The Science Behind Chiropractic Spinal Adjustments

Getting relief from back pain is on many people’s wish list. If medication and physical therapy haven’t worked, they may turn to chiropractic care, a holistic treatment that focuses on aligning the body’s musculoskeletal structure. A popular technique for spinal adjustments is manual manipulation. This involves a chiropractor applying short, quick thrusts to joints in order to correct misalignments and release pressure on nerves. Some chiropractors use their hands to perform the manipulations, others rely on instruments such as an activator or Thompson drop table, and still others utilize more gentle stretching.

One of the reasons that chiropractic has become so widely accepted is because it often produces immediate and sometimes dramatic improvements in symptoms. However, a common question is whether or not these improvements are due to a placebo effect or are they real? A recent study has looked into this issue.

The researchers conducted a systematic review of studies examining the effects of spinal manipulation and found 32 articles. Of these, 22 were published in Atlanta family chiropractor journals and eight in medical journals. Among the 22 chiropractic studies, the researchers investigated patients with either lower or upper spine problems. The majority of the cases involved a traumatic injury such as a car accident or sports injury. They also reviewed some cases in which spinal manipulations caused adverse reactions such as vertebral artery dissection, hematoma, herniated disc, dural tear, and muscle spasms.

Spinal manipulation is a key component of the practice of chiropractic, which began in the late 1800s with Daniel David Palmer. He credited his successful curing of deafness in a man with a displaced vertebra as the inspiration for his philosophy that most health problems are caused by misalignments in the spine, or subluxations. These misalignments, Palmer believed, interfere with the nervous system’s flow of innate intelligence and prevent the body from healing itself properly.

To treat these misalignments, Palmer used a method of adjustment that he called “spinal manipulation.” Basically, he applied a quick force to the spine and pelvic joints in order to correct them. He developed a number of techniques for performing these adjustments, including manual palpation of muscles and ligaments; manual testing to identify restricted range-of-motion of the spinal or pelvic joints; and x-ray analysis.

Some of the research on spinal manipulation has shown that it can lead to improved motion in the spine, increased blood flow and oxygen to the tissues surrounding the spine, and a decrease in central sensitization (which increases the sensitivity of nerves to pain). Other studies have shown that it can reduce muscle tension and improve overall joint function. But it is important to note that the improvements from spinal manipulation are usually temporary. And, a small number of studies have shown that spinal manipulation can be dangerous for some patients, especially those with osteoporosis or who are taking blood-thinning medications.