Chiropractic care is not snake oil for two reasons. We know how it works, but it also isn't the end all be all treatment to end your chronic pain. Yet, chiropractors are masters of the human body and musculoskeletal pain and their treatments should be an integral part of your chronic pain treatment plan.
For many reasons, joints become restricted. They lose their full, pain free range of motion that is in integral part of moving and performing daily tasks. This doesn't mean that a joint becomes completely immobile, but just enough to cause problems. It also doesn't mean that your joint is dislocated. It just means that certain movements in that joint may be difficult, painful, or both. You may not even notice at first because the loss of motion and function is not great enough and pain hasn't begun yet. But left alone this can turn into a larger problem.
Chiropractors are best known for the adjustment. A technique that helps restore full, pain free, range of motion to restricted joints. Sometimes it looks unappealing. There are plenty of videos on the internet of chiropractic adjustments. I dislike them because they are all very dramatized to appeal to a certain audience. But they can also be off-putting to those who have not tried chiropractic care before. In either condition, I advise against watching them because they display an inaccurate portrayal of the adjustment.
Patients are put into a position that isolates the restricted joint and then a quick, gentle thrust is applied to that joint. Sometimes it may look aggressive but it is actually very safe. There are very few instances when chiropractic care is contraindicated and in those cases other joint mobilizations can be utilized instead. The sound that may accompany the adjustment can also be cause for concern. The "pop" or "crack" you hear is not your bones cracking. We call it a cavitation and it is a gas bubble being released from the joint. It doesn't mean the adjustment worked or didn't work, its just a side effect.
Now that we've got the basics out of the way, it's time to learn what specific benefits the adjustment or mobilization provides and why they are beneficial to the chronic pain sufferer.
Mobility and relaxation
The first thing the adjustment does is restores motion to the restricted joint. Restricted joints become achy. The human body was designed for movement, and when it can't aches and pains ensue. Think about being trapped in the house on a rainy weekend. As pleasant as this may sound, being confined can cause overall aches that are only relieved with movement, like getting out of the house and running errands. Same principle with individually restricted joints.
With joint restrictions also come tight muscles. It's a "chicken or the egg" situation. Which came first, the joint restriction or the tight muscle? Doesn't really matter because one causes the other which exacerbates the other. Tight muscles reduce joint movement which causes them to become restricted. Joint restrictions cause tight muscles because when you develop a joint restriction a signal is sent to the brain saying the joint is in trouble. While your brain is very intelligent, it gets this one wrong. Sensing danger, your brain tells all of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding the restricted joint to tighten up because surely not moving is the best thing for that joint. Usually not. We typically want to restore movement because nothing is actually wrong, like a fracture or sprain.
You can go and get a massage and it will likely feel great but as long as that muscle keeps tightening back up no amount of muscle work will do. The muscle is trying to protect the joint under the orders of your brain. The only way to relax that muscle is to remove the joint restriction. When you do this, a new signal is sent to the brain saying "coast is clear" and then your brain will tell your muscles to relax.
In between each one of your spinal vertebra in a gap called the intervertebral foramen (IVF). This space is where the nerve roots branching off of your spinal cord exit. These nerve roots are the root of all the nerves in your body. When your spinal vertebra are nicely aligned and freely moveable, your IVFs are nice and big. But any movement in your spine decreases the size of this space. Joint restrictions essentially can cause your vertebra to clamp down on your nerve roots which is not only painful at the source, but can cause a lot of problems downstream, like numbness, tingling, muscle weakness, etc.
Boosting blood flow and oxygenation
Nerves are not the only thing to exit your IVFs, arteries and veins do as well. Removing joint restrictions also takes the pressure off of your blood vessels to help blood move more freely. Not only this, but all the blood vessels surrounding the joints being adjusted dilate. This increased blood flow transports more oxygen to your healing tissues. When your tissues are experiencing oxygen deprivation they cry out in pain. Oxygen is necessary for energy production. You need energy to heal tissues. Oxygen deprivation is found at the center of all trigger points and tender points, especially in fibromyalgia.
While all the aforementioned mechanisms contribute to pain relief, the greatest way that the chiropractic adjustment aids in pain relief is through the release of endorphins and enkephalins. These substances are your body's naturally produced opioids. They are the same compounds associated with a runner's "high." They bind to the opioid receptors in your body, just like prescription opioids do to relieve pain. You just may not be producing enough to make a noticeable difference. Stimulating the production of more through the chiropractic adjustment is the easiest way!
Many of the therapies provided by chiropractors are aimed at improving posture. You probably notice an instant improvement in your mood when you are sitting or standing up straight. Not only are you increasing the motion of your joints and taking pressure off your nerves, arteries, and veins, as we discussed, you alter your hormones for the better. poor posture decreases pain relieving hormones like serotonin and oxytocin as well as increase the stress and inflammation inducing hormone cortisol. Maintaining good posture does the opposite!
But wait, there's more!
There is so much more to chiropractic than the adjustment. Since chiropractors are masters of the human body and biomechanics there are a lot more tools in our tool belts than people realize. Rehab exercise, soft tissue modalities, and others like cold laser therapy are all hallmarks of a good chiropractic treatment plan. If you are only getting adjustments from your chiropractor then you are only getting the bare minimum. Everything else is the heavy hitter in getting the most out of your chiropractic treatment.
Contrary to some misconceptions, chiropractic care is deeper than just the adjustment, which offers more than just a satisfying "pop."
Where people tend to go wrong is believing that chiropractic will be the answer to their chronic pain. Chiropractic care alone will not end your chronic pain. It has to be a part of your holistic chronic pain treatment plan; and a vital part it is.
Everyone also needs to understand that one adjustment rarely helps anything. While you should not have to go to your chiropractor for life (another common misconception that once you start going you have to keep going), you do need to go with consistency to reap the benefits. Some stop seeing their chiropractor because they aren't seeing the benefits quickly enough. Others stop going because their insurance cut them off.
If you haven't seen a chiropractor before, I highly recommend adding one to your healthcare team. If you have seen one before, I hope I've convinced you to add this safe and effective treatment back into your chronic pain care routine.