Chiropractic or Conventional?

A doctors explains a woman's spine x-ray to her.
A doctors explains a woman's spine x-ray to her. Syda_Productions

Defining Subluxaton – It Depends on Who You Ask.

Google the word “subluxation” and you’ll likely get pages and pages of commentary from chiropractors, or at least information from the perspective of chiropractic. For many people – especially those with mild to moderate back symptoms – this is all it takes to satisfy their need to know.

But when you have a more serious situation going on with your back, for example, you’re constantly getting referred from specialist to specialist, your pain lasts for years and/or your doctor suggests surgery that you’ve heard doesn’t always work (or worse, makes for new back pain,) this word has an entirely different meaning.

Subluxation from a Medical Point of View

Conventional medical doctors (M.D.s and D.O.s) use the word subluxation to refer to a “partial dislocation.”  A dislocation (according to NIH) is a separation of two bones where they meet at a joint, resulting in the bones being out of their normal position - aka a misaligned joint.

In the spine, it can be difficult for your doctor to tell the difference the between a fracture (bone break) and a dislocation.  What’s more, a fracture-dislocation can occur, which is very serious, and affects your spinal cord. 

Don’t get me wrong - a dislocation on its own is also very serious as is a fracture without a dislocation.  In fact, a dislocation in the spine can lead to death or paralysis.  It’s just that the combination of the two may make things more complicated in terms of diagnosis and treatment.  All 3 injuries are considered emergencies that require immediate medical attention.  Your life may depend on it.

In both a dislocation and a subluxation, soft tissues that are meant for keeping your spinal movements to a normal range also become injured.  The difference between the two injuries, to a great extent, is severity, plus the ligaments in a dislocation can become torn. 

Because ligaments are there to keep your spinal movements in check, when they are overstretched or torn, excessive movement (that may affect your spinal cord) may result. 

Another thing that can happen in a dislocation that doesn’t happen in a subluxation are two related things called facet jumping and facet locking.  In facet jumping, the fit of these joints, which are located at the back of the spine (and provide another mechanism for keeping too much spinal column motion from occurring) become disrupted.  When the facets become locked into this new, but certainly undesirable disrupted fit position, this is called facet locking. Facet jumping and locking can injure your spinal cord and often require a procedure called reduction to get them back to their normal fit.  Treatments that help reduce the facet joints include traction, surgery, and wearing a brace that helps keep the vertebrae properly lined up.

In sum, if your physician tells you you have a spinal subluxation, you might think of it as a milder version of a dislocation.  

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