More than 35 million Americans seek the help of chiropractors each year to improve their range of motion, relieve pain and muscle spasms, and increase flexibility.
Chiropractors do this by manipulating the joints to help realign bones that have moved out of place as a result of injury, sleeping in a weird position, or from repetitive activity.
Are chiropractors safe? Yes, chiropractors are licensed healthcare practitioners who spend 3 to 5 years training for the profession. However, if you have spine cancer, severe osteoporosis, bone abnormalities, or numbness in the limbs, check with your doctor first since these conditions increase the risk of side effects like herniated discs or nerve compression.
What to expect during a chiropractic adjustment
Chiropractors typically work on the spine but can also target the head, neck, hips, knees, and ankles. It all depends on where you’re feeling pain and what muscles, joints, and bones that pain is associated with.
To determine where to perform the adjustment, a chiropractor will usually go through the followingsteps:
Discuss your health history, including any medical conditions and past surgeries.
Physically examine your spine by analyzing your posture.
Order an X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Some chiropractors do this for every patient, others depending on their history and condition.
Analyze your range of motion by checking reflexes and moving your joints.
Once the chiropractor has identified the areas that need adjusting they will then use their hands, or a small handheld tool, to place a quick and sudden amount of pressure on the affected area. The force is intended to push the joint through its full range of motion, says Alex Tauberg, DC, a primary spine practitioner with Tauberg Chiropractic and Rehabilitation.
The procedure itself is usually not painful, but can cause a cracking sound or sensation as your bones move back into place. How soon you’ll notice benefits after an adjustment depends on individual factors, but as many as 60% of patients feel relief after their first visit, while 30% may need two or three adjustments.
“Many people experience less headaches, less stiffness, and often state that they get a better night’s sleep because their body feels more relaxed after a chiropractic adjustment,” says Allen Conrad, DC, chiropractor at the Montgomery County Chiropractic Center
Chiropractic adjustment benefits
Chiropractic adjustments help treat pain in the back, neck, and head. In fact, the American College of Physicians recommends non-drug treatments, like spinal manipulation, as a treatment for acute and chronic lower back pain. However, they recommend other non-drug treatments, like physical therapy, first.
For example, in a small 2014 study of people with leg and back pain, participants who received spinal manipulation, personal instruction, and exercises experienced less pain after 12 weeks than participants who only received personal instruction and exercises.
Other potential benefits of chiropractic adjustments include:
Reduces back spasms
Lessens headaches, including migraines
Decreases sciatica, or pain associated with the sciatic nerve which controls muscles in your back and legs
Decreases instances of pinched nerves in the back
Reduces pain and stiffness from whiplash
If you are considering chiropractic care, consult with your primary care doctor first to rule out other health conditions that may be causing pain, like a herniated disc.
“While chiropractic can help with pain and loss of function, treatment of other medical conditions should be done in coordination with your medical physician,” says Siddharth Tambar, MD, a rheumatologist with Chicago Arthritis and Regenerative Medicine.
Chiropractic adjustment side effects
Chiropractic care is considered low risk, but there are some potential side effects to consider. These include:
Muscle soreness after an adjustment, which usually resolves in about 24 hours
A temporary increase in joint pain
In rare cases, chiropractic adjustments may cause:
These types of complications are rare, Tambar says, and more likely to occur if you are seeking care from an unlicensed person. So, always go to a licensed chiropractor. You can check a chiropractor’s certification and licensure with the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners.