Chiropractic Care: Is It for You?
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Chiropractic Care: Is It for You?

More than 30 million Americans use chiropractic care. See if it's right for you.

Understanding Chiropractic Care

Is chiropractic care for you? You might be wondering this, given the growing popularity of this "alternative" healthcare option. And, you may be surprised to learn just how mainstream chiropractic has become as a healthcare option. Most commonly used to relieve pain, chiropractic care is a noninvasive, nonsurgical practice that does not involve using medication.

Use the important tips below to better understand what chiropractic is and to help you figure out if trying this healthcare option makes sense for you. Also, be sure to inform all your healthcare providers of the various types of care and treatments you are receiving, as well as the medications you are taking.

What Is a Chiropractor?

Doctors of chiropractic, also known as chiropractors or chiropractic physicians, are trained to use a hands-on therapy called manipulation, or adjustment of the spine, as the centerpiece of their clinical care. Treatments using spinal manipulation date back to ancient Greece, but the modern practice of chiropractic was founded in the U.S. in the 1890s.

Today's practitioners are trained through accredited chiropractic colleges and must have a state license to practice. It's important to know that chiropractors aren't licensed to perform major surgery or prescribe medications, and their overall scope of practice -- including laboratory tests and other diagnostic procedures -- varies by state. Check with your state's department of professional regulation if you want to know the full extent of care a chiropractor is permitted to offer in your state.

What Is Chiropractic Care?

Chiropractic differs from traditional Western medicine in how practitioners diagnose, classify, and treat medical problems. Core philosophies of this healing art focus on two key principles: the body's powerful ability for self-healing, and the relationship between the function of the spine and the role chiropractic theory believes it plays in a person's overall well-being.

If you choose to seek chiropractic care, you can expect the practitioner to first take your health history. Then, a physical examination with a special focus on your spine will follow. Other diagnostic tests, such as x-rays, may be recommended. If the practitioner believes chiropractic care will improve your symptoms, he or she will offer you a treatment plan.

Therapy typically focuses on adjustments to the spine, which usually involves the practitioner applying controlled and swift pressure to a specific joint on the spine. The purpose is to broaden the range of motion and improve quality of movement in that general area.

Though most of the treatment will center on the manipulations, many chiropractors will offer a broader treatment plan. This may include heat and ice, ultrasound, dietary supplements, and counseling about diet, weight loss, and other lifestyle improvements the patient can make to be symptom-free as well as for maintaining general good health.

Practically Mainstream

More than 30 million people in the U.S. visited chiropractors last year to address a variety of health issues, including back pain and other problems with muscles, joints, and bones, according to the American Chiropractic Association. In a 2002 national survey, 40 percent of patients receiving chiropractic care complained of back or lower-back problems. Other conditions often treated by chiropractors include:

  • neck pain
  • headaches
  • sports injuries
  • repetitive strains
  • arthritis

Pregnancy & Chiropractic Care: Are your aches and pains pregnancy-related? Pain in the lower and upper back and neck regions are common during pregnancy as a woman's weight and posture change. In the last decade, may chiropractors have expanded their practices to include services for women during and after pregnancy -- when your body has to accommodate lifting and toting an infant.

Benefits and Risks

Most chiropractic adjustments for pain don't cause any side effects following treatment. Typical minor complaints sometimes include temporary aching in the part of the body that was manipulated, or headaches and tiredness, but they usually disappear within a couple of days.

Higher risks are associated with neck adjustments, such as reported incidents of stroke, but these serious complications are rare and the risks are believed to be minimal.

Pain Relief: In studies of chiropractic care, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2003 concluded in a review of the research literature that there were some benefits to individuals who received adjustments for low-back pain, but generally patient outcomes weren't any better or worse than individuals using more traditional treatments. Pain relief was the major benefit cited. However, reviewers at NIH were careful to point out their review only focused on the benefits of manipulation, when many chiropractors include additional non-manual treatments as part of their overall care plans.

Osteoporosis Warning: Women who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis should be warned about one study that found they could be at greater risk for injury with certain types of adjustments compared with other patients with healthier bones. Women who know they have osteoporosis should inform a chiropractor of their condition before agreeing to any treatment plan.

It's important for all women to discuss family health history -- whether a family member has or had osteoporosis, for example -- prior to beginning any kind of medical treatment. A healthcare professional can also help determine if you're at risk for a specific condition and determine if treatment is appropriate or if additional medical testing might be necessary before beginning treatment.

Insurance Coverage

Reimbursement by insurance companies for chiropractic services is more likely -- and more generous -- than for most other types of complementary or alternative care now available such as naturopathic medicine, homeopathy, biofeedback, and reiki, for example. One 2002 study found that more than half of all health maintenance organizations and more than three-quarters of all private healthcare plans provide coverage for chiropractic services. The federal Medicare program permits chiropractors to bill the government for reimbursement, and at least two dozen state Medicaid programs include such coverage, according to the same report.

However, you might find limits on choice. Many healthcare plans will allow members to choose a chiropractor only from the list of providers already on the plans' approved lists. If you have insurance, check with your heath plan to see if they offer coverage and ask if there's a restricted list of providers you are permitted to visit within the terms of your plan.


Questions to Ask a Chiropractor

Here is a list of questions you can ask a chiropractor before choosing to receive care or pursue a treatment plan:

  1. Are you licensed to provide chiropractic care in this state?
  2. Do you have experience treating people with the symptoms I have? Please describe the extent of your experience.
  3. What are the risks associated with the treatment you are recommending?
  4. What side effects can I expect in connection with the treatment plan you are recommending?
  5. Could this treatment plan interfere with any other care or medications I am receiving from my traditional physician?
  6. What results can I expect with this treatment plan?
  7. Are your healthcare services covered by my insurance plan?

Groups & Organizations

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine National Institutes of Health 888-644-6226 Government agency offers information on complementary and alternative treatment, including chiropractic care.

American Chiropractic Association 800-986-4636 The ACA is a professional membership organization that provides consumer information about chiropractic care. Web site offers a free service to help consumers find information about chiropractors in their area.

The National Directory of Chiropractic 800-888-7914 National directory of chiropractors available. The free online locator service also allows consumers to find a chiropractor near them.

Spine Universe Web site offers consumers information about back pain and treatment options, including chiropractic care.

Originally published on, May 2005.