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What is chiropractic treatment?

Medical reviewer: Dr Ann Nainan
Last reviewed: 20/11/2020
Medically reviewed

Chiropractic treatment is a type of physical therapy that’s often used to treat muscle and joint pain, like back pain and sports injuries.

It’s known as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) because it doesn’t use scientifically proven methods like standard medicine does. Instead, chiropractic treatments involve manual therapy in which a chiropractor uses their hands to move different parts of your body.

Chiropractors tend to focus on moving the spine and neck muscles, bones and joints – something known as spinal manipulation – but they may also use other movements, including:

  • pulling or stretching your muscles in different directions
  • gently moving your joints into different positions

## What conditions does chiropractic treatment help with?

Chiropractic is mainly used to treat muscle and joint pain, such as:

  • back pain - especially low back pain
  • neck pain
  • shoulder pain
  • elbow pain
  • pain caused by wear and tear of the joints (osteoarthritis)

It’s sometimes said that chiropractic treatments can help with asthma, allergies, depression and other conditions that aren’t related to the muscles or joints, but there isn’t much evidence to support this.

How does chiropractic work?

There’s good evidence that spinal manipulation can help treat ongoing lower back pain. And it’s also thought that spinal manipulation may help with neck pain that’s not caused by nerve injury – but only if it’s used along with exercise or other movement-based therapies.

However, on the whole, there’s a lack of good-quality, evidence that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for all other types of conditions.

What happens during a chiropractic session?

During your first session, a chiropractor may:

  • ask about your symptoms
  • ask about your general health and any conditions you’ve had in the past
  • examine your body, spine and posture
  • take X-rays of your spine

The chiropractor will usually then create a care plan that often includes an explanation of what they think is causing your symptoms and how they can treat it.

If the chiropractor thinks you need tests or another type of treatment, they may recommend you see a doctor or another health professional instead of having chiropractic treatment.

But if the chiropractor thinks they can help, they’ll usually ask if you would like to have a treatment session.

Chiropractic treatment

During a chiropractic treatment session, the chiropractor will usually use their hands to make short, sharp, movements to your spine. These movements may feel a little uncomfortable, but they shouldn’t hurt.

You may also hear popping sounds during the treatment, but this is just the sound of gas bubbles popping in the joint’s fluid as pressure is released. It isn’t harmful.

Aside from spinal manipulation, a chiropractor may also give you some advice on things you can do to help improve your symptoms, including advice on exercise and posture.

What to expect after a chiropractic treatment

While chiropractic treatment is generally safe, some people may notice side effects, like aches, pains and stiffness, after a session. These should pass in a few days, but if they continue for longer, you feel like you’re in a lot of pain or you have symptoms you’re worried about after having a chiropractic treatment, see a doctor and/or speak to the chiropractor who did your treatment if possible.

There’s also a small risk of developing more serious problems, like stroke, slipped discs, rib fracture or nerve damage, after having spinal manipulation.

Speak to a doctor before having a session, they will be able to tell you if chiropractic treatment is safe for you and give you advice on how to find a properly trained chiropractor.

Key points:

  • chiropractic treatment is a type of physical therapy used to treat muscle and joint pain
  • It’s a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which means it’s different from treatments used in conventional medicine
  • many chiropractors only treat conditions related to the spine, such as lower back or neck pain
  • there’s good evidence that the spinal manipulation techniques used by chiropractors can help treat ongoing lower back pain
  • chiropractic treatments are generally safe, but they can cause side effects. See a doctor to check it’s a safe treatment for you before having a session

Additional references:

  1. Chiropractic [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available here.
Content supplied byNHS Logonhs.uk
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