Chiropractic is a manual therapy mainly used to treat back pain, and other problems with your bones, muscles and joints.
Your care will be adapted to meet your individual needs and may differ from what is described here. So it's important you follow your chiropractor's advice.
Chiropractic is a type of manual therapy, in which chiropractors use their hands to make adjustments to your joints, concentrating particularly on your spine. This is called manipulation.
Chiropractic works on the theory that manipulation can improve the efficiency of your body's nervous system and enable natural healing. Chiropractors claim to take an integrated approach in their treatment that doesn't focus only on the symptoms of a condition. It also takes into account your medical history, lifestyle and personal circumstances.
Chiropractic is most commonly used to treat back pain and neck pain. Some chiropractors also claim to treat a variety of other health conditions, both related and unrelated to your muscles, bones and joints. However, there isn't good evidence to support the use of chiropractic in all these conditions (see 'Is chiropractic effective?' for more information). There is also a range of conventional treatments for any of these health conditions. Ask your GP for advice.
Chiropractic isn't suitable for everybody. For example, it isn't suitable if you have osteoporosis or bone cancer, or if you have a condition that affects your spinal cord. It's also best not to have chiropractic while you're taking certain medicines, such as those that thin your blood (anticoagulants) or some types of steroids. Ask your doctor if chiropractic is suitable for you.
All chiropractors in the UK must be registered with the General Chiropractic Council. You can contact them through their website or by phone to find a chiropractor in your area.
If you're considering chiropractic, it's important to visit your GP first. Your GP can help to diagnose your condition and will ensure that you understand all the treatment options that may be available to you.
During your first appointment with a chiropractor, he or she will ask about your medical history, diet and lifestyle. Your first appointment will last between 30 minutes and one hour. Your chiropractor will need to ask a number of questions to get a whole picture of your current health and circumstances. He or she will also examine you.
Your chiropractor may request that you have an X-ray or a MRI or CT scan to help make a diagnosis.
Once you have agreed on a course of treatment with your chiropractor, each session will last around 20 minutes. The number of sessions you will need and how often you have them will depend on your particular condition.
Your chiropractor will usually treat you while you lie down in various positions. Chiropractors often use a manipulative technique on your spinal column or joints, consisting of short, rapid forceful movements or ‘thrusts’. These are designed to ‘realign’ your spine and correct any problems in your spine that may be related to your condition. This technique may result in a sound you can hear – a click or pop similar to when you stretch your knuckles.
Your chiropractor may carry out treatments using ice, heat, ultrasound and acupuncture. Some chiropractors offer active rehabilitation exercise programmes that focus on improving your fitness and endurance aimed at improving your symptoms.
Your chiropractor may suggest having regular maintenance therapy after your initial problem has got better. Chiropractors claim this reduces the chances of falling ill again. However, there is little good evidence for the effectiveness of this type of treatment.
Your chiropractor will discuss carrying out further investigations or may refer you to your GP if your condition doesn't improve. Chiropractors don’t prescribe medicines or carry out any surgery.
There is some evidence that chiropractic can help if you have low back pain. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends chiropractic for this if you've had it more than six weeks, but under a year.
A review of the research on chiropractic and other manual therapies found that such treatments may help people with migraine, neck-related headaches and neck pain. However, there is considerable debate about these claims.
Researchers have also looked at whether chiropractic can help other conditions, including fibromyalgia, sciatica, period pain, asthma and high blood pressure. There has been no good evidence that chiropractic helps period pain, asthma and high blood pressure. Whether chiropractic is useful for other conditions is uncertain – the evidence is limited.
The research is often conflicting and although symptoms of some illnesses improve after chiropractic, the best evidence generally fails to prove that chiropractic cures illnesses. Even though there is a lack of evidence, many patients are happy with their treatment and chiropractic treatment is accepted by many conventional medical practitioners.
As with every treatment, there are some risks associated with chiropractic. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask you chiropractor to explain how these risks apply to you.
Chiropractors believe that spinal manipulation is safe. However, there is some debate about this and research is ongoing to determine the safety of chiropractic.
Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the treatment.
Side-effects of chiropractic include discomfort or mild pain at the point of manipulation, or stiffness and tiredness. Mild side-effects are very common. However, these shouldn't last more than a day.
Complications are when problems occur during or after the treatment.
Spinal manipulation, particularly when used on the upper spine (neck) has been associated with severe complications, such as damage to an artery and stroke. However, this is very rare and may only be more likely to happen if you’re already at risk of the condition. A definite link between having chiropractic and a stroke hasn't been established.
If you have any concerns about the risk of stroke from chiropractic, speak to your chiropractor.
Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, October 2013.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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