An Introduction to Chiropractic
Chiropractic is a health care approach that focuses on the relationship between the body’s structure—mainly the spine—and its functioning. Although practitioners may use a variety of treatment approaches, they primarily perform adjustments to the spine or other parts of the body with the goal of correcting alignment problems and supporting the body’s natural ability to heal itself.
People seek chiropractic care primarily for pain conditions such as back pain, neck pain, and headache.
Side effects and risks depend on the type of chiropractic treatment used.
Chiropractic practitioners in the United States are required to earn a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from properly accredited colleges.
Ongoing research is looking at effects of chiropractic treatment approaches, how they might work, and diseases and conditions for which they may be most helpful.
Tell your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
Overview and History
The term “chiropractic” combines the Greek words cheir (hand) and praxis (action) to describe a treatment done by hand. Hands-on therapy—especially adjustment of the spine—is central to chiropractic care. Chiropractic, which in the United States is considered part of complementary and alternative medicine (A group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.) Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. (CAM), is based on these key concepts:
- The body has a powerful self-healing ability.
- The body’s structure (primarily that of the spine) and its function are closely related, and this relationship affects health.
- Therapy aims to normalize this relationship between structure and function and assist the body as it heals.
While some procedures associated with chiropractic care can be traced back to ancient times, the modern profession of chiropractic was founded by Daniel David Palmer in 1895 in Davenport, Iowa. Palmer, a self-taught healer, believed that the body has a natural healing ability. Misalignments of the spine can interfere with the flow of energy needed to support health, Palmer theorized, and the key to health is to normalize the function of the nervous system, especially the spinal cord.
Patterns of Use
A 2002 national survey on CAM (A group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine.) use found that about 20 percent of American adults had received chiropractic care at some point during their lives. Chiropractic was one of the 10 most commonly used CAM therapies. Those surveyed reported using chiropractic treatment for the following reasons:
- Combining chiropractic services with conventional medical treatments would help–53 percent
- Conventional medicine would not help–40 percent
- Chiropractic would be interesting to try–32 percent
- Conventional medical professional suggested it–20 percent
- Conventional medical treatments were too expensive–10 percent.
- Many people who seek chiropractic care have chronic, pain-related health conditions. Low-back pain, neck pain, and headache are common conditions for which people seek chiropractic treatment.
What To Expect From Chiropractic Visits
During the initial visit, chiropractors typically take a health history and perform a physical examination, with a special emphasis on the spine. Other examinations or tests such as x-rays may also be performed. If chiropractic treatment is considered appropriate, a treatment plan will be developed.
During followup visits, practitioners may perform one or more of the many different types of adjustments used in chiropractic care. Given mainly to the spine, a chiropractic adjustment (sometimes referred to as a manipulation) involves using the hands or a device to apply a controlled, sudden force to a joint, moving it beyond its passive range of motion. The goal is to increase the range and quality of motion in the area being treated and to aid in restoring health. Other hands-on therapies such as mobilization (movement of a joint within its usual range of motion) also may be used.
Chiropractors may combine the use of spinal adjustments with several other treatments and approaches such as:
- Heat and ice
- Electrical stimulation
- Rehabilitative exercise
- Counseling about diet, weight loss, and other lifestyle factors
- Dietary supplements.
- Side Effects and Risks
- Side effects and risks depend on the specific type of chiropractic treatment used. For example, side effects from chiropractic adjustments can include temporary headaches, tiredness, or discomfort in parts of the body that were treated. The likelihood of serious complications, such as stroke, appears to be extremely low and related to the type of adjustment performed and the part of the body treated.
If dietary supplements are a part of the chiropractic treatment plan, they may interact with medicines and cause side effects. It is important that people inform their chiropractors of all medicines (whether prescription or over-the-counter) and supplements they are taking.
Qualifications To Practice
To practice chiropractic care in the United States, a practitioner must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree from a college accredited by the Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE). CCE is the agency certified by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit chiropractic colleges in the United States. Admission to a chiropractic college requires a minimum of 90 semester hour credits (approximately 3 years) of undergraduate study, mostly in the sciences.
Chiropractic training is a 4-year academic program that includes both classroom work and direct experience caring for patients. Coursework typically includes instruction in the biomedical sciences, as well as in public health and research methods. Some chiropractors pursue a 2- to 3-year residency for training in specialized fields.
