Chiropractic is a branch of healthcare that helps preserve and restore health using a hands-on approach. The American Chiropractic Association defines it as a: “Health care profession that focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system, and the effects of these disorders on general health.” Practitioners of chiropractics are referred to as chiropractors or chiropractic physicians.
Chiropractors pay particular attention to the structure and function of the spine, and to how alterations in spinal mechanics compromise the function of the nervous system. Poor nerve function over time makes the body more vulnerable to disease. The ultimate aim of a chiropractor is to assist the human body in doing its own healing. Our bodies are designed perfectly, but we know that they do not always work so. This is not a design fault. It is a consequence of our habits and lifestyle choices.
Understanding the need
Vertebral subluxation complex [VSC]—a mix of poor movement and malalignment of spinal segments—leads to muscle spasm, weakness, inflammation and swelling of the tissues. Finally, it leads to compression and/or twisting of the spinal cord and nerve roots. The end result of these changes is degeneration of the spine [known as spondylosis] and a disturbance of the body’s state of balance. This makes it increasingly difficult for the body to adapt to the environment.
People become subluxated through a range of causes, the most common ones being:
- Physical trauma: accidents, surgeries, bad posture, absence of exercise and repetitive movements.
- Chemical: what we eat and drink, medicines we consume, pollutants in the air and in our homes.
- Emotions: anger, fear, tension, worries and perceptions about past/future events.
- Social stress: making others happy, fitting in, meeting the needs of friends and family.
When our bodies become unable to accommodate and adapt to one or more of the above stressors, we experience a range of symptoms including pain, numbness, tingling, heaviness, fatigue, memory loss, anxiety, depression, and irritability.
These symptoms are not necessarily bad—they are just your body’s way of alerting you that something is not working properly.
Chiropractors focus on helping the body to be well. They do not treat diseases; however, they may work with medical doctors in the management and cure of some conditions. The health of an individual is the focus, not just the relief of symptoms, as where we hurt is not always indicative of where the adjustment is needed.
Chiropractic may be taken independently, or in conjunction with other therapies such as homoeopathy, massage, or acupuncture.
That being said, most people visit a chiropractor for the first time for help with one of the following:
- Back and neck pain
- Stiffness and pain in shoulders, knees and other joints
- Headaches, vertigo and dizziness
- Cramps, numbness and tingling sensation, especially in hands and/or feet
- Problems with posture and repetitive strains.
How chiropractic helps
Various studies have found that chiropractic helps in addiction recovery, menstrual and fertility problems, asthma, acidity, recurrent infections, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] and learning difficulties in children. According to a study published in the Journal of Vertebral Subluxation Research, patients diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease following trauma to their necks, experienced improvement in symptoms and a halt in disease progression. Another study, published in Clinical Chiropractic, found that chiropractics benefited those suffering with gas problems.
Yet another study published in the Journal of Vertebral Subluxation Research demonstrated that serum thiol levels are higher in people who receive regular chiropractic care than in those who do not. Serum thiol protects against oxidative stress—a byproduct of respiration, which is implicated in degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
It has also been shown that chiropractic adjustment can reduce cortisol levels. High cortisol levels over a long period are associated with the development of type-2 diabetes, abdominal obesity, high blood pressure and auto-immune conditions. High cortisol levels also interfere with the rate of tissue healing, and are an indicator for chronic stress—a condition under which the body cannot fully utilise its normal recuperative powers.
None of this is to suggest chiropractic as a ‘cure’ for any of the diseases or conditions mentioned above. Many health issues have complex causes, which are individual for each person. There is rarely one solution for everyone.
When chiropractic may not work
Even with common non-specific back pain, chiropractic may not be effective. Some of the circumstances that may impede its effectiveness include:
- When the stressor that has caused the problem is still present in the person’s life.
- When the problem has no known cure and can only be managed.
- When the person is gaining an advantage from pain, usually without being conscious of it, and so does not want to let go of the illness.
In the first case, chiropractic may help temporarily, but the problem will keep returning until the stressor is addressed. In the second case, it may be too late to effect a full recovery, but some improvement can usually be achieved.
The third scenario is the most difficult to detect but sometimes pain is an excuse to avoid doing something we do not want to do, or is a convenient distractor, helping us avoid facing other problems in our lives. These cases are the most intractable and often do not respond to chiropractic.
Is chiropractic safe?
In healthcare, safety is a relative term, involving the offsetting of risk against benefit. Statistically, chiropractic is safer than surgery or taking drugs. There have been concerns about whether chiropractic adjustments can damage the vertebral arteries in the neck.
Three independent research trials suggest that chiropractic cannot damage health arteries, and that if you already have damage, your risk of progressing to a full stroke doesn’t change whether you consult a chiropractor or a medical doctor. The overall risk of cervical artery stroke following chiropractic care is put at between 1:4 lakh and 1:5.8 lakh treatments.
Some concerns have also been raised about whether chiropractic can damage discs, or cause compression of the nerves of the lumbar spine region [cauda equina syndrome]. Estimates for these risks run at respectively 1:10 lakh patient visits or less, and 1:50+ lakh patient visits. Even though the risks are small, chiropractors take steps to reduce them.
For one and all
Chiropractic is suitable for individuals of all ages. People visiting my clinic have ranged from a few months to more than 90 years old. And you do not have to have a problem to consult a chiropractor. Sports people see chiropractors for help with injury prevention and for improving sporting performance.
Research supports the notion that people who undergo regular chiropractic care tend to make better health choices overall, and to rate their health as good. And that older people who have regular care are in better shape—less medication, fewer stays in hospital, more active—than those who do not. Chiropractic is a health choice, which can ease your pain and help you live the life you want to live.
A typical visit to a chiropractor
A chiropractor studies your complete medical history, not just the current complaint. A physical examination follows, with a range of tests including movement and posture assessment, specific orthopaedic and neurological tests [if required]. Depending on your history and case, your chiropractic physician may ask for imaging, blood work or other evaluation.
Your chiropractor will then discuss a course of care with you. The form of the care varies, with over 100 different chiropractic techniques in use worldwide. While some involve manipulation [audible noise from the joints], some do not. Both approaches work—some people prefer a more obvious manipulation, others find they respond better to low force or techniques with no use of force.