For someone who has never been to a chiropractor before, it’s completely normal to have questions and want to better understand what’s involved in a chiropractic treatment. As with anything, the fear of the unknown can present some challenges and anxieties. The Canadian Chiropractic Association is here to support clearer understanding of the chiropractic profession, including what it is, how it works, and what to expect after your appointment. If you’re wondering about the safety of chiropractic treatments, you’ve come to the right place.
What is chiropractic?
The World Federation of Chiropractic (WFC) has defined chiropractic as: “A health profession concerned with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, and the effects of these disorders on the function of the nervous system and general health. There is an emphasis on manual treatments including spinal adjustment and other joint and soft-tissue manipulation1.”
Put simply, chiropractors are spine, muscle and nervous system experts specifically trained to diagnose the underlying cause and recommend treatment options to relieve pain, restore mobility and prevent reoccurrence without surgery or pharmaceuticals.
Why is it important?
The musculoskeletal system supports your weight, provides physical stability, enables you to move your body, and protects your vital organs. Benefits of chiropractic care include:
- Improved movement in your neck, shoulders, back and torso
- Better posture
- Relief from headaches, neck and back pain
- Prevention of work-related muscle and joint injuries
- Enhanced athletic performance
- Improved flexibility
- Relief of pregnancy-related backache
- Correction of gait and foot problems
How does it work?
Chiropractic treatments normally consist of manual therapy, including joint manipulation, mobilizations and soft tissue therapy.
A manipulation (commonly known as an adjustment) is a quick, small thrust to the spine or other parts of the body intended to provide immediate pain relief and mobility. Mobilizations are slower, more passive movements or stretches that help relieve stiff joints. And soft tissue therapy refers to a variety of different techniques focused on alleviating discomfort without causing movement.
In addition to manual therapies, chiropractors are trained to recommend a course of action that includes exercise, ultrasound or laser treatments, rehabilitation, nutritional counselling and injury prevention strategies. Whether you are suffering from a specific injury to your muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves, or you have a chronic condition such as spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis, a chiropractor can help relieve pain and restore function in the following areas of the body:
- Head and neck
- Low back and pelvis
- Elbows, wrists and hands
- Hips, knees, ankles and feet
Are chiropractic treatments safe?
It is important to keep in mind that there is a difference between something being unsafe and having potential reactions. Any therapeutic treatment from medication to manual therapy comes with potential risk.
For example, there is a concept in the pharmaceutical industry known as a risk-benefit analysis which is used to assess how much benefit a medication has compared to the potential risk. The riskier the medication, the less likely it will become mainstream.2
Spinal manipulations should be recommended for patients when a similar risk-benefit assessment has been conducted. This assessment on the safety of chiropractic treatments is performed via the patient intake form and physical examination.
Adverse reactions lasting less than 24 hours include headaches, stiffness, fatigue, local pain, prickling sensation, nausea, hot skin/flushing, and fainting. In up to 50% of patients, one or more of these have been reported over the span of a lifetime.3, 4
Exact numbers on adverse events from chiropractic manipulation are difficult to extract due to variables such as research design, inclusion criteria and study selection. There is still a lot of research to be conducted on the role of spinal manipulation in individuals with serious adverse events.
Chiropractic treatment is a safe option for the prevention, assessment, diagnosis and management of musculoskeletal conditions and associated neurological system. Canadian chiropractors have over 4,200 hours of core competency training in the musculoskeletal system. It is up to each individual patient and their healthcare provider to assess the safety of chiropractic treatments and potential risks associated, and decide if spinal manipulation is right for them.
1Definitions of Chiropractic, www.wfc.org/website/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=90. 2Risk: benefit analysis of drugs in practice Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin 1995;33:33-35. 3Non-drug management of chronic low back pain Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin 2009;47:102-107. 4Gibbons P, Tehan P. HVLA thrust techniques: what are the risks? International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine. 2006 Mar 1;9(1):4-12. 5Gouveia LO, Castanho P, Ferreira JJ. Safety of chiropractic interventions: a systematic review. Spine. 2009 May 15;34(11):E405-13.