precise hand placements and gentle force.

Chiropractic Adjustment

Using short lever, high-velocity thrusts, chiropractors can adjust misalignments of the atlas back into position. This is called Toggle Recoil or an atlas adjustment. Proper biomechanics are restored.

Craniosacral Therapy

Light touch is used to release fascial restrictions around the cranium, spine, and sacrum. This enhances cerebrospinal fluid flow and improves atlas mobility.


Various massage techniques help relax tight musculature pulling on the atlas. Petrissage, friction, trigger point therapy, and cross-fiber strokes improve extensibility.

Stretching and Strengthening Exercises

Once normal mobility is restored, specific stretches and exercises can help maintain good alignment and prevent reoccurrence of atlas problems.

Stretching Exercises:

  • Upper cervical nods – Tuck chin gently, pull head forward to feel stretch in back of neck. Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Atlantoaxial rotations – Turn head slowly side to side, first left then right. Go to end range of motion. Do not force.
  • Levator scapulae stretch – Tilt head sideways toward shoulder until stretch is felt on opposite side of neck. Hold 30 seconds.
  • Sternocleidomastoid stretch – Gently bring ear toward same side shoulder until stretch is felt on opposite side of neck. Hold for 30 seconds.

Strengthening Exercises:

  • Isometrics – Press back of head into hand, hold 5 seconds. Do in flexion, extension, and sideways.
  • Chin tucks – Draw chin straight back, pulling head into double chin alignment. Hold 5 seconds.
  • Upper cervical extensions – Look up as far as possible within comfort. Hold for 5 seconds. Do not hyperextend neck.
  • Scapular retractions – Pinch shoulder blades together while keeping shoulders down. Hold 5 seconds.

Lifestyle Modifications

Certain lifestyle changes and self-care practices can also prevent recurring problems with atlas restriction:

  • Improve posture – Reduce forward head, rounded shoulders.
  • Use proper ergonomics – Adjust computer, desk, and sleep setup.
  • Perform regular neck stretches and exercises.
  • Apply heat or ice therapy.
  • Get chiropractic or massage therapy.
  • Manage stress with yoga, meditation.
  • Use supportive pillows in bed.

Warning Signs to Seek Medical Care

In most cases, minor atlas dysfunction can be improved with conservative treatment. But certain warning signs require prompt medical evaluation:

  • numbness, weakness in arms or legs
  • loss of coordination or trouble walking
  • bladder or bowel incontinence
  • severe unremitting neck pain
  • signs of injury or trauma
  • headaches that worsen or do not improve
  • dizziness that persists

These red flags can indicate a more serious condition requiring imaging tests or specialist referral. Spinal cord compression, ligament damage, fractures, strokes, or brain tumors may be involved.


Releasing a tight, restricted atlas vertebrae is important for regaining full neck mobility and reducing associated symptoms. A combination of manual therapy techniques, stretching, strengthening, lifestyle modifications, and using proper medical care when needed can help keep the C1 segment functioning optimally. Keeping the atlas bone mobile provides a stable base for motions of the head and neck so you can move through life unimpeded.