If you’re exploring chiropractic treatment, chances are you’re in pain. Back pain is probably the most common reason patients seek out chiropractic care, but chiropractors also frequently treat stiff necks, headaches, and joint pain. 1 In general, chiropractic medicine provides a drug-free approach to helping patients suffering from a range of complaints relating to discomfort and reduced function in the musculoskeletal and nervous systems.
Chiropractic medicine is a widely practiced alternative or complementary therapy with a long history and broad mainstream acceptance. Chances are if you haven’t received treatment from a chiropractic physician, you know someone who has. Treatments are often partially or fully covered by health insurance plans.23
While chiropractic medicine is widespread, any new experience with a health care provider can feel intimidating when you are the patient! Demystifying what chiropractic medicine is all about before you go can help you feel more relaxed and prepared for your appointment. It can help you identify topics of discussion and questions for your provider, and ultimately ensure you get the most out of your chiropractic visit.
But what does a chiropractor really do? And what can you expect from your treatment experience?
What is chiropractic care?
Chiropractic care can encompass a range of practices meant to help patients live healthier lives. But what sets chiropractic medicine apart is its focus on hands-on treatment of the spine and joints.
You may have heard the term “chiropractic adjustment,” a popular term that refers to a variety of spinal manipulations performed by a chiropractic doctor. The American Chiropractic Association explains the purpose of spinal manipulation as a method “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.” 4
Tissues can be injured suddenly, through a major trauma such as a car accident or improper approach to lifting heavy furniture that results in physical changes like a herniated disk, sciatica, and symptoms like muscle spasms and acute pain. Or damage can occur over time through repetitive stress as in carpal tunnel syndrome caused by typing, or chronic low-back pain caused by sitting for long hours with poor posture.
In any case, the approach a chiropractic physician takes to treatment is, like a massage therapist, distinctly hands-on. Spinal manipulations aim to restore range of motion to treat inflammation, pain, and loss of function. Usually a series of sessions is scheduled to thoroughly address a complaint.
In addition, chiropractic education generally encompasses other healthy lifestyle practices that contribute to patient wellness and support recovery. To complement spinal manipulation and other hands-on treatments in the office, your chiropractor may also counsel you about steps you can take on your own to improve your condition through lifestyle changes like nutrition and exercise.
The chiropractic intake
A chiropractic office feels similar to a standard medical office in many ways, and your initial appointment with a chiropractor will mirror the intake process with any health care provider. The chiropractic physician will conduct a systematic review of your health history and a physical examination and may order diagnostic tests such as X-rays.
A general physical exam will likely be followed by a complete examination of your spine. A total spinal exam is needed to reveal all the ways an injury may be affecting your body. Often, an injury will cause a person to adjust their movement in ways that can cause problems in other parts of the body. For example, subluxation in the lumbar spine may actually be causing your neck pain. For this reason, the chiropractic physician will conduct a thorough physical examination to investigate fully the causes of your symptoms.
To facilitate spinal manipulations, the chiropractic doctor will likely have you position yourself on a chiropractic treatment table. This is a more complex version of a regular medical exam table that allows the patient’s body to be placed comfortably in a variety of specific positions needed for different manipulations.
The physician, using either hands or a tool, will apply force to your joints to help restore mobility (manipulations often produce a cracking or popping sound, which is harmless). The force applied may range in strength depending on your condition and comfort.7 Usually patients experience no discomfort from manipulations, but occasionally there may be mild soreness or aching for 12-48 hours following treatment - similar to the lingering effects of exercise.8
Compared to the side effects and risks of pain medication and surgery, chiropractic care is considered an extremely safe option for patients seeking pain relief, improved mobility and function and an overall higher quality of life.910
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1American Chiropractic Association: