Chiropractic: Focus on the Spine
Chiropractors believe that aligning the spine can help alleviate neck and back pain and headaches.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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The idea that hands can heal has been around for thousands of years, but the modern method of treatment that chiropractors now practice was developed in the United States beginning in 1895. This form of alternative medicine is based on the belief that the proper alignment of the spine is related to our overall health and well-being. Close to 18 million U.S. adults and 2 million children receive chiropractic treatments every year.
What Is Chiropractic Care?
A chiropractor uses spine and body manipulation techniques to address alignment problems, reduce pain, and support the body’s natural healing abilities.
“Chiropractic is a health care profession that focuses on the structure and function of the musculoskeletal system — mainly the spine or vertebral column — and its relationship to the nervous system,” explains Joel G. Pickar, DC, PhD, professor and deputy director of the Palmer Center for Chiropractic Research in Davenport, Iowa. “The majority of visits to chiropractors are for pain-related conditions. In particular, headache and pain in the low back or neck are conditions most often treated by chiropractors.”
Related: Learn Eight Alternative Treatments for Pain Management
A recent study of more than 1,000 clients of chiropractic offices also showed that about 40 percent visited their chiropractor with the goal of preventing disease and enhancing their overall sense of well-being.
Visiting the Chiropractor
The chiropractor will first ask you about any problems you are experiencing and will thoroughly examine your spine. You may also undergo additional testing, like getting X-rays, to help assess your situation. If your problem can be managed with chiropractic care, a treatment plan will be recommended. Depending on your symptoms, you may need to visit the chiropractor multiple times a week for several months or longer.
After that initial appointment, your chiropractor will use various techniques to forcefully manipulate parts of your spine and other joints. Your chiropractor may also incorporate dietary supplements, heating or cooling pads and packs, electrical stimulation, muscle-strengthening exercise, and lifestyle modifications into your treatment plan. A survey of 125 chiropractors showed that about 80 percent included nutritional counseling in their treatment of patients.
Does Chiropractic Manipulation Work?
Research into the effectiveness of chiropractic is ongoing. Some preliminary results indicate:
- Chiropractors may be able to help older adults improve their balance.
- Chiropractors can help offset low back pain.
- Chiropractors may be able to provide women with back pain relief during pregnancy. However, women should speak with their primary care doctor or obstetrician before using any alternative medicine treatments.
The possible risks associated with chiropractic care depend on the particular techniques used during your treatment. Common side effects include headaches and pain or soreness in the parts of the body the chiropractor manipulated. These effects are usually temporary.
Keep in mind that if your chiropractor prescribes dietary supplements, these can interfere with prescription medications or other supplements you may be taking. Be sure to tell both your primary care doctor and chiropractor about all of the medications (including vitamins, herbal supplements, and other over-the-counter products) you are taking so that possible drug interactions can be avoided.
Related: Reduce Your Risk of Back Pain Through Exercise
Major complications due to chiropractic care, such as stroke or bone fracture, are thought to be rare. But to be on the safe side, people with a history of stroke, blood clots, or those who have weakened bones due to osteoporosis or long-term steroid use should carefully review the risks of chiropractic care with their health care providers before undergoing treatment.
Chiropractic Education and Training
A chiropractor is someone who has been trained in chiropractic methods and practices them professionally.
“Chiropractic training is a four-year academic program,” says Dr. Pickar. “It includes classroom work and direct clinical training caring for patients. Some chiropractors receive additional two- to three-year residency training in a number of specialized fields. Chiropractors must be licensed in order to practice.”
You may be able to find a good chiropractor based on referrals from family, friends, or your doctor. Don't hesitate to visit more than one chiropractor before deciding on a specific provider.
“Speak with your chiropractor about his or her training and experience with the particular problem you have,” advises Pickar.
Video: Full Spine Cracking Adjustment | Baltimore Chiropractor
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