Pain is never easy to live with, but pain has an important place in our lives. It can be a warning that we're harming our bodies or a sign that something isn't right and needs investigating. As we age, improper lifting, sharp or sudden movements, or participating in sports can strain or injure the soft tissue areas surrounding the spine—often resulting in acute pain lasting a days or weeks. Experts say 80 percent of people suffer from acute back pain at some point in their lives.

If it lasts for more than three months, pain is considered chronic. Chronic pain can be a consequence of the gradual wearing down of discs between each spinal vertebra due to aging (known as degenerative disc disease), pinched nerves, and discs that are otherwise injured or herniated. Back pain can interrupt sleep, hamper your sex life, cause headaches, effect weight loss, and even lead to depression.

Many people report relief from acute back pain by having periodic chiropractic adjustments. Chiropractic practitioners are trained in the treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal disorders and the effect of those disorders on the nervous system and general health. Muscles, nerves, bones and joints are their business and discomfort in the lower back is the main reason cited for chiropractic care.

The word chiropractor is derived from the Greek word cheir meaning hand and praktikos meaning practice. Practitioners use their hands to apply pressure to joints in the spine to straighten or align it, which can reduce pain without medication.

Chiropractic manipulation restores joint mobility by manually applying a controlled force to the joints that have become less mobile from aging or injury. "When tissue is injured there are chemical and physical changes that cause it to become inflamed and painful, which limits mobility and diminishes function," explains Scott Bautch, DC, a Wisconsin-based chiropractor and past president of the American Chiropractic Association's Council on Occupational Health.

"Having an adjustment restores mobility by alleviating muscles tightness and allowing healing to begin. Hip replacement patients are often ideal candidates for chiropractic adjustments. We help realize the joints full potential and get the maximum amount of mobility they can from the new hip."

In addition to undergraduate work, chiropractors must complete four years of college before they can become licensed to practice. DCs are also trained to recommend therapeutic and rehabilitative exercises as well as to provide nutritional, dietary, and lifestyle counseling.

"For many, chiropractors promote wellness and independence," says Bautch, who claims studies show better overall health in 80 percent of patients who receive periodic adjustments. "My typical patient is a 30 to 50-year-old female. Women have eight times more chronic diseases than men and are more likely to experience pain as a consequence. They are also more likely to take a proactive approach to their health."

Additional benefits of chiropractic manipulations include: Headache relief, improved sleep, and better functioning of the chest muscles for more efficient breathing. Adjustments have also been shown to increase blood flow, which promotes mental acuity and increased oxygen supply throughout the body.

Bautch says chiropractic care can slow the pace of conditions like certain forms of arthritis and hypertension. "A number of studies conducted pre- and post-adjustment have shown blood pressure improving to a healthier level," he says noting that chiropractors are not a cure all for everything. "There will always be a need for medicine and medical care." Note that chiropractic care is never appropriate for patients with high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke and other serious complications. Talk to your doctor if this is the case for you.

What to Expect at Your First Visit

According to the National Institute of Health, your first visit will take at least 60 minutes. "The practitioner will take a medical history, blood pressure, and x-rays if necessary. He will also test how well your spine moves and will want to know details about:

  • past injuries and illnesses
  • your diet
  • sleep habits
  • use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco
  • lifestyle
  • exercise habits
  • and current medicines

Treatment typically begins after your first visit.

A spinal manipulation is performed on a specially designed table. "Having a manipulation isn't painful," says Bautch, "But it's not unusual to be achy or stiff for a day or two following the procedure."

More than one session is usually needed to correct a problem and your chiropractor may suggest two or three short (20 minute) visits a week at first. Depending on where you live, the average cost per visit will run between $40 and $60 per session. Once you start showing signs of improvement, your treatments may be weekly or several weeks apart.

Of course, not every ailment benefits from chiropractic care. Chiropractors are taught to identify when damage is outside the scope of their practice. If he or she finds osteoporosis, some forms of severe arthritis, bone tumors, fractions, or infections, you will not be treated but most likely referred to a medical specialist.

Additionally, if you are at risk for a stroke, chiropractors will not manipulate your neck where damaged blood vessels can trigger a problem. This is an extremely rare occurrence. "If a patient has dangerously high blood pressure, he belongs in the emergency room, not on my adjustment table," says Bautch.

In the meantime, here are some tips to prevent back pain from the ACA:

  • Maintain a healthy diet and weight.
  • Stay or become active under the supervision of your DC or GP.
  • Avoid prolonged periods of inactivity.
  • Stretch before exercising or physical activities like gardening.
  • Pay attention to good posture.
  • The right shoes are important-comfortable and low-heeled.
  • Sleep on a mattress of medium firmness to minimize spinal curvature.
  • When lifting, use your knees and avoid twisting.
  • Quit smoking. It impairs blood flow and results in oxygen and nutrient deprivation to spinal tissues.
  • Set up an ergonomically correct computer workstation/desk.

Scott Bautch DC, DACBOH, CCST, CCSP, reviewed this article.



Interview with Scott Bautch, DC, DACBOH, CCST, CCSP
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer for Allied Health Chiropractic Centers, a Wisconsin-based chiropractic corporation comprised of more than 50 individual clinics. Dr. Bautch is a past president of the American Chiropractic Association's Council on Occupational Health. He has also served as a board member for the International Academy of Chiropractic Occupational Health Consultants and is a past chairman of the Wisconsin Council on Occupational Health. 

The American Chiropractic Association

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke