A Chiropractic Primer
What to expect from this holistic, hands-on form of health care
In ancient Greece, the philosopher and healer Herodotus was said to have cured disease through spinal manipulation. Healers known as “bone-setters” in ancient China used similar techniques to eliminate pain. But only in 1895, when a holistic practitioner named D.D. Palmer cured a deaf man’s recent hearing loss through a spinal adjustment, did this centuries-old technique — now known as chiropractic care — begin to bloom in the U.S.
In its early days, some critics scoffed at chiropractic as being of dubious medical value. Palmer and other practitioners in the early 1900s were even jailed for practicing medicine without a license. During the 1960s, the American Medical Association still maintained a somewhat anti-chiropractic position, labeling it unscientific. It wasn’t until the ’80s — when a court case decided that the AMA was restraining chiropractic trade — that further research developed, allowing modern chiropractic to emerge as a widely acknowledged medical modality.
“We’re seeing a lot more acceptance, and more integration of chiropractic treatment into a multidisciplinary approach to medical treatment,” says Jason Brown, D.C., who practices at Brown Integrated Chiropractic in Schodack, near Albany. “The barriers are definitely breaking down.”
Patients themselves are partly to thank, says Dr. Brown. “People are looking for effective, non-drug, nonsurgical options,” he explains. Yet, he adds, some folks still do hold a bit of initial bias against chiropractic — until they experience its results. “In fact, some of my favorite patients are those who first come in with skeptical beliefs about chiropractic care. Their minds are pleasantly changed with they see what modern chiropractic is all about,” adds Dr. Brown, president of District 10 of the New York State Chiropractic Association.
The popularity of this healing practice is growing by leaps and bounds. According to the New York Chiropractic Association, the state now has nearly 5,400 licensed chiropractors. And chiropractic medicine even made history recently. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, chiropractic treatment was offered for the first time ever in the Olympic Village Polyclinic, the central sports-medicine facility treating athletes from around the world. (Doctors of chiropractic have long served on various nations’ Olympic medical staffs, but this marked the first time they’ve served directly in the Polyclinic.)
Just what is chiropractic?
Essentially, it’s a hands-on, noninvasive treatment used for the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. The central nervous system is housed in the spine; when a subluxation is present — meaning that the spine is misaligned — it is believed that a combination of spinal adjustment and stabilization of the surrounding muscles and ligaments helps the body to heal itself. The technique is known as spinal manipulation.
During a treatment, the patient usually lies face-down on a specially designed padded table. The doctor of chiropractic, or D.C., adjusts improperly positioned parts of the spine or other areas, using the hands to make controlled pushing or pulling movements that “release” a joint by moving it beyond its normal range of motion. Application of heat or cold therapy, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation may sometimes be used during a session.
Although back and neck pain are generally the biggest reasons people contact chiropractors, many patients seek treatment for headaches or discomfort in the joints of the arms or legs. Studies indicate that chiropractic can also sometimes help other conditions, including ulcers, migraines, some types of osteoporosis, asthma, eczema, shingles — even ear infections in children.
Chiropractic isn’t just about “cracking” the spine, then sending the patient home, notes Keri Bunbury, D.C., of KB Chiropractic in Kingston. “We consider the overall biomechanics: the spine, as well as the person’s gait — how they walk — and the way they move and sit.” She adds: “When you get the misaligned bone to shift, you still need to help stabilize the surrounding soft tissue” such as joints, ligaments, and muscles. And here’s where “homework” might come in — patients are encouraged to practice proper posture throughout the day and may be prescribed simple stretches or exercises to do at home.
Out-of-place spinal vertebrae — and related pain — can result from a variety of problems, including physical trauma from accidents, sprains and strains, ruptured spinal discs, sports injuries, obesity, arthritis, certain kidney conditions, stress — even postural no-no’s such as spending hours hunched over a computer.
“Some people don’t realize that chiropractic training is actually comparable to that of an M.D. in many ways,” says Dr. Brown. Students — they earn a Doctorate of Chiropractic degree — usually study premed for two to four years, then spend four to five years at a chiropractic college (the nationally recognized New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls is one of approximately 18 across the nation), which includes several hundred hours of clinical training. Students also must pass national and state boards.
“In my case, I went to medical school first, then studied chiropractic,” says Dr. Bunbury, who attended the prestigious Palmer College of Chiropractic. She sees patients of all ages: “We even treated a tiny baby once, who was born with its head slightly turned to one side.” Physicians had first put the infant on anti-inflammatory medication, the doctor recalls, “but the baby got jaundice. So the parents asked if we would try a very gentle releasing technique on the child. That’s all it took; after they went home, the parents continued with some gentle stretching of the area, and the baby was fine.”
Dr. Bunbury says a holistic approach is key in chiropractic: “I like the fact that we regard our patients as a whole; chiropractic is really patient-centered care.” She explains that an individual’s treatment program might include not just spinal adjustment, but everything from nutritional counseling (losing weight often helps reduce back problems) and exercises that boost flexibility and strengthen back and stomach muscles, to stress-reduction techniques (many folks holds tension in the neck, shoulders, and back).
“Our ultimate goal is to empower the patient, to teach them steps to take care of themselves,” says Dr. Brown. “I can take them to a certain point with chiropractic adjustments, but then it’s really up to the person.”
Common Myths About Chiropractic
Myth: It hurts.
Fact: “Most patients feel immediate relief from pain and tightness after treatment,” says Dr. Bunbury. Some, especially those with severe neck or back pain, might feel slight temporary discomfort. “It’s similar to the momentary discomfort that you might feel when tight muscles are worked on during a massage; afterwards, there’s a great sensation of relief.”
Myth: It’s unsafe.
Fact: Spinal manipulation by a licensed, experienced chiropractor is widely recognized as one of the safest drug-free therapies available for neuromuscular skeletal complaints, according to the American Chiropractic Association. (And, the group points out, millions of Americans who try to tame their back and muscle pain by using over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen or other NSAIDS — nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories — might, in some cases, face risk of serious side effects such as gastrointestinal bleeding.)
Myth: You have to keep going back for more treatments.
Fact: Just as getting one massage won’t result in permanently relaxed muscles, chiropractic is a hands-on procedure that often works best in a series. Before starting treatment, the American Chiropractic Association suggests that you get a clear idea from your chiropractor the extent of what’s being recommended, and how long it’s likely to last. “After we’ve dealt with their acute problem, some of my patients continue to come in three or four times a year just for a ‘tune-up,’ ” says Dr. Bunbury. “There’s definitely a value to ongoing, supportive care. But it’s always up to the patient how often he or she chooses to be treated.”
Q: What causes that weird popping or clicking sound during an adjustment?
A: A painless release of a tiny gas bubble between the joints creates that distinctive little “pop.” It’s the same thing that happens when you “crack” your knuckles.
Q: How do I find an experienced chiropractor?
A: To locate a licensed professional, get recommendations from friends, physicians, or holistic-care providers; the New York State Chiropractic Association Web site also offers a “find a doctor” service.
Q: Do I need a referral?
A: No, according to the American Chiropractic Association. Chiropractors are defined as first-contact physicians by state and federal regulations. A licensed doctor of chiropractic is permitted to offer a diagnosis or refer patients to another appropriate health-care professional if needed. Many insurance plans now cover chiropractic care; check with your provider.