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Chiropractic care

Chiropractors are trained to diagnose and treat problems affecting the bones, joints and muscles (the musculoskeletal system).

Chiropractic care is a regulated health care profession.

Chiropractors don't use medicines or surgery. Treatment mainly involves manipulation of the spine and other joints. Manipulation puts the bones and joints back into their natural place, so that they can move properly.

Chiropractors give a wide range of treatments that may include:

  • manual therapy - they use their hands to manipulate or move bones, muscles and joints
  • prescribed exercises
  • self-care advice

Why people with cancer go to chiropractors

One of the main reasons people with cancer see a chiropractor is to help control pain, headaches and tension. There is some scientific evidence to suggest that chiropractic care might help relieve headaches and back pain.

But there is no evidence that it can help prevent, treat or cure cancer. Chiropractors will not claim to be able to cure cancer.

What chiropractic care involves

On your first visit, the chiropractor will ask you some general questions about your health and lifestyle. Their aim is to find the exact cause of your symptoms.

They will want to know about:

  • any injuries you have had
  • what type of work and other activities you do
  • where and how often you have pain
  • the type of bed or mattress you have

The chiropractor will do a physical examination, which might include checking your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.

They might suggest that you have an X-ray or MRI scan of your spine or other affected joints.

Sometimes the chiropractor will ask to speak to your GP. This is because there are some situations where it is not recommended that you have chiropractic care.

You can usually stay fully clothed when having chiropractic care. For some care you might need to take off all your clothes except for your underwear. They will give you a gown to wear.

You usually lie on a couch (table) to have the treatment. The chiropractor will use their hands to manipulate your spine or joints.

Sometimes the chiropractor may use a rapid thrust type action, which can cause a popping sound due to the sudden change of pressure in the joint space. This is not dangerous and shouldn’t be painful.

Some chiropractors may also recommend other techniques as part of the treatment, such as:

  • massage
  • hot and cold treatment
  • physical stretches
  • exercises
  • needling (acupuncture)
  • electrical currents or laser

Most chiropractic sessions last about 15 to 20 minutes. Tell your chiropractor if you are in any discomfort or want them to stop. The number of treatments you need will depend on the problem you have. You may need treatments once or twice a week or only once every few weeks.

After treatment, your chiropractor may suggest exercises that you can do at home to help or prevent further problems.

Possible side effects of chiropractic care

Spinal manipulation can have some side effects. Immediately after treatment, between 25 and 50 out of every 100 people (25 to 50%) feel mild pain, discomfort, a slight headache or tiredness. This usually passes within 24 hours. You should contact your chiropractor for advice if it doesn’t improve.

There have been some concerns about the possible risk of having a stroke because of manipulation to the neck. The risk of this is very low. The British Medical Journal’s clinical evidence website says that only between 1 and 3 out of every 1 million people who have manipulation to their neck are at risk of having a stroke.

Your chiropractor will follow strict guidelines set out by the chiropractic regulatory body. These guidelines prevent them from using specific manipulation techniques on people at high risk of having a stroke.

Research into chiropractic care

Trials have looked at spinal manipulation as a treatment for various conditions. Research studies have found that chiropractic care works well for ongoing lower back pain.

In 2009, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended spinal manipulation as an effective treatment option for people with ongoing lower back pain.

A 2010 review of scientific evidence on manual therapies found that spinal manipulation can also help people with:

  • migraine
  • neck related headaches
  • neck pain
  • knee and elbow conditions
  • whiplash injury

The review stated that spinal manipulation does not appear to be helpful for:

  • asthma
  • high blood pressure
  • period pain

The studies could not tell whether it helps with:

  • fibromyalgia
  • pain in the middle area of the back
  • premenstrual syndrome
  • sciatica
  • jaw joint disorders

It's important to remember that none of these studies were specific for people with cancer.

We need more clinical trials to show how well chiropractic treatment works, and what other conditions it might be helpful for. Trials might also tell us more about possible side effects. It's important to make sure that the side effects of a treatment don’t outweigh the potential benefits.

Who shouldn’t have chiropractic care

It is important to tell your cancer specialist before you have chiropractic care. Also let your chiropractor know that you have cancer and about any treatment that you're having.

You will be able to go ahead with chiropractic care in most cases. But most doctors and chiropractors won't recommend treatment for people who have:

  • any type of bone cancer (primary or secondary bone cancer)
  • diseases that affect the spinal cord
  • diseases of the bone marrow, such as leukaemia and myeloma
  • broken bones
  • severe bone thinning (osteoporosis)

You might be advised against having chiropractic treatment if you are taking some types of steroids or drugs to help thin your blood (anti coagulants).

There might be other reasons your doctor might not recommend chiropractic treatment, so always check with them before going ahead.

The cost of chiropractic care

Private chiropractic care usually costs between £30 and £45 a session. Some GPs can refer you for chiropractic care on the NHS, although this varies from area to area.

Private health insurance might cover chiropractic care. You'll need to check your policy.

Finding a chiropractor

The chiropractic profession is regulated by law in the UK. The professional regulatory body for chiropractors is the General Chiropractic Council.

All chiropractors must be registered with this organisation. This means that they have to meet the correct set of standards for training, professional behaviour and skills. And they must have indemnity insurance.

The General Chiropractic Council can give you a list of the registered chiropractors in your area. Some GP surgeries provide chiropractic care within their service.

You might want to ask the therapist the following questions.

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practicing?
  • Have you treated people with cancer before?

Useful organisations

The General Chiropractic Council is the regulatory body for chiropractors in the UK. Their website has details of the chiropractor code of practice. You can also search for a registered chiropractor in your area.

44 Wicklow Street
London WC1X 9HL

Phone: 020 7713 5155
Email: enquries@gcc-uk.org

Royal College of Chiropractors

The Royal College of Chiropractors promotes high quality chiropractic care and produces quality standards to help ensure this.

Chiltern Chambers
37 St Peters Avenue
Reading
RG4 7DH

Phone: 0118 946 9727
Email: admin@rcc-uk.org

Last reviewed: 
27 Jan 2015
  • Effectiveness of manual therapies: the UK report
    G Bronfort and others
    Chiropractic and Osteopathy, 2010. Volume 18, Issue 3

  • Low back pain in adults: early management
    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2009

  • The chiropractic care of patients with cancer: a systematic review of the literature
    J Alacantara and others
    Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2012. Volume 11, Issue 4

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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