Snap, Crackle, Pop: Chiropractic Care

By Nicole Beaver

It had started off innocently enough as an ache in my lower back. It was persistent, though, and progressively got worse. Eventually, I couldn’t even walk on my left side! Two doctor’s visits and one ER visit later resulted in an eventual diagnosis of sciatica. Sciatica is when the sciatic nerve (which runs from the lower back down the back of each leg) is injured and causes pain in the lower back that spreads to the hip, buttocks, and legs. It also causes tingling, or a “pins and needles” sensation in your foot. I’m not quite sure how I developed it; when it appeared during the summer I had been exercising more frequently, so my best guess is I somehow injured it while mowing the lawn of my parent’s home or cycling. Now in most cases, the pain goes away on its own. However, I wasn’t going to be so lucky this time. 

I was prescribed potent painkillers and nerve-blockers, both of which made me sick. My fourth day in, I was finally fed up and uncomfortable with how my body was responding to this form of treatment. My therapist, thankfully, told me that there was a non-chemical answer: a chiropractor. Now I had an idea or two of the practice, limited to a simple “they crack backs and help you with posture.” I Googled a few places and found a practice in Commerce Place that both fit my budget/insurance and had good reviews. I went in on the morning of September 9th and I have been there a total of 12 times now: as I am writing this, I am going in for another alignment. Compared to a few weeks ago when I was in agony, I am doing far better now with a combination of chiropractic treatment, massage therapy, gentle yoga, and an epsom-salt soak every other night. Thus, I was inspired to do my next few articles on these treatments and their benefits with disorders, disabilities and illnesses. Please note I’m the farthest thing from a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or doctor. These are only my experiences, my research, and my thoughts on the matter. Talk to your healthcare provider, mental, or physical if you decide to do any of what I’ll be talking about. 

WebMd defines the practice of Chiropractic treatment as “hands-on spinal manipulation…the theory being that proper alignment of the body’s musculoskeletal structure, particularly the spine, will enable the body to heal itself without surgery or medication. Manipulation is used to restore mobility to joints restricted by tissue injury caused by a traumatic event…or repetitive stress.” Its primary use is pain relief, an alternative source specifically for muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissue–cartilage and ligaments. It is sometimes used in conjunction with conventional medical treatment, such as my own. It’s based on Subluxation Theory, which defines as “the unfalsifiable belief that disease is caused by impaired nerve flow.” This hypothesis has yet to be substantiated. However, NCBI notes in their article “Subluxation: dogma or science?” that it is “a legitimate, potentially testable, theoretical construct for which there is little experimental evidence.” Keep in mind, of course, that research is still being done on it. For myself, it’s helping. 

People often wonder what it’s like to go to a chiropractor. I can only speak from my experience about how my appointments go with additional information supplied by WebMd: A chiropractor first takes a medical history, performs a physical examination, and may use lab tests or diagnostic imaging to determine if treatment is appropriate for your back pain. The latter two weren’t used, however, given my obvious mobility issues and pain bending or moving my left side certain ways. The treatment plan may involve one or more manual adjustments in which the doctor manipulates the joints, using a controlled, sudden force to improve the range and quality of motion. When I go in for my appointments, I’m shown to a room with a recliner-like bed and the paper you find on medical beds in hospitals lain across the head of it. I’m supposed to remove my shoes, belt (if I’m wearing one), glasses, and anything in my pockets. After skimming through a few magazines, my chiropractor comes in and has me lay on my front. He asks me how my pain is, my stiffness, where it’s located, and then he pokes around. If you’re wondering if it hurt, it does a little (given how my issues are nerve-related), especially if it’s a particularly bad day and I’m more sore than usual. I can say though that it hurts about as much as when you pinch yourself briefly. He pokes around my spine, feeling how it’s aligned, and then has me take a deep breath in and release it. When it’s mostly out, he presses down on my shoulders and there’s a very loud crack. It aches, but then it feels nice. If you’ve ever bent over, felt something pop and release tension, that’s exactly how it feels. He’ll do it a couple more times, and then have me flip onto my back. He’ll pull at my neck, stretching it out, and then proceed to crack it. The crack is loud but it is by far the best feeling afterwards! Within five to ten minutes, my appointment is over and I’m sent on my way. The goals of chiropractic care include the restoration of function and prevention of injury in addition to back pain relief. 

So, what benefits can chiropractic treatment achieve? The Ontario Chiropractic Association lists several of them: it is an effective treatment for both acute and chronic back pain, neck associated disorders, and is deemed more effective than medication for acute/subacute neck pain in the short and long term. Patients can find relief from plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the fibrous tissue that causes immense pain) as well as migraines. And, of course, patients with sciatica like yours truly can find relief with chiropractic treatment. But with that being said, nothing is perfect. After my first set of treatments, I was progressively stiffer and sorer for a few days (which I was warned would happen). It’s a part of the healing process, I was informed. 

While complications with chiropractic treatment is rare, there can be risks, including: 

  • A herniated disk or a worsening of an existing disk herniation
  • Compression of nerves in the lower spinal column (cauda equina syndrome)
  • A certain type of stroke (vertebral artery dissection) after neck manipulation

Please don’t seek chiropractic adjustment if you have the following:

  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Numbness, tingling or loss of strength in an arm or leg
  • Cancer in your spine
  • An increased risk of stroke
  • A known bone abnormality in the upper neck

In summary, while Chiropractic care isn’t the only way to treat disorders involving the muscles, nerves, and spine, I do believe that, for myself at least, it’s beneficial. Ultimately, it’s something that many of us as students, those of us who bend over and sit constantly day in and day out, could look into as well.

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