Chiropractic is a specialist healthcare discipline which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of mechanical disorders of the body's joints, nerves, muscles and other soft tissues such as tendons and ligaments.
So what are ‘mechanical disorders' of the joints?
Our bodies are designed to move - freely and fluidly - and one of the key goals of chiropractic treatment is to identify where movement in the body has been lost (or is otherwise abnormal) and to gently restore normal motion to compromised areas - not just in the joints of the spine and pelvis but throughout the whole body, from top to toe. While restricted joints are the cause of much pain, once movement has been lost at a joint the soft tissues that surround it (muscles, ligaments, nerves etc) often undergo alterations to their structure and become themselves sources of further pain. Crucially, once the soft tissues around a dysfunctional joint have thickened and stiffened, it's very difficult for the body to get that joint moving again freely on its own and pain and loss of movement are likely to continue for months or even years without some ‘outside' help. That kind of help is what chiropractors are trained to give.
Do chiropractors just treat sports injuries?
No - while Chiropractic is extremely effective for sports injuries, many of the patients who benefit from chiropractic care initially seek help for problems that have crept on gradually over months or even many years. Often these problems have their true origin in old falls or injuries from earlier in life, subtle long-term postural changes, lifestyle challenges such as stress (which often results in muscle tension), lack of regular exercise or a diet that's not meeting the body's nutritional needs. In addition to giving treatment to address the immediate issue(s), the job of the chiropractor is to work with the client to help identify which factors represent the true underlying cause and to map out a path to healing that addresses the root of the problem.
What type of problems is chiropractic good for?
Chiropractors are probably best known for treating back and neck pain, but chiropractic is also very effective in the treatment of
- headaches (both tension-type and migraine-type)
- shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand pain
- hip, knee, ankle and foot pain
- nerve pain (including sciatica, ‘trapped nerves')
- pelvic pain including that originating in the pubis, sacro-iliac joints and tailbone (coccyx)
- rib pain and pain affecting the joints between the ribs and spine/sternum
- pain from old scar tissue and adhesions following previous injury
Sometimes other, less obviously ‘mechanical' problems also respond favourably to chiropractic treatment such as period pains, ear or sinus pain, indigestion, constipation and colic in babies.
In addition, while chiropractic cannot reverse the degenerative changes that occur in joints as part of the ageing process (commonly known as osteoarthritis), it is often highly effective in reducing the pain and stiffness that is associated with those changes, resulting in improved mobility and quality of life for those affected.
Most importantly, chiropractors are what is termed ‘primary contact practitioners' which means that they have the expertise to identify when you have a condition that is not amenable to chiropractic care, or that concurrently needs the attention of another type of practitioner such as a GP, other medical specialist, physiotherapist, acupuncturist, homoeopath or nutritionist etc. Chiropractors are both ready and able to refer to other practitioners when needed and are happy to work as part of a team to provide the overall healthcare package that patients often need.
What about training?
Chiropractors undergo a rigorous professional education which begins with an undergraduate degree in chiropractic (usually a minimum 5 years' duration). This includes training in neurology, orthopaedics, radiology (the reading of x-rays), general diagnosis and chiropractic treatment protocols as well as the general anatomy, physiology and pathology that is usual in healthcare. In New Zealand, practising chiropractors must then be registered with the New Zealand Chiropractic Board and their treatments, where eligible, are subsidised by ACC.
What happens when I visit a chiropractor?
Before treatment, a chiropractor will take a comprehensive, confidential case history with the aim of fully understanding the problem you want help with, and identifying what might have caused it. The case history is followed by a physical examination which focuses primarily on the area of complaint, but often extends to examine other parts of the musculo-skeletal system that may be contributing, albeit ‘silently', to the problem. After the examination, x-rays may be ordered if necessary and before treatment your chiropractor will give you a full explanation of his/her understanding of the problem and what type of treatment will be required to address it. If you are happy, your chiropractor will then proceed with treatment. This usually lasts from 15-20 minutes and typically consists of:
- massage or other techniques to release muscular tension
- stretching, sometimes with pressure, to lengthen shortened muscles and other soft tissues
- retraining exercises to address problems with posture, muscle balance and co-ordination
- sometimes, application of specialised adhesive tape to the skin to alter muscle tone and re-educate muscle movement patterns