Chiropractic care has long been a popular form of natural health care that corrects misalignments in the spine. Although most patients visit chiropractors seeking relief from back pain, neck pain and headaches, a growing number of chiropractors say the services they offer can play a role in the treatment of a wide range of ailments, such as allergies and depression, and even can prevent disease.
Those last claims have generated controversy, however. Skeptics argue that there's no scientific evidence to support those assertions.
"Chiropractors are musculoskeletal experts," says Debbie Wright, second vice chairwoman of the Canadian Chiropractic Association's board of directors and a chiropractor in Courtenay, B.C. "We assess, diagnose, treat and help with prevention of any conditions arising from the muscular system, skeletal system or nervous system."
A visit to a chiropractor typically includes an "adjustment," in which the chiropractor will apply precise movements to the vertebrae of your spine in order to restore proper movement and improve function of the joints. Most chiropractors conduct a comprehensive examination of patients - including X-rays, in some cases - prior to performing adjustments.
There is extensive research demonstrating the effectiveness of chiropractic adjustments in treating back pain, neck pain and headaches, as well as certain sports injuries, pregnancy- related pain and pain in elderly patients, Wright says. "[However], the balance of the evidence is around those core musculoskeletal problems," she says.
Other chiropractors say that the health benefits of their services can extend far beyond pain relief. Many chiropractors' websites feature lengthy lists of symptoms and conditions they say can be relieved through chiropractic adjustments, such as allergies, asthma, ear infections, menstrual cramps, gastrointestinal syndromes, fertility issues and unrestful sleep. Some chiropractors suggest on their websites that chiropractic care can help to prevent disease, including heart disease.
"Chiropractic care is a lot more than what most of society recognizes," says Stacey Farquhar, a chiropractor and co-founder of Hands On Health Chiropractic in Toronto. "I think not enough people have a full understanding or comprehension of what true chiropractic is all about."
Because the spine is connected to the brain and nervous system, Farquhar says, chiropractic adjustments that reduce stress and strain on the spine ultimately can contribute to a healthier nervous system.
"The function of your brain is actually regulated through motion from your spinal joints," Farquhar says. "Every cell in your body communicates with your brain through your nervous system, and your brain communicates with every cell in your body through the same system. So, it's really imperative that [the system] is operating fully."
A nervous system that's functioning well, Farquhar adds, can reduce symptoms associated with conditions such as allergies and asthma.
"[Chiropractors] don't specifically treat allergies or asthma," she says, "but we remove interference to the central nervous system and, as that regulates itself and returns to normal function, the symptoms dissipate."
Various studies over the years, however, including a study published in medical journal BMJ Open in 2016, challenge claims that chiropractic care plays a role in the treatment of conditions such as asthma and allergies, citing a lack of evidence.
Chiropractic services also have become popular among people who spend much of their time sitting at a desk, Wright says.
Although research demonstrates that chiropractic care is a safe form of treatment for musculoskeletal conditions, there are risks, including temporary worsening of symptoms and injury to muscles or ligaments.
Once a chiropractor has conducted an initial assessment, he or she will discuss any potential risks with you.
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