Tatiana Mark was 17 years old when a gym accident changed the course of her life, both personally and professionally.
“I fell six feet onto my sacrum while hanging upside down on a pull-up bar,” she says. “I was mid-crunch and the bar fell.” Tatiana walked away from the accident without needing a trip to the emergency room, but three years later, she was still feeling the lasting effects of her fall. She finally reached her breaking point during a study abroad program when she realized how much the chronic pain was interfering with her life and her daily joy.
“So, I went to a chiropractor in Australia, and not only did I start noticing that my back pain began to go away, but also my tummy issues all of a sudden weren't there, I didn't need my inhaler anymore for asthma, and my TMJ jaw pain got better. There was a whole array of benefits I did not expect.”
Tatiana isn’t alone. According to a Gallup poll, one in four American adults (35.5 million) sought chiropractic care for neck or back pain relief in 2016, while 65% of U.S. adults reported seeking care for the same issues at some point throughout their lives. The toll of chronic pain is steep for both individuals and society, so the potential for non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical intervention is enticing. Chiropractic is even more appealing when you consider the other health issues it can possibly help, including a breech baby, sleep problems, and issues with exercise.
What Is Chiropractic Care Really About?
Many people unfamiliar with chiropractic care may associate the practice with cringeworthy cracks and pops and potentially even painful, jerky spinal adjustments. But according to Tatiana, who pivoted from a career in marketing and advertising to studying to become a chiropractor herself, none of those things should happen over the course of a session.
“Chiropractic should never hurt,” she says. “The sound you hear isn't bones cracking — it’s air bubbles releasing. It's called joint cavitation. During the adjustment, a gap forms in the joint capsule, releasing gas...increasing awareness to the brain, it can tell the muscles and ligaments that attach to the bone to relax.”
Chiropractic adjustment is rooted in the belief that the human body has the ability to heal itself. According to primary care physician Dr. Michael Richardson, this means relying on a skilled professional to guide the body’s innate wisdom. “Instead of using medicine to treat the body, chiropractors use manipulative therapies which involve mobilizing the body and joint manipulation to alleviate musculoskeletal pain and disability,” he says.
Tatiana says the benefits of chiropractic care go far beyond the physical. “In general terms, stress — specifically thoughts, toxins, and trauma — creates distortions in our neuro-spinal system,” she says. “Chiropractors remove the interference so the energy can flow freely allowing us to adapt, thrive, and better integrate stress.”
Tatiana says that, according to chiropractic philosophy, when the body is aligned through these expert manipulation techniques, the brain has an easier time communicating with organs, tissues, and cells. “This allows you to ‘feel more’ — not always feel better,” she says. “You need to feel it to heal it. Once your brain is aware of the things going on in your body, it is able to repair it…The human system is responsible for over 100,000 chemical reactions within every cell every second, perfectly synchronized. Of course it has the potential to heal itself; stress just gets in the way.”
Can It Solve Your Health Complaints?
Much of the research that has been done on chiropractic care focuses on its effectiveness at treating lower back pain — and some of that research is compelling. One 2018 study found that, after six weeks of chiropractic care, participants reported lower pain intensity, less disability, more improvement in function, and required less pain medicine.
But many practitioners claim that chiropractic can do so much more than alleviate pain. “It is about the human as a whole,” Tatiana says. “We don’t just look at the spine, we look at the nervous system protected within it. The nervous system controls every system within the body… When there are blockages, the river of communication cannot flow and these systems are affected.”
One example of chiropractic’s additional benefits is its use during pregnancy when a baby is breech. A chiropractic procedure known as the Webster Technique can help relieve any musculoskeletal restriction in the uterus that may be forcing a baby into the wrong position.
Once the baby is out in the world, chiropractic can also help a newborn adjust to their environment. “Some babies cry when they haven't been able to make a bowel movement for weeks — chiropractic helps. Some babies can only turn their head to one side, therefore only feed off one breast — chiropractic helps. Some babies have trouble latching on — chiropractic helps,” Tatiana says.
