Visiting a chiropractor for back pain may have been viewed in the past as a last-ditch attempt to do something about back pain. Some patients will use this complementary medical practice only when all traditional options are exhausted. Turns out, you might want to see a chiropractor for back pain sooner rather than later. Chiropractic care for back pain works not only for prevention but also as a first-line treatment for many conditions.
Why you should see a chiropractor for back pain
Low back pain is a common affliction, with eight out of ten adults experiencing back pain at some point in their lives.
Visiting a chiropractor for back pain
Chiropractic care first became a treatment option in 1895. D.D. Palmer had a friend with deafness in one ear. Noticing a vertebrae out of place, Palmer adjusted his friend and restored his hearing. Palmer had also had success in treating a friend with cardiovascular issues before, noting:
“I had a case of heart trouble which was not improving. I examined the spine and found a displaced vertebra pressing against the nerves, which innervate the heart. I adjusted the vertebra and gave immediate relief — nothing ‘accidental’ or ‘crude’ about this. Then I began to reason if two diseases, so dissimilar as deafness and heart trouble, came from impingement, a pressure on nerves, were not other disease due to a similar cause? Thus the science (knowledge) and art (adjusting) of Chiropractic were formed at that time.”
D.D. Palmer’s legacy continues at a school created in his name. Palmer College of Chiropractic believes that many (if not all) conditions can be treated with chiropractic, but there are other chiropractic colleges that incorporate traditional treatments in a more holistic manner.
Finding a chiropractor near me
Finding a highly-recommended, licensed chiropractor will help ensure that you experience relief from low back pain.
To find a good chiropractor for back pain, ask your physician, physical therapist, or other medical professionals for recommendations. Alternatively, you can search an online database, like this one from the American Chiropractic Association, to find a licensed chiropractor near you. If you’re concerned about your chiropractic care being covered by insurance, call your insurance agent to get a list of local chiropractors in your insurance network.
Before going in for your first chiropractic adjustment, consider letting your physician know in advance – especially if you have any medical conditions. Remember that it’s okay to call and chat with a chiropractor about any medical conditions, concerns, or questions before going in for an adjustment. During your first visit with a chiropractor for back pain, you may be X-rayed or be given an examination. You will probably also be asked about your symptoms, medical conditions, and any medication use.
If you’re nervous, let the chiropractor know that, too. He or she should be more than willing to discuss your concerns. If a particular method of chiropractic adjustment makes you uncomfortable or causes discomfort, speak up. There are over 100 named techniques of spinal manipulation therapy, so your chiropractor should know other ways to accomplish the same goal without making you uncomfortable. Let’s take a look at what those are now.
Chiropractic adjustments for back pain
When the spine is misaligned, it can cause pain, difficultly moving, or impaired nerve function. Doctors of Chiropractic, who study chiropractic care and its application, perform chiropractic adjustments to manipulate the spine. A chiropractic adjustment can be done manually or with the help of tools. There are a number of manual chiropractic techniques used when you visit a chiropractor for back pain, that we’ll discuss in more detail below.
In addition to relieving neck and back pain, chiropractic care can relieve muscle stress around the spine, increase range of motion, and improve muscle strength. People who receive chiropractic care might also be able to decrease medication use and recover from injuries more quickly.
1. Spinal manipulation
The most common method a chiropractor for back pain uses is called spinal manipulation, also called spinal manipulative therapy or spinal adjustment. This technique helps to realign the spine and surrounding muscles without surgical intervention. Spinal manipulation therapy, which is the basis of chiropractic care, involves the application of a controlled force. This force is applied to joints that are restricted in movement by tissue injury. These tissue injuries can occur as a result of trauma, such as falling down or incorrectly lifting a heavy object, or as the result of repetitive stress, such as spending hours sitting in an awkward position at the desk.
During spinal manipulation, a chiropractor applies pressure to the spine by hand or with a special instrument. Every person’s body is different, but the chiropractor will use his or her expertise to evaluate your spine and make the necessary adjustments. By realigning vertebrae that have moved from their proper places—called subluxation—a chiropractor works to reduce pressure on any pinched nerves, giving your spine the space it needs to bend and flex with reduced pain.
The following video shows how a chiropractic adjustment is performed.
Chiropractic adjustment techniques
The specific techniques chiropractors for back pain use to achieve this can include:
- Direct thrust technique (or high velocity low amplitude thrust): When people talk about getting their back “cracked,” this technique is what they are talking about. A chiropractor uses a high-velocity force to realign a specific part of the spine, such as the neck.
