Breast Cancer Treatment Side Effects"”Have You Tried a Chiropractor?

Patient Expert

Joint pain, headaches, and the assorted maladies that come with breast cancer treatment can be stubbornly resistant to standard treatments. Have you ever considered getting help somewhere outside the mainstream? Millions of Americans swear by regular visits to the chiropractor. Could a chiropractic adjustment help you? Read our FAQS on this branch of complementary medicine.

Q. I'm just finishing chemo, and as a result I've got some pretty significant joint pain. I've heard that chiropractors deal with joint pain. Would a visit to a chiropractor help me?

A. Maybe; each woman is different. But up to 16% of American adults receive at least one chiropractic treatment annually. And the reported level of patient satisfaction with chiropractic treatment is very high. So it's definitely worth a try.

Q. Growing up, I always heard that chiropractors were "quacks." It seemed like people didn't really trust them. What's changed?

A. First, you should understand what chiropracty is, and how it works. Like many practitioners of mind-body modalities, chiropractors believe that the body has a lot of self-healing capabilities. They feel that form and function are closely intertwined; so that if your body's "form" is off (e.g., your spine is slightly out of line), your health will suffer. It's the goal of the chiropractor to make sure all the physical parts of your body are working together as smoothly and efficiently as possible, in order for you to maintain good health.

When you visit a chiropractor (s)he'll give you a physical exam, take your health history, and perhaps take X-rays. Once the chiropractor has reviewed all of your information, (s)he'll come up with a treatment plan based on your body, your current health, and your goals going forward.

A chiropractic treatment usually focuses on the spine, as chiropractors believe that misalignment of the spine is responsible for many different health issues. The chiropractor may apply steady, firm pressure to different areas of your spine in order to improve the quality and range of motion in any particular area. (S)he may also "crack" your back you may have heard friends who visit the chiropractor regularly talk about this "push and twist" that often does produce an audible crack. Patients seem to find it very helpful, albeit a bit of a shock at the time.

In addition, the chiropractor may massage certain areas of your body; move your joints in a controlled way; or give you electro-stimulation, ultrasound treatments, or apply heat or ice.

So why do more people seem to trust chiropractors than they did in the past? Partly because alternative and complementary medical treatments have become much more mainstream than they were previously. Now, many people are willing to accept the idea that you can improve your health not only through traditional drugs and surgery, but by strengthening the mind-body connection, and giving your body the environment it needs to heal itself. That's where chiropractic medicine comes in. By getting your body into the proper alignment, the chiropractor is giving it every opportunity to start healing itself.

In addition, so many Americans now see chiropractors regularly that it's hard to discount their effectiveness. Of all the kinds of complementary medicine people in America access, including acupuncture, yoga, massage, Reiki, and others, fully 50% of patient visits are to chiropractors.

Q. Are chiropractors actually doctors? Like, they have a medical degree?

A. Chiropractors must attend and graduate from a four-year chiropractic school, and must also have at least three years of undergraduate work in order to gain admittance to a chiropractic school. Chiropractic schools are accredited by the Council on Chiropractic Education, which in turn is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Upon graduating, students receive their Doctor of Chiropractic degree. (So no, they don't have a traditional medical degree.) They then must pass a state licensing exam in order to practice.

Q. So what's the down side?

A. Well, chiropractic treatments don't work for everyone. And they're not recommended for women who are experiencing significant bone loss due to drugs and/or advancing age. There's also some increased risk of stroke if you're taking anticoagulants, or have any kind of bleeding problem.

The good news is, most health insurers cover chiropractic treatment. Like physical therapy, there may be an annual coverage limit; be sure to check with your insurance company for the details of your particular plan.

One last word: ask your oncologist before scheduling a visit to the chiropractor. (S)he may want to caution you about particular kinds of chiropractic treatment that might not be appropriate for you right at the moment.