Chiropractor Brian S. Ota says this treatment can also help with common issues including exercise and nutrition, ergonomics and athletic performance, posture, and lifestyle and behavioral modifications — all of which are subjects taught in a standard chiropractic curriculum.
“A vast majority of the research in chiropractic has been done on neck and back pain, but there is promising evidence that demonstrates the efficacy of chiropractic with many other conditions,” Ota says, citing studies on the use of chiropractic as a treatment for opioid use, headaches, and joint instability.
While there are studies demonstrating the potential effectiveness of chiropractic care for conditions like lower back pain, there isn’t as much evidence to support its use in other conditions. Part of the problem is the lack of funding for chiropractic research compared with other areas of medicine. The other issue is that “double blind and placebo studies are really hard to do with an adjustment,” Tatiana says. “Measuring the same adjustment at the same time with the same velocity is not easy to keep consistent between chiropractors. Additionally, there are so many other lifestyle factors that can influence systems' function…such as exercise, sleep quality, nutrition, and mental health.”
Finding a Provider Who’s Your Perfect Match
While chiropractors aren’t official medical doctors (M.D.’s), they are licensed health care professionals who must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree through an accredited program (which usually takes four years to complete), pass the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners exam, and have a state license to practice in the U.S.
When you’re ready to find a chiropractor, the first step is to do your research. “Choosing a chiropractor is the same as choosing your primary care physician or any healthcare provider,” Dr. Rob Murray says. “Strive to find a provider you connect with and feel comfortable with them touching you. You should consider their experience, gender, and communication style.”
“Every chiropractor is different and has a different technique, and every human has a different response,” Tatiana says. “You may need to shop around for a chiropractor just like you would shop around for a haircutter.” In addition to confirming their credentials, some helpful questions to ask a chiropractor you’re considering working with include what techniques they practice, what conditions they treat, and if they provide any other types of therapies, like nutrition counseling or exercise guidance.
An initial consultation with a chiropractor generally looks something like your regular physical exam. The practitioner will often start by asking about your health history and perform a physical, paying special attention to your spine. They may also order other tests, like X-rays, all before any adjustments are performed.
When you do receive an adjustment, the chiropractor will physically place you in specific positions (usually face down on a special table) and use their hands to apply controlled force to a joint, pushing it beyond its normal range of motion. While this may sound uncomfortable, the technique shouldn’t be painful or shocking to the body.
But Is It Right for You?
The bottom line with chiropractic care is that it may be beneficial for some conditions in some people — but every situation and every body is unique.
People with certain health conditions like osteoporosis, cancer in the spine, or an increased risk of stroke should avoid chiropractic care. According to Richardson, “There are some conditions that can be worsened with manipulative therapies, such as a muscle tear or a significant injury after a fall, so it's important to get clearance by your doctor before seeing a chiropractor.”
And everyone should be aware that while complications are rare, they can happen and include herniated disks, nerve compression, and even a certain kind of stroke (but again, these are very rare).
Cost is also important to consider when figuring out whether chiropractic care is right for you. Prices vary depending on location, practitioner, your insurance, and other factors, but there are some general price points to consider. In many cases, an initial consultation is free of charge. After that, the chiropractor may write out a treatment plan that includes costs of each adjustment and/or any necessary imaging. Depending on the variety of factors mentioned above, patients can generally expect sessions to cost anywhere from $60 and $300 per session, but that price tag is highly variable.
According to Tatiana, chiropractic care changed her life in more ways than one, and she recommends the practice to anyone willing to put in the time and effort to find the right practitioner.
“It’s so crazy that one adjustment can change the course of someone’s life,” Tatiana says. “I have friends here who were told they would never be able to walk again and now they’re dancing through the halls becoming chiropractors. It’s the most amazing thing.”