Does Chiropractic Adjustment Work? A Doctor's Opinion on Back, Neck Treatments and More

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Does Chiropractic Adjustment Work? A Doctor’s Opinion on Back, Neck Treatments and More

Are chiropractic adjustments a scam, quackery or proven to work? A doctor looks at the evidence. Included: treatment for back pain, neck pain, more.

Does Chiropractic Adjustment Work? A Doctor's Opinion on Back, Neck Treatments and More | The Survival Doctorby Andrea E. Gordon, M.D.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally hosted on MyFamilyDoctorMag.com, our sister site.
It’s now featured here as part of our new general-health section.]

Mention chiropractic treatment in a room full of doctors and you’ll hear responses ranging from, “That will give you a stroke!” to, “Helped me when nothing else could.” So what is this therapy and why is it so controversial?

Chiropractic Vs. Conventional Medical Beliefs

Chiropractors believe bones can get subtly out of line and cause muscle spasms or nerve irritation. This causes the pain. Realigning the bones by manipulations called adjustments supposedly helps relieve it.

Several difficulties face researchers when looking at whether chiropractic treatment works. Some chiropractors claim to treat many other kinds of problems, such as asthma and menstrual cramps. And some combine supplements with spinal manipulation.

Is Chiropractic Adjustment Proven to Work for Other Problems?
  • Bed-wetting: Weak evidence suggests it may work.
  • Fibromyalgia pain: Weak evidence suggests it may work.
  • Colic: According to one study, manipulation might work better than simethicone (Gas-X, Mylanta Gas Relief), but no better than just being held by a nurse.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: It doesn’t seem to help.
  • Asthma: We don’t have enough evidence to decide.

Chiropractors’ assumptions also differ from those in conventional medicine. If you’re taught that the skull bones are fused, you’ll likely view anyone claiming to adjust them with suspicion. Further, most chiropractors claim their adjustments do more than just relieve pain; they allow the body to function better. If nerves aren’t being pinched, all messages they transmit, from digestion to muscle relaxation to hormonal activation, can proceed more normally.

But chiropractic treatment’s increasing popularity has exposed physicians more to it. And relatively recent research has demonstrated that it does work for some things. These changes have helped soften doctors’ opinions.

Does Chiropractic Treatment for Back Pain Work?

Back pain is perhaps the most common reason for seeking chiropractic adjustment.

  • For short-term back pain, some studies have shown that it can be as effective as or more effective than conventional treatment.
  • For long-term back pain, a 2004 analysis published by the respected Cochrane Collaboration found that chiropractic adjustments were as good as but not better than other treatments like physical therapy, exercise or pain medication.
Does Chiropractic Treatment for Neck Pain Work?

Neck pain and headaches are other complaints chiropractors commonly treat. A 2005 Cochrane review concluded that chiropractic manipulation for neck pain helped when combined with exercise but not when done without.

The Survival Doctor's Guides to Wounds and BurnsThis brings up the issue of risk versus benefit. Neck adjustments do present a rare risk of stroke. And if you’re not really benefiting, the questions is whether even a minimal risk is too high.

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What Are the Risks of Chiropractic Treatment?

Other than the rare risk of stroke from neck adjustments, the other risks of chiropractic adjustment are minimal—usually some soreness. If something isn’t improving, there is a risk of missing another diagnosis, so you should see your primary-care provider.

What’s My Opinion?

I recommend chiropractic adjustments for many of my patients with:

  • Low-back pain, especially sacroiliac-joint dysfunction, which occurs where the hip and back join together. It can be hard to treat.
  • Neck pain that doesn’t respond to conventional therapy.

Many people have poor posture or habits, and I’ve found chiropractic treatment is one of the ways the resultant problems can be addressed.


ANDREA E. GORDON, M.D.,
is a board-certified family doctor practicing integrative medicine and teaching at Tufts University Family Medicine Residency at Cambridge Health Alliance in Malden, Mass. She’s also an assistant professor of family medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine.

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Original version appeared in September/October 2006 edition of My Family Doctor magazine. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

  • Emma Jurgens

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  • foxfan01

    I went to a DC when I could not work out the pain in my neck. While being examined, he discovered my hip was out of alignment and my left leg was shorter than my right. I have dealt with stiffness in my lower back, to the point I routinely sat with a pillow behind my lower back. I have a long commute and when I would arrive I would have to stretch my back to relieve the stiffness. Dr Justin Judd (Corsicana Texas) adjusted my lower back, returning my leg to it proper relation to the other and as a result, the sensitive and stiffness is gone in my lower back.
    I had sore spots between my spine and scapulars. It had been there for years. I thought it was muscle soreness, as I lift weights. After the first adjustment, the pain is gone and has not returned.
    The treatments from Dustin Judd have been a blessing. I feel wonderful. The treatments have been the greatest thing I have done for me since Lasik and marrying my wife.

