Chiropractic is 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. Chiropractic care is used most often to treat neuromusculoskeletal complaints, including but not limited to back pain, neck pain, pain in the joints of the arms or legs, and headaches.
Doctors of Chiropractic – often referred to as chiropractors or chiropractic physicians – practice a drug-free, hands-on approach to health care that includes patient examination, diagnosis and treatment. Chiropractors have broad diagnostic skills and are also trained to recommend therapeutic and rehabilitative exercises, as well as to provide nutritional, dietary and lifestyle counseling.
The most common therapeutic procedure performed by doctors of chiropractic is known as “spinal manipulation,” also called “chiropractic adjustment.” The purpose of manipulation is to restore joint mobility by manually applying a controlled force into joints that have become hypomobile – or restricted in their movement – as a result of a tissue injury. Tissue injury can be caused by a single traumatic event, such as improper lifting of a heavy object, or through repetitive stresses, such as sitting in an awkward position with poor spinal posture for an extended period of time. In either case, injured tissues undergo physical and chemical changes that can cause inflammation, pain, and diminished function for the sufferer. Manipulation, or adjustment of the affected joint and tissues, restores mobility, thereby alleviating pain and muscle tightness, and allowing tissues to heal.
Chiropractic adjustment rarely causes discomfort. However, patients may sometimes experience mild soreness or aching following treatment (as with some forms of exercise) that usually resolves within 12 to 48 hours.
In many cases, such as lower back pain, chiropractic care may be the primary method of treatment. When other medical conditions exist, chiropractic care may complement or support medical treatment by relieving the musculoskeletal aspects associated with the condition.
Doctors of chiropractic may assess patients through clinical examination, laboratory testing, diagnostic imaging and other diagnostic interventions to determine when chiropractic treatment is appropriate or when it is not appropriate. Chiropractors will readily refer patients to the appropriate health care provider when chiropractic care is not suitable for the patient’s condition, or the condition warrants co-management in conjunction with other members of the health care team.
Chiropractic is widely recognized as one of the safest drug-free, non-invasive therapies available for the treatment of neuromusculoskeletal complaints. Although chiropractic has an excellent safety record, no health treatment is completely free of potential adverse effects. The risks associated with chiropractic, however, are very small. Many patients feel immediate relief following chiropractic treatment, but some may experience mild soreness or aching, just as they do after some forms of exercise. Current literature shows that minor discomfort or soreness following spinal manipulation typically fades within 24 hours. Neck pain and some types of headaches are treated through precise cervical manipulation. Cervical manipulation, often called a neck adjustment, works to improve joint mobility in the neck, restoring range of motion and reducing muscle spasm, which helps relieve pressure and tension.
Neck manipulation is a remarkably safe procedure. While some reports have associated upper high-velocity neck manipulation with a certain kind of stroke, or vertebral artery dissection, there is not yet a clear understanding of the connection. The occurrence appears to be very rare—1 in 5.85 million manipulations— based on the clinical reports and scientific studies to date. If you are visiting your doctor of chiropractic with upper-neck pain or headache, be very specific about your symptoms. This will help your doctor of chiropractic offer the safest and most effective treatment, even if it involves referral to another health care provider.
It is important for patients to understand the risks associated with some of the most common treatments for musculoskeletal pain — prescription and over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) — as these treatments may carry risks significantly greater than those of chiropractic manipulation. According to a study from the American Journal of Gastroenterology, approximately one-third of all hospitalizations and deaths related to gastrointestinal bleeding can be attributed to the use of aspirin or NSAID painkillers like ibuprofen.
Chiropractors are educated as primary contact health care practitioners, with an emphasis on musculoskeletal diagnosis and treatment. Educational requirements for doctors of chiropractic are among the most stringent of any of the health care professions. The typical applicant at a chiropractic college has already acquired nearly four years of pre-medical undergraduate college education, including courses in biology, inorganic and organic chemistry, physics, psychology and related lab work. Once accepted into an accredited chiropractic college, the requirements become even more demanding — four to five academic years of professional study are the standard. Because of the hands-on nature of chiropractic, and the intricate adjusting techniques, a significant portion of time is spent in clinical training.
In total, the chiropractic curriculum includes a minimum of 4,200 hours of classroom, laboratory and clinical experience. The course of study is approved by an accrediting agency that is fully recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.