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  • Definition

    Therapy based on the theory that a person's health is determined by the condition of their musculoskeletal and nervous systems.


    Chiropractors believe that misaligned vertebrae impair the nervous system, thereby lowering defenses and contributing to disease. Chiropractors contend that good health requires vertebrae to be in proper alignment - a goal attainable only through spinal adjustments, the crux of chiropractic care.

    Few chiropractors continue to subscribe to the view that subluxations cause almost all health problems. Today, most acknowledge that disease can also result from infectious agents, such as viruses and bacteria, and from lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol or drug abuse. Nevertheless (in accord with original chiropractic theory) chiropractic care remains centered around the notion that the spine is a major factor in health and disease.

    A study, conducted at the Rand Corporation in 1991, reviewed the scientific literature on spinal manipulation and rated the efficacy of spinal manipulation in 1,500 hypothetical back pain cases. They concluded that spinal manipulation is helpful for some patients with back pain. Specifically, the experts concluded that manipulation is useful for common acute low-back pain that has been present for three weeks or less, so long as x-rays do not reveal fractures, tumors or other abnormalities. For other types of back pain, the panel was not able to reach a consensus about the effectiveness of manipulation.

    Many doctors believe that 80 to 90 percent of acute back pain cases will clear up without treatment. The main benefit of manipulation therapy is rapid relief, because it frees patients from low-back pain in a shorter period of time than other treatments. Evidence suggests that adjustments may help against chronic back pain as well. Chiropractic care has proven useful against a single ailment - back pain.

    Good Chiropractic Care

    Chiropractors are winning increased acceptance from the medical community and the public at large. In fact, they treat twice as many people for back pain as medical doctors do. There is little doubt that chiropractic medicine is effective for some cases of acute lower-back pain. There is enough scientific evidence to justify the use of spinal manipulation for some patients with low-back pain.

    Most chiropractors receive four years of training at accredited schools, including instruction in diagnostics, radiology and physical therapy. A good chiropractor will treat mainly lower-back and related pains and will refer you to a physician if your problem falls outside his or her area of expertise.

    If you decide to consult a chiropractor, look for one who is certified by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners (the national standard for practitioners) and who has graduated from a school accredited by the Council on Chiropractic Education. Not all states require these two criteria. Watch out for the following warning signs and be suspicious of any chiropractor who:

    • takes full-spine or repeated x-rays
    • fails to take a comprehensive history and do a clinical exam to determine the cause of your problem
    • claims the treatment will improve immune function, benefit organ systems or cure diseases
    • offers to sell you vitamin cures, nutritional remedies or homeopathic cures
    • solicits children or other family members
    • advises you not to have your children immunized
    • wants you to sign a contract for long-term care
    • promises to prevent disease through regular checkups and manipulations.

    Your chiropractor should:

    • perform a thorough diagnostic work-up, which should include taking your medical history and checking your heart rate, blood pressure, muscular reflexes, leg strength and the range of motion in your joints. In most cases, he or she should order x-rays of the problem area.
    • provide a clear explanation of the entire treatment program before beginning any therapy. If the doctor talks about medicating you or makes claims that he or she will be able to cure infections or diseases, walk out.

    If you do not see a marked improvement after a month of therapy, consider consulting your family physician or an orthopedic surgeon instead.