Chiropractic is regulated individually by each state and the District of Columbia. Board examinations are required for licensing and include a mock patient encounter. Most states require chiropractors to earn annual continuing education credits to maintain their licenses. Chiropractors’ scope of practice varies by state in areas such as laboratory tests or diagnostic procedures, the dispensing or selling of dietary supplements, and the use of other CAM therapies such as acupuncture (A family of procedures that originated in traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body by a variety of techniques, including the insertion of thin metal needles though the skin. It is intended to remove blockages in the flow of qi and restore and maintain health.) or homeopathy (A whole medical system that originated in Europe. Homeopathy seeks to stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself by giving very small doses of highly diluted substances that in larger doses would produce illness or symptoms (an approach called “like cures like”).).
Compared with other CAM therapies, insurance coverage for chiropractic services is extensive. Many HMOs (health maintenance organizations) and private health care plans cover chiropractic treatment, as do all state workers’ compensation systems. Chiropractors can bill Medicare, and many states cover chiropractic treatment under Medicaid. If you have health insurance, check whether chiropractic services are covered before you seek treatment.
Other Points To Consider
Research to expand the scientific understanding of chiropractic treatment is ongoing.
If you decide to seek chiropractic care, talk to your chiropractor about:
His education, training, and licensing
Whether he has experience treating the health conditions for which you are seeking care
Any special medical concerns you have and any medicines or dietary supplements you are taking.
Tell all of your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
Recent research projects on chiropractic care supported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) have focused on the:
- Effectiveness of chiropractic treatments for back pain, neck pain, and headache, as well as for other health conditions such as temporomandibular disorders
- Development of a curriculum to increase the number of chiropractors involved in research
- Influence of people’s satisfaction with chiropractic care on their response to treatment.
- Agency for Health Care Policy and Research. Chiropractic in the United States: Training, Practice, and Research. Rockville, MD: Agency for Health Care Policy and Research; 1997. AHCPR publication no. 98–N002.
- Meeker WC, Haldeman S. Chiropractic: a profession at the crossroads of mainstream and alternative medicine. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2002;136(3):216–227.
- Barnes PM, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin RL. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults: United States, 2002. CDC Advance Data Report #343. 2004.
- Coulter ID, Hurwitz EL, Adams AH, et al. Patients using chiropractors in North America: who are they, and why are they in chiropractic care? Spine. 2002;27(3):291–296.
- The Council on Chiropractic Education. Standards for Doctor of Chiropractic Programs and Requirements for Institutional Status January 2007. The Council on Chiropractic Education Web site. Accessed on June 28, 2007.
- Dagenais S, Haldeman S. Chiropractic. Primary Care. 2002;29(2):419–437.
- Eisenberg DM, Cohen MH, Hrbek A, et al. Credentialing complementary and alternative medical providers. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2002;137(12):965–973.
- Ernst, E, Pittler, MH, Wider, B, eds. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. 2nd ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier; 2006.
- Kaptchuk TJ, Eisenberg DM. Chiropractic: origins, controversies, and contributions. Archives of Internal Medicine. 1998;158(20):2215–2224.
- Senstad O, Leboeuf-Yde C, Borchgrevink C. Frequency and characteristics of side effects of spinal manipulative therapy. Spine. 1997;22(4):435–440.
For More Information
The NCCAM Clearinghouse provides information on CAM and NCCAM, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
Toll–free in the U.S.: 1-888-644-6226
TTY (for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers): 1-866-464-3615
Web site: nccam.nih.gov
A service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), PubMed contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. CAM on PubMed, developed jointly by NCCAM and NLM, is a subset of the PubMed system and focuses on the topic of CAM.
Web site: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez
CAM on PubMed: nccam.nih.gov/camonpubmed/
ClinicalTrials.gov is a database of information on federally and privately supported clinical trials (research studies in people) for a wide range of diseases and conditions. It is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Web site: www.clinicaltrials.gov
CRISP (Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects)
CRISP is a database of information on federally funded scientific and medical research projects being conducted at research institutions.
Web site: www.crisp.cit.nih.gov
NCCAM thanks Partap S. Khalsa, D.C., Ph.D., for his technical expertise and review of this publication.
This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.
NCCAM has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your primary health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCAM.
NCCAM Publication No. D403
Created November 2007
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