  • Pingback: Advantages of Routine Spinal Adjustments | Kostas Chiropractic

  • guest22

    The few times I have seen a chiropractor, the first thing he tells me is how bad my back is messed up. I’m curious, if I had my back fixed at one chiropractor, and then immediately went to a second chiropractor, would the second guy still tell me how bad my back looks, even though the first one supposedly fixed it just moments ago?

  • Vlad Volkov

    I was injured by a chiropractic, spraining ilio-lumbar and sacroiliac ligaments on the right side. From having some functional issues, I ended up with chronic low back pain and pain shooting down my leg on occasion. My involvement with sports that involve running and jumping was over in a flash. Believe me, there are enough people that are injured that way, they simply don’t like talking about it because the original decision to go see a chiropractic and try that miracle healer around the corner was mega-foolish. I did a lot of inquiry into the matter and below is the summary of MY FINDINGS: The high velocity bread-and-butter chiropractic technique was adopted by early chiropractors from Doctors of Osteopathy (that’s who one should see about neck/back pain) to FACILITATE THE MONETARY TRANSACTION following the audible crack in the back. The perception of well-being and lowered pain following the chiropractic adjustment is related to the release of adrenaline and perhaps some other endorphins by the body that is STRESSED (air a cliff on skis and your soreness from the day before will go away for an hour). While early chiropractors knew they were running a scam and therefore had some limits, the new generation think themselves a prodigy and are dangerous because they do not know of a limit. By going to a chiropractic today, one is trading the health of his spinal ligaments (that can be sprained or develop micro tears under chiropractic adjustment) and therefore joints for a shot of adrenaline. Based on my experience with 12 chiropractors, 95% of them did not have enough compassion, accountability and competency required to practice medicine. Additionally, having diagnostics (X-Ray), diagnosis (subluxation) and treatment (crack in the back) performed by a single individual creates a fertile ground for abuse and should technically be disallowed under Stark Law.

    • guest22

      Curious, did you consider a law suit? If so, do you mind if I ask what the results of that law suit might have been? I ask because my crazy wife keeps taking my kids to chiropractors despite my refusing to allow it. She’s taken all of them even when they were babies. I’m wondering what I might be able to do when one of those chiropractors finally injures my wife and/or kids.

      • Vlad Volkov

        The legal recourse is nothing because the sprain in low back or neck ligaments does not show up on even advanced imaging. As such, the subjective feeling of pain or discomfort cannot be objectively confirmed. Generally speaking, malpractice lawsuits are very tough. Besides, chiropractors nowadays make you sign a paper that all legal issues should be resolved through a mediator (not sure what that means exactly but most likely outside of court). One will be lucky to find a doctor who is knowledgeable enough to manually diagnose the problem (you are looking at 60+ crowd), treat it, and perhaps appear in court on your behalf. BTW, the guy who injured me had a whole wall of Polaroids of him adjusting kids and personally told me that he is “always gentle” (ha-ha). Besides the outright injury to low back (which is 3 years old now and NOT resolved), he messed up the curve in my mid back by repeatedly pushing it in (once again, for no reason) – took me over a year of exercise to get it back and I can’t even describe how much pain I went through. I have two small kids and needless to say, they will be properly instructed and will hopefully share the message with their friends. I view the _mainstream_ of chiropractic profession as people with low ethical standards – the kind of people you don’t want to even touch your children, left alone crack their spines just to make a buck.

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  • Jason

    I just had my 1st Chiropractic neck and spine adjustment today. After reading all of this I am frankly scared. But I have some kind of Undiagnosed (In 7 years 4 rheumatologists,5 PCP’s, an oncologist and 2 dermatologists) Auto immune disease or so they say. I have even been to Baylor College of Medicine and no luck. Just take these drugs and you’ll be fine. I AM NOT FINE! I am 37 years old and have always been in athlete shape. No I mean professional athlete shape. After all the prednisones and different drugs they have tried on me within a year I have gotten completley out of shape and become progressivly worse. What do you people want us to do just sit here suffer and die?? I have a condition thats called erythema nodosum. there are roughly 38 causes for it. If doctors were so ready to help us get better than why out of all those doctors they have only tested me for 7 of the things that cause this. Wow way to think outside of the box docs. LOL . But you dont have a problem prescibing us multiple side effect drugs, but cant do some simple tests. WOW. How can you prescribe us drugs for a condition that you dont even know what it is?? The last straw was Methotrexate. You have to be either smoking crack or a mental patient if you think Im going to take some low dosed chemo therapy drug that causes Lymphoma cancer as a side effect when you truthfully haven’t even done your due diligence. Maybe if these doctors didnt treat us like numbers and actually tried to solve the problem, we wouldn’t have to go to alternative measure to try to find out what the heck is wrong. How would one of these doctors feel if it was their child or parent that was being overlooked like that. Canada???? Ha I’m an American and your both trying to kill us all. How is it that 2 superpowers countries have a worse medical system then say a small country like Cuba?? Why do we have to go to different countries to figure things out that our oh say great countries doctors can?? You mean to tell me that you can send a rover to mars and find a way to split an atom to blow up an entire civilization off the planet but you cant figure out how to cure arthritis and erythema nodosum nodules??? Really? I’m sure if President Obama was in the same positions as us you would have a diagnosis and a solution immediatley. Hell look at Magic Johnson and HIV in the 1980′s. I’m just saying. We trust our doctors from the jump, but as with any bad relationship, you keep violating our trust over and over we are gonna look at you apprehensivly. If your a doctor reading this….Help your patients spend more time trying to heal them. Sometimes the solution is simple but overlooked. Look up human nature because alot of the problems doctors are having with people is a Human nature response to not being cared for properly. I know its about money but dam…If you cant give your patients adequate care than you need to cut some of those patients and send them to another doctor so you can spend more time helping figure their health out and less time in the Bahamas. So you lost $50,000 dollars for the year doing that. You made $400,000 already youll be fine. And best of all you can leave this planet knowing you truly helped people. Not shoveled them thru like sheep!!

