One of the major components of the anatomy of the neck is the pharynx, a fibromuscular tube forming part of both the digestive and respiratory systems and is also involved in the speech function. Anatomically, the pharynx is divided into three major sections extending from the base of the skull to the cricoid cartilage of the oesophagus. The nasopharynx, the oropharynx, and the hypopharynx (also known as the laryngopharynx) lie behind the cavities of the nasal passages, mouth, and larynx respectively. Various muscles support the function of the pharynx, and these are innervated by both sensory and motor nerves arising from the cervical spine. Problems with compression in the cervical vertebrae can affect the nerve roots and also the blood vessels involved in regulating pharyngeal function. As both respiration and digestion are served by this area, serious problems can arise as a result of trauma to the neck, or degeneration and chronic dysfunction in the cervical spinal region.
Conditions affecting the Pharynx
The location of the thyroid, and parathyroid glands in the neck also impacts the action of the pharynx and larynx, with any swelling in the area due to conditions such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis or hypothyroidism, capable of causing constriction of circulation and nerve pathways. In addition, conditions such as cervical arthritis, disc herniation, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, and fibromyalgia may cause inflammation, neuralgia, radiculopathy, and difficulties with swallowing, controlling the airway, and even changes in the voice. Muscle spasms and cramps, found in conditions such as temporomandibular joint syndrome and fibromyalgia, are also possible mechanisms for dysfunction in this area.
The pharynx contains specialised lymphatic tissue that is designed to prevent pathogens’ entry into either the digestive, or the respiratory system. This ‘ring’ of lymphatic tissue consists of three groups: the nasopharyngeal tonsils (adenoids), the palatine tonsils (tonsils), and the lingual tonsils on the posterior surface of the tongue. The presence of recurrent infections can lead to inflammation and pain in these structures with many tonsillectomies performed in an attempt to prevent further tonsillitis. Whether this removal of lymphatic tissue has adverse consequences for systemic immunity is open for debate, with orthodox and naturopathic physicians often holding significantly differing opinions. Infection of the tonsils can cause glands to swell in other areas of the neck and may involve a stiff neck and neck pain along with fever and other bodily aches and pains.
Last Updated: 1/11/2011