by Robin Brett Parnes, MS, MPH
Chiropractic is a medical system founded in 1895 by Canadian Daniel David Palmer. It is based on the theory that many illnesses originate in the spine, and for this reason it focuses on spinal manipulation. Chiropractic physicians may also use physical therapy techniques and methods drawn from other branches of alternative medicine such as herbs and supplements.
Most visits to chiropractor physicians are for back pain, but it is also commonly used to treat:
Chiropractic theory has based itself on “subluxations,” or shifts in position of vertebrae in the spine. These subluxations are said to affect nerve outflow and cause disease in various organs. A chiropractic treatment is done to "put back in" these "popped out" vertebrae. For this reason, it is called an “adjustment.”
However, no real evidence has ever been presented showing that a given chiropractic treatment alters the position of any vertebrae. In addition, there is no real evidence that impairment of nerve outflow is a major contributor to common illnesses, or that spinal manipulation changes nerve outflow in such a way as to affect organ function.
Other theories suggest that chiropractic manipulation may relieve pain by “loosening” vertebrae that have become immobile rather than by changing their position. In addition, it is believed that sudden movements of manipulation may alter the response patterns of nerves in the spine, again relieving pain.
While many people seek chiropractic treatment for back and neck pain, the current research suggests that chiropractic may offer just a modest benefit. As with most other alternative therapies, more high-quality studies are needed before researchers can come to any definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of chiropractic treatment. The strongest evidence so far seems to be in the treatment of migraine headaches—with chiropractic treatment offering long- and short term results in the form of fewer and less severe migraines.
Chiropractic has also been studied as a treatment for numerous other conditions, like asthma and menstrual pain. Thus far, the results of studies have been inconclusive.
Chiropractic manipulation appears to be generally safe, rarely causing significant side effects. The most common reaction is local discomfort following therapy, which generally disappears within hours of treatment. Other side effects include temporary headache, tiredness, and discomfort radiating from the site of the adjustment.
Stroke is reported as a rare side effect of chiropractic treatment on the neck. Other rare side effects include:
Because of these rare risks, talk to your doctor before you undergo chiropractic manipulation of your neck.
A chiropractor must have a 4-year Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) degree and also must have a state license. To find a doctor in your area, websites like the American Chiropractic Association offer searchable databases. You can also ask your doctor for a recommendation.
American Chiropractic Association
International Chiropractors Association
The College of Family Physicians Canada
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Updated July 17, 2015. Accessed October 17, 2017.
Chiropractors. Occupational Outlook Handbook website. Available at: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Chiropractors.htm. Accessed October 17, 2017.
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Updated December 2013. Accessed October 17, 2017.
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Origins and history of chiropractic care. American Chiropractic Association website. Available at: https://www.acatoday.org/About/History-of-Chiropractic. Accessed October 17, 2017.
Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 1/17/2014