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Chiropractic

Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, July 2011.

This factsheet is for people who are planning to have chiropractic treatment, or who would like information about it.

Chiropractic is a manual therapy mainly used for treating problems of the bones, joints and the back.

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.

About chiropractic

Chiropractic is a technique that can be used to diagnose, treat and prevent a variety of bone, joint, muscle and tendon conditions. Chiropractors use their hands to make adjustments to your joints, concentrating particularly on the spine. This is called manipulation.

Many chiropractors believe misalignment of the spine causes health problems and that spinal manipulation can correct your spine's position, thus curing the problem. They think that manipulation can improve the efficiency of your body's nervous system and enable natural healing.

Chiropractors aim to take a holistic and integrated approach in their treatment that doesn't focus only on the symptoms of a condition. It takes into account your medical history, lifestyle and personal circumstances.

Chiropractic is a complementary treatment (one used alongside traditional treatments). Chiropractors claim they can treat a wide range of conditions, including:

There are a range of conventional treatments for any of these health conditions. Ask your GP for advice.

Where can I find a chiropractor?

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.

About the procedure

During your first appointment with a chiropractor, he or she will ask about your medical history, diet, lifestyle and emotional state. The first appointment will last between 30 minutes and one hour as the 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.

You may be asked to sit, stand, walk and possibly carry out other movements. Your reflexes may be tested with a reflex hammer. Your chiropractor may also request that you have an X-ray taken to help make a diagnosis.

Once you have agreed on a course of treatment with your chiropractor, each session will last around 30 minutes. The number of sessions you will need and how often you have them will depend on your particular condition.

Treatment is usually carried out while you lie down in various positions. Chiropractors often use a manipulative technique on your spinal column and pelvic area consisting of short, rapid forceful movements called high-velocity thrusts. These are designed to correct the position of your spine and help flexibility, and may result in a sound you can hear - a clicking similar to knuckles being stretched.

A chiropractor may carry out other treatments such as using ice, heat, ultrasound and acupuncture.

Some chiropractors offer active rehabilitation exercise programmes that focus on improving your fitness and endurance to help symptoms. Chiropractors believe this can reduce the chances of the problem returning. Many chiropractors recommend ‘maintenance therapy’. This involves regular treatments after the 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.

Is chiropractic effective?

The scientific evidence varies for the claims made about how effective chiropractic is.

Some studies show that chiropractic can limit acute low back pain and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends it for chronic back pain. If the pain lasts for less than three months, it's called acute back pain. If the problem goes on for longer, it's known as sub-acute or chronic back pain. The medical terms acute and chronic refer to how long the condition lasts for, rather than how severe it is.

The Department of Health's report, 'The Musculoskeletal Services Framework for England' refers to chiropractic as a treatment option for musculoskeletal conditions (those that affect your muscles, bones and joints).

Research has not yet shown whether spinal manipulation is effective for any condition.

Whether chiropractic is useful for other conditions, such as migraine or tension headache, is uncertain – the evidence is limited. The research is often conflicting and although symptoms of some illnesses improve, the best evidence generally fails to prove that chiropractic cures illnesses. Even though patients of chiropractors are happy with their treatment and chiropractic treatment is accepted by many conventional medical practitioners, there is little scientific evidence to prove that it's effective for conditions other than chronic back pain. More research is needed.

What are the risks?

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 extremely safe. However, there is much debate about this question and many non-chiropractic experts have a different view.

Side-effects

These are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after treatment.

These can include discomfort or mild pain at the point of manipulation, or stiffness and tiredness for a day or so. About half of all patients who have a chiropractic treatment get mild side-effects, although these don't usually last long.
 

Complications

This is 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, which can lead to disability or death. 

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see Common questions.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • 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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  • Publication date: July 2011

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