Are chiropractic adjustments safe? What to expect and possible side effects

  • Chiropractic adjustments are meant to quickly push a joint or vertebrate back into place.
  • Potential benefits of chiropractic adjustments include relief from head, neck, and back pain.
  • Side effects of chiropractic adjustments can include stiffness, fatigue, and pinched nerves.

More than 35 million Americans seek the help of chiropractors each year to improve their range of motion, relieve pain and muscle spasms, and increase flexibility.

Chiropractors do this by manipulating the joints to help realign bones that have moved out of place as a result of injury, sleeping in a weird position, or from repetitive activity.

Are chiropractors safe? Yes, chiropractors are licensed healthcare practitioners who spend 3 to 5 years training for the profession. However, if you have spine cancer, severe osteoporosis, bone abnormalities, or numbness in the limbs, check with your doctor first since these conditions increase the risk of side effects like herniated discs or nerve compression.

Here’s what you can expect from a chiropractic adjustment, the benefits of this procedure, and potential risks to be aware of.

What to expect during a chiropractic adjustment

Chiropractors typically work on the spine but can also target the head, neck, hips, knees, and ankles. It all depends on where you’re feeling pain and what muscles, joints, and bones that pain is associated with.

To determine where to perform the adjustment, a chiropractor will usually go through the following steps:

  • Discuss your health history, including any medical conditions and past surgeries.
  • Physically examine your spine by analyzing your posture.
  • Order an X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Some chiropractors do this for every patient, others depending on their history and condition.
  • Analyze your range of motion by checking reflexes and moving your joints.

Once the chiropractor has identified the areas that need adjusting they will then use their hands, or a small handheld tool, to place a quick and sudden amount of pressure on the affected area. The force is intended to push the joint through its full range of motion and realign the bones, says Alex Tauberg, DC, a primary spine practitioner with Tauberg Chiropractic and Rehabilitation.

The procedure itself is usually not painful, but can cause a cracking sound or sensation as your bones move back into place. How soon you’ll notice benefits after an adjustment depends on individual factors, but as many as 60% of patients feel relief after their first visit, while 30% may need two or three adjustments.

“Many people experience less headaches, less stiffness, and often state that they get a better night’s sleep because their body feels more relaxed after a chiropractic adjustment,” says Allen Conrad, DC, chiropractor at the Montgomery County Chiropractic Center

What’s the cost? Most health insurance plans cover chiropractic adjustments. However, if you don’t have health insurance, the cost can vary among practitioners but is in the range of $100 to $200.

Chiropractic adjustment benefits

Chiropractic adjustments help treat pain in the back, neck, and head. In fact, the American College of Physicians recommends non-drug treatments, like spinal manipulation, as a treatment for acute and chronic lower back pain. However, they recommend other non-drug treatments, like physical therapy, first.

For example, in a small 2014 study of people with leg and back pain, participants who received spinal manipulation, personal instruction, and exercises experienced less pain after 12 weeks than participants who only received personal instruction and exercises.

Other potential benefits of chiropractic adjustments include:

  • Improves flexibility
  • Relieves pain
  • Reduces back spasms
  • Lessens headaches, including migraines
  • Decreases sciatica, or pain associated with the sciatic nerve which controls muscles in your back and legs
  • Decreases instances of pinched nerves in the back
  • Reduces pain and stiffness from whiplash

If you are considering chiropractic care, consult with your primary care doctor first to rule out other health conditions that may be causing pain, like a herniated disc.

“While chiropractic can help with pain and loss of function, treatment of other medical conditions should be done in coordination with your medical physician,” says Siddharth Tambar, MD, a rheumatologist with Chicago Arthritis and Regenerative Medicine.

Chiropractic adjustment side effects

Chiropractic care is considered low risk, Tambar says, but there are some potential side effects to consider. These include:

  • Muscle soreness after an adjustment, which usually resolves in about 24 hours
  • Stiffness
  • A temporary increase in joint pain
  • Fatigue

In rare cases, chiropractic adjustments may cause:

  • Herniated discs in your spine
  • Pinched nerves
  • Stroke

These types of complications are rare, Tambar says, and more likely to occur if you are seeking care from an unlicensed person. So, always go to a licensed chiropractor. You can check a chiropractor’s certification and licensure with the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners.

Certain medical conditions also increase your risk of complications from chiropractic adjustments. Therefore, do not seek chiropractic care if you have:

  • Cancer in your spine
  • A bone abnormality in your spine or neck
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • An increased risk of stroke

Insider’s takeaway

Chiropractic adjustments are when chiropractors move your bones back into place for the purpose of relieving pain and increasing mobility. If you experience back or neck pain or frequent headaches, a chiropractor may be able to help.

However, you should always discuss your symptoms with your primary care physician before seeing a chiropractor and let your chiropractor know your full medical history to reduce the risk of permanent damage.

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