    • Vlad Volkov

      The health care in the US is a business (one may argue that the whole country is a business). As such, its goal is to maximize profits. No need to blame individuals, the system simply works this way. The way to maximize profits is to keep patients as sick as possible, yet alive so that the system can feed on them. Once dead, no services can be rendered. The system is therefore generally great at saving lives and prolonging them but very bad at curing chronic illness and pain, often creating additional illness and pain. This is not to say that you can’t find care and compassion, there are simply too many wrong people in health care drawn in by money, not a calling. BTW, chiropractors are on the bleeding edge of all this because of low requirements of entry. This fact MUST BE FULLY understood before going to a doctor in this country, even for a routine physical examination TO AVOID UNNECESSARY MILKING procedures: excessive diagnostics, MRIs, CT scans, biopsies, surgery etc. There is no surprise Cuba and Costa Rica have better health care – doctors are salaried by the government and respected for their STATUS IN THE COMMUNITY, not for their bank accounts. They are there to help patients make the right choices.

  • Claudia Abela

    I have been suffering from severe lower back pain, which is not physical such as “lifting somethint to heavy”. It’s deep inside and hurts the worst when at rest or laying on my back even on my side. It appears but not my medical opinion (since i have no medical background) to be ankylosing spondylitis. But doctors keep giving me the run around and only shoving drug after drug in my face. granted, Itake the drugs for relief, as the pain is so strong.Keep in mind, I tolerate pain a great deal becasue i don’t trust many doctors and i fear meds, because of their long list of adverse side effects. So i reason, deal with the one pain, than with the 10 other ailments i’ll get with meds…but at this point i very willingly take meds because of this unbearable pain! But still fearing what will happen to me next because of side effects!!! Help?

  • Keith Pinster

    I’ve been going to Chiros for 35 years. I have experienced bad ones and excellent ones. I have a twisted T-5 (yes, I’ve seen the x-rays) in my middle back and a herniated disk in my lower back. When I do something stupid and throw my back out, it can get bad enough that I am crawling between my bed and my chair. So far EVERY medical dr that I’ve gone to gives me pain meds and muscle relaxers. It takes several days just to get me back on my feet. With my current chiro, 1 visit will get me back on my feet and it usually takes about 3 to clear it up completely. Pain meds are great for covering up the pain, but it does nothing to actually fix the problem. Why would an MD think that masking pain was a valid way to healing? Plus, let’s ask, are there side effects to pain killers like Vicodin? Why do you think they are so regulated? For my pain management, I am only allowed 20 in a 6 MONTH period. That’s not even 1 a day. Are their side effects to adjustments by Chiros? Yes, I CAN WALK AGAIN!

    Don’t get me wrong, I know there are bone-poppers and quacks out there, just like in every other profession in the world (including MDs), but judging the entire practice based on a few bad practitioners is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    • Vlad Volkov

      Out of 12 random chiropractors that I’ve seen over 15 years, only 1 (!) was decent, competent and able to diagnose and help. Statistically, that’s not enough to warrant a visit to a chiropractor by a person who is experiencing an onset of neck/back pain for the first time in their life. Based on my experience, and after being injured by a chiropractic, seeing a DO (doctor of osteopathy) is always a better choice. If you need a high velocity adjustment, DO will give you one.

      • Dienekes

        Maybe ypu should take more care in finding a better chiro, rather than just going to random ones.

    • Claudia Abela

      WELL SAID!!!!!!!!!

  • Guest

    What makes chiropractic doctors different from conventional doctors is that they don’t diagnose you with a condition and therefore you can never really be “cured” of anything. The necessity of seeing a chiropractor and the benefits of the treatment are entirely subjective, which means the patient is actually acting in the role of the doctor. Personally, I have seen a chiropractor for back pain and found the adjustments to be beneficial in the same way that massaging a Charlie Horse is beneficial to a leg cramp. But I don’t consider massage therapists to be doctors and I don’t think seeing a chiropractor is ever necessary for good health.