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Can a Chiropractor Cure an Aching Back?

A friend recommended that a chiropractor could help with back pain. Will it help, and is it safe?

Answer (Published 11/29/2002)

Chiropractic is the one of the most popular forms of manual medicine - treatment that uses the hands to manipulate the body's bones. (The word "chiropractic" comes from Greek roots meaning "done by hand.") Although it was invented at the end of the 19th century, chiropractic is in a tradition of manipulation of bones that goes back to ancient systems of treatment in China, India, and Egypt. I value manipulative therapy and wish I had learned some of it in medical school. Done properly it can relieve musculoskeletal discomfort as well as improve circulation of blood and balance the energy of nerves.

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Back pain ranks among the most common problems that brings people to chiropractors. In fact, according to Michael Menke, a chiropractor who works with the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, one out of every three people who sufferers from low back pain seeks chiropractic care, making it the most utilized healthcare practice outside of mainstream medicine.

A single session of spinal manipulation ("adjustments" in chiropractic lingo) can often relieve the pain of such acute musculoskeletal ailments as severe stiff necks and wrenched backs, sometimes producing instant and lasting cure. Research supports the effectiveness of chiropractic treatment in both acute and chronic pain, but in my experience it is less successful with chronic problems, such as lower back pain.

Chiropractic adjustments are low risk among patients who have no serious health problems. Some practitioners claim that adjustments have overall health benefits and encourage patients to get them regularly as preventive measures, but medical doctors, research, and insurance companies do not support this view. Also controversial is the routine use of X-rays to diagnose spinal misalignments and the prescription of long treatment programs to reverse degenerative disease of the spine.

A chiropractor who looks beyond the spine can be a useful resource for restoring and preserving health. For a specific complaint, feeling better is the sign of successful treatment. Without a change in symptoms after six visits, you and the chiropractor should reassess the plan, or you should go to another doctor. Excellence in chiropractic practice includes recommending lifestyle changes, including home-based exercises, stress-reduction techniques and judicious use of supplements. Treatment should leave you feeling more competent to care for yourself, and most of all, it should result in your feeling better promptly.

Andrew Weil, MD

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