Chiropractic Therapy

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What is chiropractic therapy?

Chiropractic therapy focuses on the relationship between the body's structure — mainly the spine — and the body's function. Doctors of chiropractic, who are also called chiropractors or chiropractic physicians, mostly use a type of hands-on therapy called manipulation (or adjustment). Chiropractic therapy is used most often to treat musculoskeletal conditions — problems with the muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissue such as cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.

The basic concepts of chiropractic therapy can be described as follows:

  • The body has a powerful ability to heal itself.
  • The body's structure (mainly the spine) and its function are closely related, and this relationship affects health.
  • Chiropractic therapy is given with the goal of normalizing the relationship between structure and function and helping the body as it heals.

What to expect in a typical chiropractic session

During your first visit, the chiropractor will take your health history. You will be given a physical exam, with special emphasis on the spine. You might also be given other exams or tests, such as X-rays. If the chiropractor determines that you are an appropriate candidate for chiropractic therapy, a treatment plan will be developed for you.

During treatment, the chiropractor may do one or more adjustments. An adjustment (also known as a manipulation treatment) is manual therapy, which means it's done with the hands. Given mainly to the spine, chiropractic adjustments usually apply controlled force to a joint. The adjustments are done to increase the range and quality of motion in the area being treated. Other health care professionals — including physical therapists, sports medicine doctors, and orthopedists — perform types of manipulation. In the United States, research shows that chiropractors perform more than 90% of manipulative treatments.

Most chiropractors use other treatments in addition to adjustment, such as:

  • mobilization (moving a joint through its range of motion)
  • massage
  • nonmanual treatments such as applying heat or ice, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation

Some side effects may include temporary discomfort in the parts of the body that were treated, headache, or tiredness. These side effects tend to be minor and go away after 1 or 2 days.

The rate of serious complications from chiropractic therapy has been debated. There have been no organized clinical studies on the number of serious complications. But based on what is known now, the risk appears to be very low.

Chiropractor practitioner requirements

Chiropractors graduate from a 4-year program at a chiropractic school. Their training includes both classroom and clinical instruction. At least 3 years of college prep work are required for admission to chiropractic schools. Chiropractic colleges in the United States should be accredited by the Council on Chiropractic Education, an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Students who graduate receive the degree of doctor of chiropractic (D.C.) and are then eligible to take the state licensing exam, which they must pass in order to practice.

Research on chiropractic therapy in women with breast cancer

Studies have shown that chiropractic therapy can help relieve headaches and back and joint pain in women who have had breast cancer treatment. Other studies have looked at using chiropractic therapy to relieve menopausal symptoms in breast cancer survivors, but the results were mixed.

Important things to consider before trying chiropractic therapy

It's important to talk to your doctor if you're thinking about trying chiropractic therapy.

  • Anyone with bleeding problems or those on anticoagulants (blood thinners) may have a higher risk of stroke caused by manipulation of the spine.
  • Women with weakened bones or osteoporosis from breast cancer treatment may be at risk for broken bones from chiropractic therapy.

If your doctor says chiropractic therapy is OK for you, it's also important to tell your chiropractor about any breast cancer treatments you have had. The chiropractor will need to take extra care with any adjustments near the area that had surgery. In some people, the surgical area may not be able to receive adjustment.

Many insurance plans cover chiropractic treatment. Chiropractors can bill Medicare, and about half of U.S. states cover chiropractic treatment under Medicaid. If you have health insurance, check whether chiropractic therapy is covered before you seek treatment.

Back to Types of Complementary Techniques

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