Chiropractic Medicine: How a Chiropractor Helps with Health


If you have back pain or neck pain, chances are at least someone in your circle has suggested you see a chiropractor. But if you’ve never been to a chiropractor before, you may have a lot of questions.

Chiropractors are some of the most popular complementary and alternative health practitioners in the United States. And with good reason. There’s plenty of science that shows that going to a chiropractor for back pain or neck pain—and many other health issues—can be effective.

Before you see a chiropractor, read on to understand what chiropractors do, the benefits of seeing a chiropractor, how to find a good chiropractor and questions you’ll want to ask before your first visit.

chiropractor working on patient's upper back

Are you wondering if you should see a chiropractor for back pain or neck pain? You are not alone; chiropractors are some of the most popular complementary and alternative health practitioners.

What is a chiropractor?

Chiropractor definition: a chiropractor—also known as a doctor of chiropractic, or DC—is a healthcare professional who focuses on the muscles and skeleton and uses hands-on therapies to promote health.

Chiropractors are licensed professionals who use manual therapies—as well as other forms of treatment like exercise and nutrition—to help the body heal itself. (1) Chiropractors are primarily involved in treating problems with the musculoskeletal and nervous systems, like back pain, neck pain, joint pain, or headaches. (2)

Chiropractic care is becoming more popular. A 2017 study showed that more than 1 in 10 U.S. adults—10.3 percent of the population—goes to a chiropractor. That’s up from 9.1 percent in 2012. (3)

Did you know?
Even though it’s enjoying a surge in popularity, chiropractic care is not new. In fact, some form of chiropractic-like manual therapy has been in use for hundreds or thousands of years.

However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was codified into the practice we know today. (4)

Daniel David Palmer, a student of anatomy and physiology, developed modern chiropractic. He established what’s now known as Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1897, and it’s still one of the main institutions teaching chiropractors today.(4)

What does a chiropractor do?

First, it’s important to note that although manual therapies are what chiropractors are best known for, these healthcare professionals provide a wide range of wellness services.

They assess problems through examination, testing, and imaging to find the source of the trouble. Then chiropractors use manual therapies like stretching and joint manipulations to improve function. (2)

These joint manipulations—usually done on the spine, but also done elsewhere on the body—are specific, gentle, and quick. (1) Chiropractors use these manipulations to get joints moving again when there’s a blockage or restriction. These restrictions can come from either a single injury (like whiplash) or they can develop over time from issues like poor posture. (2)

Sometimes chiropractors manage a person’s condition on their own. Other times, when the condition is beyond the scope of their practice or when additional therapies are needed, they’ll refer you to another healthcare provider.

Benefits of going to a chiropractor

When joint mobility is hindered because of tissue injury, you can experience inflammation, pain, and loss of function. The main benefits of being adjusted by a chiropractor are that you’ll regain mobility in the affected joint. That will improve the pain and tight muscles the restriction was causing, and your tissue injury will be able to heal. (2)

But the benefits of seeing a chiropractor go beyond improving mobility. Chiropractors treat a variety of conditions in children and adults. Here are a few of the most common ones.

Chiropractor for low-back pain

When you have low-back pain, whether it’s acute or chronic, you know how hard it is to find relief. In fact, research shows that most treatment for low-back pain offers only modest relief. (5)

Chiropractic, on the other hand, has been shown to be effective for low-back pain. Numerous studies have been conducted on going to a chiropractor for low-back pain, and the consensus is that spinal manipulation works. (6)

chiropractor working on patient's neck

Chiropractic care is effective for back and neck pain—especially acute pain.

Chiropractor for neck pain

Just as for low-back pain, chiropractic care is effective for neck pain as well—especially acute pain. For chronic neck pain, spinal manipulations are most effective when they’re combined with exercise. Spinal manipulations plus exercise can also help recovery from whiplash. (7)

Chiropractor for headaches

Do you suffer from headaches? Try seeing a chiropractor. Research shows that spinal manipulation can help with both migraine headaches and headaches caused by neck issues. These neck-related headaches, also known as cervicogenic headaches, don’t necessarily come with neck pain. So if you have a headache and aren’t sure why, it may be worth giving a chiropractor a call. (8)

Chiropractors for shoulder, arm, leg, and foot problems

Although the spine is the primary focus of most chiropractic treatment, adjustments can also be made to other joints, with good results. Research has shown that chiropractic can help with pain in all these areas: (7)

  • Shoulders
  • Elbows
  • Hips
  • Knees
  • Feet

One caveat is that research shows that using chiropractic after ankle fracture does not seem to be helpful. (9)

How are chiropractors trained and licensed?

Chiropractors go through extensive education, examination, and licensure before they can practice in the United States. That’s been the case for more than a century, at least in some parts of the country. The first state law to licence chiropractors was passed in 1913. (4)

In Canada, chiropractors must complete seven years of university-level education, complete hands-on internships, and pass rigorous national exams before being licensed. Licensing in Canada is legislated at the provincial level. (10)

Did you know?
Today, all states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, recognize chiropractors as healthcare professionals and have specific requirements for education, testing, and licensure.

To practice in the United States, chiropractors must: (1)(4)

  • Possess a doctor of chiropractic (DC) degree, which is a postgraduate degree that usually takes four years to complete
  • Pass the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners exam, a special state exam, or both
  • Obtain a state license
  • Take continuing education courses

In addition to the required education for the DC degree, some chiropractors go on to complete additional, focused education. This allows them to work in specialized fields like pediatrics or orthopedics. (1)

What are the side effects of chiropractic care?

Generally, chiropractic treatment is very safe. Side effects are rare, and serious side effects are exceedingly uncommon. (6) Some people experience mild discomfort after getting a chiropractic adjustment, but it’s usually not more than the soreness you might feel after a workout. That discomfort usually resolves in a day or so. (2)

Be sure to communicate openly and specifically with your chiropractor about your health issues so they can take any necessary precautions to make your treatment as comfortable and effective as possible.

chiropractic taking notes and evaluating patient

To experience the benefits of a chiropractic treatment fully, be sure to communicate openly about your health issues with your chiropractor.

What to expect when you visit a chiropractor

A visit to a chiropractor begins with filling out paperwork and talking to the doctor. Your chiropractor will ask you about your medical history, the problems you’re currently experiencing, any other approaches you’ve tried, surgeries you’ve had, and medications you’re taking. (11)

They’ll then perform a physical exam and do tests or order imaging (like x-rays) if necessary. With a good understanding of you and your condition, your chiropractor will develop a plan to manage your treatment. The actual treatment will vary based on your specific situation and the chiropractor’s approach.

In a typical chiropractic adjustment, your chiropractor will use his or her hands or a special instrument to manipulate joints in your spine or elsewhere on your body. The adjustments are quick and gentle. You may or may not hear a popping sound during the adjustment. That’s nothing to worry about—it’s just the sound of gas being released from between the joints. (2)

After your adjustment, you may feel immediate relief. In some cases, though, it’ll take multiple treatments before you feel better.

While manual adjustments are the mainstay of chiropractic care, your doctor may also recommend exercise, nutrition, supplements, and other therapies to treat your condition.

The bottom line

Whatever treatment you choose for your condition, it’s important to communicate openly, ask questions, and take an active role in your health. Chiropractic care is designed to help your body heal itself. If you follow the guidance of your chiropractor even once you’ve left the office, you’ll have much better chances of treatment success.

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