Is Chiropractic Pseudoscience? Myths, Benefits, and Limits

Chiropractic care, a type of alternative medicine, involves manual (hands-on) manipulation that encourages your body to heal itself.

Manual healing methods date back to ancient times, but the chiropractic profession didn’t come about until the late 19th century. Today, chiropractors follow physicians and dentists to make up the third largest group of primary healthcare professionals in the United States. Chiropractic care is regulated in all 50 states, and chiropractors practice in 90 countries worldwide.

Yet, as you may have read or heard for yourself, some people consider chiropractic a form of pseudoscience.

Healthcare professionals don’t always agree about the role of chiropractic when it comes to certain conditions, along with claims that lack scientific proof.

That said, with a wealth of evidence supporting chiropractic care for certain types of pain, especially back pain, more and more medical doctors recommend it alongside other treatments.

Read on for an in-depth exploration of the scientific support for chiropractic care, plus information about its potential uses and benefits.

People turn to chiropractors to treat all kinds of injuries and conditions, including:

Experts continue to study the potential benefits and risks of chiropractic care for these and other conditions and injuries.

While science may not currently back every existing claim of the benefits of chiropractic treatment, evidence does suggest that people generally report high levels of satisfaction with this alternative approach.

A few research-backed benefits of chiropractic care:

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone responds the same way to chiropractic treatment. What works for one person may not necessarily work for you.

A number of myths and misconceptions about the practice contribute to the idea that chiropractic is pseudoscience.

Let’s shed some light on the most common ones:

Myth: You don’t need a degree to be a chiropractor

Chiropractors don’t hold an M.D., and they aren’t medical doctors. But they do graduate with a doctor of chiropractic degree and are licensed practitioners.

Becoming a chiropractor typically requires:

  • a 4-year undergraduate degree
  • 3 to 5 years at an accredited chiropractic college
  • a clinical internship

Myth: The only thing chiropractors do is crack your back

Chiropractors treat issues affecting the musculoskeletal system and nervous system.

Along with adjustments to realign joints, they also offer:

Myth: Medical doctors don’t believe in chiropractic treatment

Not all experts agree on the role of chiropractic care in the treatment of certain conditions due to the need for more research. Even so, chiropractic care is largely accepted as a complementary treatment for issues like neck and back pain.

This is partly thanks to mainstream medical journals publishing studies exploring the benefits of chiropractic care. The American College of Physicians guidelines also include spinal manipulation as one of the suggested first-line treatments for low back pain.

Myth: Chiropractic adjustments are dangerous

You may experience a few side effects after an adjustment, including:

  • temporary muscle soreness
  • stiffness
  • increased pain

Some serious complications have been associated with spinal manipulations, but these remain relatively rare. Possible serious complications include:

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) considers spinal manipulation relatively safe when performed by a trained and licensed practitioner.

Important

If you have a condition that causes joint inflammation or are receiving treatment for any other medical condition, it’s best to check with your care team before getting an adjustment.

Wondering exactly what experts have to say about the benefits and limits of chiropractic care?

Here’s a breakdown of the current evidence.

Low back pain

Research suggests chiropractic care can help improve low back pain for some people.

A 2017 review of studies linked spinal manipulation to modest improvement in pain and function in people with acute low back pain.

A 2018 study involving 750 active-duty military personnel randomly assigned half the participants to receive usual care, such as medications and physical therapy, while the other half received usual care plus chiropractic treatments for 6 weeks. After those 6 weeks, participants who received chiropractic care:

  • reported less pain intensity and an improvement in function
  • experienced less disability
  • reported higher satisfaction with their treatment
  • needed less pain medication

Neck pain

A 2021 review found that spinal manipulation appeared effective for treating acute neck pain, both alone and in combination with treatments like medication and physiotherapy.

According to a 2019 study exploring the benefits of chiropractic care for neck pain, this treatment may work because it increases the level of oxytocin, neurotensin, and other natural pain-relieving hormones in your body.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis pain happens when the degeneration of cartilage in the joints causes bone to rub against bone. Some chiropractic adjustments may help OA pain by reducing bone-on-bone contact, but research studying the benefits of chiropractic for OA remain limited.

A small 2021 study of people with spine or extremity OA did find evidence to suggest that chiropractic care appeared to help significantly reduce pain scores.

Headaches

People commonly consult chiropractors for help with headaches, including migraine.

While some evidence suggests that spinal manipulation can help some types of headache, more high-quality research is needed.

One 2017 study exploring the effects of spinal manipulation on migraine divided participants into three groups: spinal manipulation, sham spinal manipulation, and pharmacologic treatment. All groups reported a significant reduction in the number of migraine days after 17 weeks, but these effects lasted through the follow-up period for those who received either the real or the sham manipulation.

The researchers noted this was likely a placebo response. Still, spinal manipulation could be an option if other therapeutic treatments don’t help.

A 2020 review of 7 studies found that spinal manipulation appeared to provide small, superior short-term benefits for pain intensity, frequency, and disability in people with cervicogenic headache. But it didn’t have a significant long-term impact.

A 2021 study involved 199 children ages 7 to 14 with recurrent headaches. According to the results, spinal manipulation might lead to fewer headaches, but it may not reduce headache intensity.

Boosting the immune system

Something experts agree chiropractic can’t do? Boost your immune system.

In March 2020, the International Chiropractors Association (ICA) posted a report claiming that chiropractic adjustments can boost the immune system, implying that chiropractic care might help prevent COVID-19. (The report has since been removed.)

According to a critical review of the report by 153 researchers involved in chiropractic research in 11 countries, the ICA didn’t provide valid clinical scientific evidence that chiropractic care impacts the immune system. The researchers also noted several red flags of pseudoscience in the report.

You have a few options for finding a reputable chiropractor in your area:

  • Ask your doctor or other healthcare professional for recommendations.
  • Ask your friends or family members if they have any recommendations.
  • Use the American Chiropractic Association’s Find a Doctor tool.
  • Consult a search engine for highly rated chiropractors near you.

Before choosing a practitioner, you may also find it helpful to:

  • Make sure your chiropractor is licensed by your state chiropractic board.
  • Schedule a consultation with a chiropractor to see if they’re a good fit.
  • Ask about cost and accepted insurance plans.

It never hurts to read customer reviews about both a specific chiropractor and the office where they practice. What do people have to say about their professionalism and treatment? Do they generally feel satisfied?

If you feel uncomfortable after an adjustment, with either the treatment or your chiropractor’s approach, don’t hesitate to try another practitioner.

Keep in mind, too, that chiropractic treatment may simply not be right for you. Chiropractic care offers one possible approach to treating certain types of pain, but it’s not an approach everyone finds comfortable.

Chiropractic isn’t pseudoscience. While research continues into its potential uses, evidence does support its benefits as part of a treatment plan for pain.

If you’d like to give chiropractic treatment a try, start by asking your care team whether this treatment might be a good option for you. You can also ask a doctor or physician for a referral.


Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.

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