- Articulatory: The chiropractor moves joints through their range of motion to increase the amount of movement. This could include circling wrists, ankles, or shoulders. This is a gentle, low-velocity technique.
- Functional technique: In this technique, the chiropractor applies pressure to a tight joint until they feel a release.
- Muscle energy: Patients participate in this technique. The chiropractor will ask the patient to resist in the opposite direction of the chiropractor. This helps increase range of motion.
- Myofascial release: Similar to acupressure, myofascial release identifies areas of tension in the fascia and uses sustained pressure to relax them. The fascia is a thin membrane that covers and connects all of the muscles of the body. When this is tense or tight, muscle tension and spinal misalignment can occur.
- Table adjustments: For a gentler way to apply direct pressure for spinal adjustments, your chiropractor may use a special table that has a drop piece. This piece releases at the same time as the chiropractor applies a direct thrust to the spine. This allows for the same type of adjustment as a toggle drop but with less force applied.
- Manipulation with anesthesia: Adjustments under light anesthesia are only indicated when a patient is unresponsive to traditional adjustments. Patients who are tense, nervous, or unable to relax the muscles surrounding the bone for treatment may be candidates for this. This is an outpatient technique that is performed in a hospital by a chiropractor who is expressly certified in this technique.
Techniques for lower back pain
There are also two additional techniques a chiropractor for back pain can use that are helpful specifically for lower back pain.
Widely used for disc pain that is often accompanied by leg pain, flexion-distraction uses a special table that stretches the spine while at the same time uses a pumping motion to flex it. This is a pain-free technique that can offer substantial relief as the discs are moved away from any involved nerves. The pumping, flexing action helps increase space between discs and re-positions the gel-filled cushioning between each disc. Flexion-distraction is a series of treatments that follows the 50% rule: if a patient has not improved after 12 sessions by at least 50%, imaging is recommended, and a referral to a spine specialist is made. If a patient’s pain increases during treatment, the treatment is stopped and imaging is recommended, as is neurological assessment.
Cushioned wedges are placed under a patient’s body, and a chiropractor uses gentle adjustments and techniques to move the disc away from the nerve. The wedges offer gravity the opportunity to assist in changing the mechanics of the spine and allow the chiropractor to be more gentle in adjustments. As with flexion-distraction, if improvement is not seen, imaging is recommended, as is a spine specialist referral.
A chiropractor for back pain also often combines traditional spinal manipulation with therapeutic massage techniques, including Active Release Technique (ART) and trigger point therapy.
ART is a patented technique that involves breaking up any scar tissue that may have developed in soft tissue or muscles from overuse. Hardened scar tissue sometimes tugs on muscles, causing pain.
Trigger point therapy operates under a similar premise—that muscle knots developed from overuse cause pain. By working through these knots, the chiropractor helps patients reduce back pain.
3. Physical therapy
Finally, after receiving a spinal adjustment that reverts your bones to their right alignment, some patients find it helpful to undergo physical therapy. Chiropractors often offer physical therapy to help patients strengthen core, back, and stomach muscles to keep their spines aligned and in good health.
The following video shows some examples of stretches you may encounter while undergoing physical therapy for back pain.
Tools used by a chiropractor for back pain
A chiropractor for back pain may also use a few different tools to perform a chiropractic adjustment. These include:
- Traction tables: These tables look like large massage tables but they can be automated. Traction refers to the act of pulling on a body part to help realign it. A traction table helps to create space in the spine.
- Heat lamps: Chiropractors use infrared heat lamps to warm and loosen muscles that may make spinal adjustments difficult.
- Activator adjusting instrument: This machine is handheld and uses gentle force to restore motion to a specific area of the spine. Patients may prefer this gentler alternative to the direct thrust technique.
- Roller tables: A rolling function is sometimes built into a traction table, but they are also stand-alone pieces of equipment. This table looks like a massage table but has rollers built in. Patients lie face up and the rollers move up and down the spine.
- Impulse adjusting instrument: This instrument provides a light, insistent tap to the area that is misaligned or tense.
Finding relief for your lower back pain
Lower back pain is one of the top reasons for a chiropractic visit. In the U.S., much of our days are spent sitting in front of a screen, hunched over with our spine in a C-shape. This can cause tremendous lower back pain. In some people, the lower back moves in the opposite direction, with an exaggerated curve called lordosis. This can compress the lumbar spine, causing pain.
