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Crack me up

Once widely ridiculed as charlatans, chiropractors are now recognized as highly skilled healers

ChiropracticA couple of years ago, after I foolishly ignored my own rule about never lifting anything bigger than my head, I was a basket case. The tension in the back of my neck and shoulders resulted in stress headaches that felt like ice picks being driven into my skull. The burning sensation between my shoulder blades made it nearly impossible to sleep.

Good old Dr. Johnson, who has been my general practitioner since I was three years old and saw me through dozens of childhood injuries and a tonsillectomy, offered this advice: “Take some aspirin.” I wanted to brain him. Instead, I stumbled down the street and into the office of a local chiropractor. After my first visit, my headaches disappeared. My second adjustment wiped out the stiffness in my neck and shoulders. By my third trip to the chiropractor, I was hooked.

I am not alone. According to a recent Gallup Poll, ten percent of all Americans – that’s nearly thirty million people – have used chiropractic services within the past year. Once widely ridiculed as charlatans, chiropractors are recognized today as highly skilled healers who work in tandem with M.D.s and physical therapists in occupational health, sports medicine, and a wide variety of other rehabilitation practices. In fact, chiropractors (required to take more college hours than a regular M.D.) now represent the third largest group of doctoral-level health professionals in the United States, after M.D.s and dentists. Hospitals across the country are adding back crackers to their staffs, and they are turning up on more and more “preferred provider” lists. What’s more, chiropractic medicine is now covered by many workers’ compensation plans as well as Medicare and Medicaid.

Chiropractic is derived from the Greek word chiropraktikos, which means “effective treatment by hand.” Purveyors of this healing art believe that your health depends in large part on a well-tuned nervous system. Chiropractic health care tends to focus on the spine, because the nerves extending from the spine are linked to all parts of the body. The displacement of the spinal column from an accident, physical overexertion, or even plain old stress can result in malfunctions in other parts of the body. Re-aligning your spine by manipulating vertebrae that are out of whack allows your body to operate more efficiently and more comfortably.

Your chiropractor will consider more than just your spine. Taking into consideration your personal medical history, a physical examination, and probably an X-ray or two (but never any drugs), he (or she) will locate and adjust any musculoskeletal area of the body that’s not functioning properly. Once your particular dysfunction is identified, the chiropractor will set about kneading your flesh, manipulating your bones and, quite possibly, even folding you up like a pretzel.

Occasionally a well-outfitted bone jockey will use “activator” instruments, which apply pressure to areas that are out of alignment or aren’t moving within their normal range of motion. Either way, chiropractic adjustments rarely hurt; the adjustment itself lasts a fraction of a second, yet delivers as much as 200 pounds of pressure per square inch. The movement isolates the errant joint, unsticks it and then forces it through its intended arc of motion. Usually there is a brief “crunch” as the joint settles back into place – sort of like the sound your kid brother makes cracking his knuckles, but with the volume turned up. Despite this vaguely unsettling “snap-crackle-pop,” experts insist that the risk of injury to a patient during an adjustment is about a million to one.

Chiropractic care isn’t just about easing your aching bones. “The big misunderstanding about chiropractic medicine is that it’s about putting joints back into place,” according to Raymond Hall, D.C., a West Los Angeles specialist in chiropractic sports medicine. “That’s an outdated theory. It’s about removing nerve interference. The nervous system controls and coordinates all functions. If there is pressure or interference in the nervous system caused by out-of-place joints, the body can’t function properly, and can’t heal itself.” The location and re-alignment of off-kilter joints allows your body to resume normal healing patterns, Hall says.

Chiropractic medicine encompasses several areas of wellness, including joint and muscle fitness and proper nutrition. It is this close attention to the body’s optimal joint and muscle balance, Hall says, that places it among the most beneficial medical treatment for athletes. Both professional and weekend jocks are discovering the relationship between proper spinal alignment and reaching their highest level of achievement. The Journal of Chiropractic Research and Clinical Investigation has published findings that demonstrate significant increases in athletic performance after only three months of regular chiropractic treatment.

“Many chiropractors are trained to work with athletes,” Hall says, “and have a better understanding of sports injuries and physical fitness than other health professionals.” This specialized training allows them to help you achieve a better range of motion, better flexibility, improved reaction times and fewer injuries. Sports chiropractors are usually better equipped with current information on nutrition, diet and conditioning, as well.

Regular visits to a chiropractor can also prevent future injuries, reports John Triano, D.C., Ph.D., a chiropractor at the Texas Back Institute in Plano, Texas. Adjustments can prevent muscle strain during your workout by maintaining your body’s fullest range of motion, and will ensure that your joints aren’t misaligned, which could lead to joint dysfunction down the road. “Better-coordinated movement patterns between bone and muscle create a more even distribution of weight, which prevents muscle strain during exercise,” Triano says. “And, well-distributed weight prevents further misalignments and the chance of future injuries.”

Another advantage of chiropractic medicine is that there are virtually no deleterious side effects from its manipulations. If you experience a little residual soreness the day after an adjustment, it’s the same tenderness you experience the morning after a good workout, caused by lactic acid released by tissues that have been manipulated. The risk of injury to a patient during an adjustment is very slim, according to Hall, who claims that it is four hundred times more likely that a person would be injured from ingesting an Advil, which can cause gastrointestinal bleeding in some people.

Perhaps the best news is that chiropractic effects are almost instantaneous. “The response to a chiropractic adjustment is immediate,” Triano says. “Unlike a lot of medical treatments, you can tell right after a treatment whether or not your body is responding.”

Now, there’s a claim no other medicine can make.

Choosing a chiropractor

If you are experiencing a pain that doesn’t go away in a couple of hours and was brought on by more than just minor strain, it may be time to visit a chiropractor. But which one? Consider the following:

  • Make sure your chiropractor is licensed in your state. His chiropractic license should be prominently displayed in his office; if it isn’t, ask to see it.
  • As with any medical professional, choose someone with whom you can communicate well. If you’re afraid to tell him where it hurts, or if you are uncomfortable receiving adjustments by a female chiropractor, you won’t receive optimal medical treatment.
  • Be choosy. If you are training for a marathon, seek out a chiropractor who specializes in sports medicine. If you suspect your recent weight gain has thrown your body out of whack, choose a chiropractor who offers nutrition counseling. Find a bone jockey who considers the whole picture: muscle balance, joint function, nutrition and, most important of all, one who offers gentle manipulation that is specific to what is troubling you.
  • Finally, be sure that you need to seek chiropractic help. A torn calf muscle does not necessitate a visit to a bone cruncher, but a pattern of injured calf muscles might indicate a larger problem, such as misalignment, that a chiropractor can cure.

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This Article appears on the August 2013 issue of LPM under Health

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