Chiropractors and Chronic Pain: What to Know [+Alternatives]

What You Need to Know About Chiropractors and Chronic Pain

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

Perhaps you’ve recently injured your neck or back, and suspect you may be in for the long haul in terms of pain and your recovery. Or maybe you’re experiencing a pain flare, a pinched nerve or back spasms, or you’re fed up with long-term chronic pain that shows no sign of abating. 

What could help? You may have been through the alternatives over and over in your mind. Do you find yourself considering chiropractic care among those options? About 63 million Americans have used chiropractic services in the past five years. With that many people seeking help for hurting necks and spines, we thought we’d dig into the basics of chiropractic care and whether or not it might be suitable for you, including:

  • Chiropractic facts 101
  • When is a chiropractor a good fit for your chronic pain?
  • What is a chiropractic session like?
  • Tips for getting the most out of chiropractic care
  • How to avoid needing a chiropractor in the first place

Chiropractic facts 101

When it comes to chiropractic care, the short and long of it boils down to what chiropractic professionals do: manipulate the body, very often the spine, to lessen pain and improve how your body feels and functions. 

To be transparent, chiropractic care as a recognized form of treatment is still relatively new, and much about it remains to be studied. The discipline got its start in the 1890s and is often classified as an alternative therapy. According to a review study published in Advances in Therapy, about 60 to 90 percent of people using alternative therapies found them useful.

A few more facts about chiropractic care:

  • Chiropractors have to be well-trained, completing years of advanced training and needing to pass official examinations at both the national and state levels to become licensed to practice
  • There are more than 70,000 licensed chiropractors in the US

Chiropractors are increasingly being integrated into patient care teams as overall chronic pain care becomes more interdisciplinary and less dependent on opioids for relief

When is a chiropractor a good fit for your chronic pain?

Since chiropractic care realigns bones and muscles and often manipulates body structures that are involved with posture, chiropractic care can be a good fit for people who have been experiencing persistent joint-related pain. Care specialists have observed particular success with people who need help with pain related to the:

  • Head (with migraines or tension headaches)
  • Neck
  • Shoulders
  • Back (for certain problems)
  • Knees (for issues not related to osteoarthritis)
  • Overall body (for fatigue)

Musculoskeletal manipulation has been successful with some cases of chronic pain, including lower back pain. It’s difficult to tell exactly which elements of the manipulation accounted for the pain relief, as chiropractic care is still being studied by researchers. A prevailing theory behind chiropractic care holds that manually adjusting the body can address structural problems that could be contributing to chronic pain, thereby helping the body “heal itself” without needing surgery or medications. 

One reason patients report satisfaction with chiropractic care is cavitation, that popping noise that often happens as you “crack” your knuckles or joints. What causes that sound (which is gratifying or grating, depending on who you ask) are pressure changes happening within the joint. For some, the sounds and sensations of these changes within the joints seem to provide relief.

As with many treatments for chronic pain, while we can’t yet pinpoint whether chiropractic care will work for you specifically, you may find it helpful if you:

  • Find adjustments on your back useful in general
  • Feel there might be a mechanical component to why you’re in pain
  • Appreciate an alternative approach, the chance to get another opinion, or simply hands-on care from a professional with a different care emphasis

When might chiropractic care not be the best answer for your particular kind of chronic pain? Experts advise being very careful with getting chiropractic treatments, or perhaps avoiding it altogether, if you have:

  • A very recent injury (like a fracture or sports injury)
  • Certain kinds of structural spinal problems (like a slipped disc)
  • Osteoarthritis or another advanced degenerative condition that affects your joints
  • Osteoporosis (or another condition that weakens your bones)
  • Very poor or fragile health overall 

Additionally, some patients do not like popping sounds or sensations in their spines, or may not be comfortable with an alternative medicine approach. Certain chiropractic treatment cases have had issues with their arteries during treatment, including arteries in the neck. If this could be an area of concern with you, discuss it thoroughly with your doctor and chiropractor before beginning chiropractic care.

What is a chiropractic session like?

As with many medical procedures, a course of chiropractic treatment usually starts with a comprehensive consultation, including discussing your particular symptoms and overall case with your chiropractor. Your chiropractor may also administer tests, such tests of your mobility and balance, which could help inform a possible diagnosis and treatment approach. 

Different types of chiropractic adjustments exist, such as the Gonstead technique, which relies on a precise, systematic approach to care, or the Thompson Drop-Table technique, which uses a specially designed table to facilitate treatment. Different approaches exist as well, such as the Nucca process of making gentle but precise realignments to the neck. Before choosing your practitioner, you may wish to research approaches and adjustments to decide which might be most suited to your specific needs.

Generally speaking, the treatments you’ll be undergoing will often consist of manual manipulation. That means your chiropractor will often adjust your spinal joints (and sometimes other joints, too) with their hands, seeking to bring muscles and joints back into overall alignment. You may feel twists, gentle tweaks, stretches in your muscles and small pops and pressure releases. 

A chiropractic course of care may last for several sessions, and assistants may help out with some procedures. 

Tips for getting the most out of chiropractic care

No one will have exactly the same experience at the chiropractor’s office as someone else, but a few general tips can help you get the most out of your chiropractic treatments: 

  • Make sure your chiropractor is licensed at both the national and state level
  • Discuss your care plan completely before starting to make sure you know what to expect and to ensure the proposed plan is a good fit for your specific case
  • Check about insurance coverage ahead of time — these days, many healthcare plans cover chiropractic care 
  • If you have any concerns during treatment, don’t hesitate to bring them up. It’s important for everyone on your care team to know what’s going on, and mentioning concerns can help your chiropractor make helpful adjustments to your care plan
  • In general, communicate well and keep everyone in your overall care team in the loop, making sure everyone knows what treatments you’re receiving, what medications and supplements, if any, you’re taking, and any signs of improvement (or worsening) you observe. When you help everyone who’s supporting you work together, you have the best chances of receiving excellent overall care

How to avoid needing the chiropractor in the first place

Remember that chronic pain can have both physical and mental components. The same parts of the brain that process depression, anxiety and many other highly impactful emotions also process pain evaluation. This may at least partially explain why pain has a subjective element, can vary, and can feel aggravated with increased stress or mental challenges. 

A strong prevention strategy for helping manage chronic pain and ward off increased pain and the need for more medical services is assembled from:

  • Healthy eating, meaning plateloads made up of colorful fruits and vegetables, bolstered with whole grains, lean proteins, and spices to help enhance flavors
  • Regular exercise, consisting of 30 minutes every day spent doing something that elevates your heart rate and/or puts a little more weight on your muscles. Pair exercise with stretching, yoga, or tai chi for particularly powerful prevention, as stretching (when you follow a trained professional’s routine) can help align your body as well
  • Daily deep breathing, which helps you check in with your body, sends oxygen throughout your body tissues and can help stabilize your mood
  • Time with people who care, since positive emotional support can be very impactful and can promote a healthy immune system that helps control some of the inflammation that could be contributing to chronic pain
  • Pain tracking, meaning noticing what makes your pain worse, observing if there are any overall patterns (Stress? Time of day? Certain movements?), and then making appropriate adjustments

What about Clearing and Musculoskeletal Pain? 

Good question! Clearing does not currently partner with chiropractors, but we do offer comprehensive plans for addressing chronic pain, including musculoskeletal pain. While a chiropractor may help you with certain issues, you can support that treatment with a plan from Clearing tailored directly to your needs. Your plan starts with access to pain specialists and may, depending on your needs, include non-opioid prescription compound cream, nutraceuticals, CBD cream and personalized home exercises. Today is a great day to get started.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.