Seeing a chiropractor for back pain is a highly effective way of managing low back pain, in addition to other types of pain. For many people, low back pain will resolve on its own after a few days, weeks, or months. For many others, though, low back pain can become chronic, even debilitating. When this happens, the best way to manage low back pain is by adopting lifestyle changes. This may mean incorporating regular exercise and a healthy diet. Or, it could mean utilizing a variety of pain management techniques, such as chiropractic care, medications, physical therapy, and yoga. Chiropractic care provide another potential pain management technique to help control low back pain. It might even be more effective than other pain management techniques!
Other conditions treated by chiropractic adjustment
In addition to visiting a chiropractor for back pain, some patients first experience chiropractic as a result of injuries or accidents. These can include:
- Injuries due to lifting
- Sports injuries
- Illiotibial band syndrome (ITBS, sometimes called “runner’s knee”)
- Injuries to the rotator cuff
- Plantar fasciitis
- Injuries due to car accidents
Other conditions that may respond well to chiropractic care include:
- Neck pain
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Fertility issues
- Ear infection
- Frequently occurring colds or the flu
- Gastrointestinal syndromes
- Multiple sclerosis
- Thoracic outlet syndrome
- Loss of equilibrium
- Temporomandibular joint disorders
- Respiratory infection
- Menstrual disorders (e.g., pre-menstrual syndrome)
Risks of chiropractic care
Few risks are associated with seeing a chiropractor for back pain.
The most notable risk of chiropractic care is soreness at the site of adjustment. Rarely, chiropractic care can lead to disc herniation or nerve compression; in extremely rare cases, chiropractic care can lead to stroke. Chiropractic care may not be the best choice of alternative pain therapy for people with severe osteoporosis, cancer in the spine, increased risk of stroke, or an unstable spine. If in doubt about whether or not chiropractic care is safe for you, speak to your physician or to a chiropractor and discuss your concerns.
However, for almost everyone, chiropractic care is safe. Specialized chiropractic care is even indicated for infants in some cases. One study used test dummies to measure the force applied by chiropractors during an adjustment. Results indicated that even when chiropractors use maximum force during an adjustment, the likelihood of an injury is very low.
As compared to other methods of pain control, such as medications, surgery, or interventional procedures, chiropractic care is indeed very low risk. Because chiropractic care is a drug-free method of pain management, it’s also safe to utilize while taking medications. This is as long as your chiropractor is aware of any medications you’re taking.
Back pain chiropractic care results
What does the research say about seeing a chiropractor for back pain? Although chiropractic care is now covered by many insurance plans and is low-risk in terms of side effects, neither of those things matter if it does not work. There is ample evidence, however, that chiropractic care for many conditions is as effective as more traditional or invasive treatments.
Back pain chiropractic care has positive research backing it. A study analyzing improvements in lower back pain for military veterans found that adding chiropractic care to a traditional course of treatment significantly decreased pain and improved function over just traditional care.
In one study, it was found that seeing a chiropractor for back pain produced equivalent or superior results when compared to therapies like exercise, education, or medication. In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), considered evidence of chiropractic care as a means of treating lower back pain. The NCCIH found that chiropractic adjustment produces results comparable to several other types of pain treatments, stating:
“Overall, studies have shown that spinal manipulation is one of several options – including exercise, massage, and physical therapy – that can provide mild-to-moderate relief from low-back pain. Spinal manipulation also appears to work as well as conventional treatments such as applying heat, using a firm mattress, and taking pain-relieving medications.”
Another study found that combining therapies, such as chiropractic care, with traditional therapies, like medication, can significantly improve lower back pain.
Other research on chiropractic care
For neck pain, there numerous studies that indicate rapid improvement of neck pain over physical therapy, medications, and surgery alone. These studies are scientifically-valid trials with a random control group. One neck pain study looked at improvement over one year and found that chiropractic care worked better than physiotherapy and general practitioner care.
Also, the effectiveness of seeing a chiropractor for back pain has been called into question before because some suggest that the expectation of relief from spinal manipulation therapy provides relief. In other words, it’s been suggested that the expectation of relief creates a placebo effect. In this case, the spinal manipulation itself is not responsible for pain relief. However, a study by the American Pain Society found that it is, in fact, spinal manipulation therapy that causes pain relief. It is not simply a placebo pain relief effect.
Have you visited a chiropractor for back pain before? What was your experience like? Ready to make an appointment with one of our chiropractors today?