Chiropractic Profession — Not Just Back Doctors

Should You See a Chiropractor for Your Back Troubles?

If you're like most people, when you hear the word chiropractor, you immediately think "back doctor."

But the chiropractic profession is not only about cracking backs. Rather, it is built on the belief that spinal alignment affects the health of the entire body. Because of this, the techniques chiropractors use to align the spine may also bring about a variety of health benefits for which you wouldn't ordinarily turn to this type of spine care provider.

What is Chiropractic?

A chiropractor adjusts a patient.
Chiropractic may help prevent stenosis and relieve back pain. Andy Crawford/Cultural Exclusive/Getty Images

Chiropractic is a type of alternative or complimentary medicine concerned with the relationship between your body's structure and its functioning. 

As you likely know, chiropractic diagnosis and treatment focuses mainly on the spine. This is because the nerves that branch from the centrally located spinal cord out to all areas of the body have to pass through the sides of the spinal column. Chiropractors believe that if the spinal bones are misaligned, this may negatively affect overall health because the misalignment impedes these nerves. 

By the same token, the chiropractic belief is that a well-aligned spine enhances general health. In this case, they say, the nerves that exit the spine do not experience blockages from nearby structures, and can therefore transmit their impluses freely.

While many medical doctors view chiropractic as a "controversial" treatment, this type of treatment has become more mainstream in recent decades. Many insurance plans cover it, and research collaborations exist between traditional medical disciplines and chiropractic. 

A February 2015 report published in the National Health Statistics Report found that chiropractic is the fourth most commonly used alternative approach used by Americans. This placement held steady for an entire decade, from 2002 to 2012, the report says.

Chiropractors treat pinched nerves, chronic low back pain, arthritis, tilted pelvis and leg length differences and other conditions. Generally, a chiropractor's goal is to increase range of motion; if you have spinal instability, for example, spondylolisthesis, chiropractic treatment may not be a good fit for you.

The Chiropractic Adjustment

Rib cage, pelvis and spine
Rib cage, pelvis and spine. SCIEPRO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

The chiropractic view of health, which is based on spinal alignment, is unique. The main thrust of chiropractors' work is to apply a calculated force to spinal joints, called an adjustment, to cause a change in alignment and, therefore, the functioning of the nervous system. This, in turn, affects the overall health of the individual.

Neck Adjustments and Blood Pressure

Spinal anatomy of the upper back and neck.
Spinal anatomy of the upper back and neck. / Getty Images

A 2007 pilot study done at the University of Chicago linked a specific type of chiropractic called NUCCA, which adjusts only the very first vertebra, with reduced blood pressure in patients with Stage 1 hypertension. Although the subject studies were not taking medication at the time of the study, the decreased blood pressure measurements lead the authors to conclude that NUCCA treatment may produce outcomes similar to two-drug therapy for high blood pressure.

Choosing a Chiropractor

Diploma. Eric Westbrook / Getty Images

As with any choice of doctor, it is wise to be aware of the licensing and educational requirements of the chiropractic profession. 

Chiropractors are licensed by your state, after passing a national exam. They are also regulated by the state, usually by a group called the State Board of Chiropractic Examiners. Chiropractors complete a minimum of 4 years of advanced training in their field.

Determine if a chiropractor you're considering meets these requirements and assess his or her approach to patient care before trusting yourself into their care.

Chiropractic Then and Now

Chiropractor Tables
Chiropractor Tables. Eliza Snow / Getty Images

Chiropractic got its start in 1895 when a self-taught healer named David Palmer sought a drugless cure for disease. To develop his objective, Palmer turned to the ancient art of manual medicine. As discussed above, Palmer claimed that many health problems were caused when misaligned vertebra impinged on spinal nerves.

Today, chiropractors diagnose misalignment of the spinal bones (subluxations) by means of medical histories, neurological and posture exams, X-rays and sometimes lab tests. They treat the subluxations they identify with adjustments, also known as manipulation or Grade 5 mobilizations. 

Is Chiropractic Care Cost-Effective?

Is chiropractic cost effective?
Is chiropractic cost effective?. H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Getty Images

For the most part, people who see a chiropractor for neck or back pain get about 30% better within 6 weeks of starting, according to a 2018 study published in the European Journal of Pain.

After that initial six weeks, you might still experience low or medium intensity pain or other symptoms.

A 2005 study showed that chiropractic is more cost-effective than medical treatment for chronic low back pain. The study was published in October 2005 by the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics and reveals that, while both treatment types cost about the same, chiropractic care results in better outcomes for patients.

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