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Is The Chiropractor All It's Cracked Up To Be?

Cindy Kuzma For Men’s Health
Chiropractors have the rep as the doctors who crack your back—but is that all they do?

Spinal manipulation, also called chiropractic adjustment, is indeed one of the primary treatments chiropractic doctors use, says Robert Hayden, D.C., Ph.D., a chiropractor in Griffin, Georgia, and a spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association.

With this technique, the pros use their hands or a small instrument to apply a rapid, controlled force to a joint or your back. That results in the audible “pop” you may hear, though nothing’s actually breaking—it’s just the release of a bubble of gas from between your joints. The manipulation might feel like anything from a gentle stretch to a more intense pressure on a joint or your back.

But their domain is actually broader and more complex than you may think. Chiropractors deal with the neuromuscular system—which encompasses your muscles and the nerves that control them. Conditions that affect that system, from back pain to sports injuries to headaches, fall within their scope.

The goal of a chiropractor’s treatment is to correct your body’s structural alignment and improve how it functions. If something’s off with your alignment, they believe it can damage tissue and contribute to a wide range of health problems. So increasing your range of motion in your spine and joints is key to restoring your wellbeing, says Lanay M. Mudd, Ph.D., of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Besides adjustments, chiropractors use many types of treatments you’d find in a physical therapy office—heat and ice, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, lasers, and therapeutic exercises. These therapies all help realign you and promote healing in tissues damaged by structural imbalances or flawed movement patterns.

So chiropractors do a lot more than cracking your back. But are these techniques actually proven to help you feel better? Or are they just a lot of smoke and mirrors? Here’s an in-depth look at how these complementary health professionals can help you—and when you’re better off going the conventional route

chiropractor advice
Condition Chiropractors Can Help: Back Pain

The research is there to back up adjustments as a treatment for back pain. A 2016 research review in the journal PLoS One, for instance, concluded that chiropractic care works as well as physical therapy—a staple treatment medical doctors would prescribe for low back pain, with few negative side effects.

In fact, recently released guidelines from the American College of Physicians—a national organization of internists—recommend spinal manipulation as one of several first-line options for patients with low back pain. Starting there might provide relief while helping you avoid heavy-duty pain meds or surgery, the group points out.

And though the evidence isn’t quite as strong, adjustments often ease neck pain too, according to a review of 41 previous studies published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics

The underlying mechanism behind why chiropractic care helps isn’t totally clear, but many believe the adjustments work by increasing the mobility of the joint, which can restore function and allow damaged tissues to heal, relieving pain. Or, it may simply change the way your central nervous system processes pain.

Whether your aches have been with you for years or just started yesterday, the adjustments and other treatments chiropractors provide might provide relief, says Ralph Gay, M.D., D.C., a physiatrist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. (He earned his chiropractic degree first, then went back to medical school.)

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