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What chiropractic treatment is

Chiropractors diagnose, treat and prevent disorders of your bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. It has its roots in bone setting, a traditional manipulation therapy, used several thousand years ago. Chiropractors believe that gentle adjustment (manipulation) of the spine and other joints helps the body to heal itself. This is based on the idea that a healthy spine and nervous system are directly related to general good health and a feeling of well being.

Chiropractors use a wide range of treatments as part of their care and these may include

  • Exercises for you to do
  • Ultrasound or similar treatments
  • Using their hands to manipulate your bones and muscles, particularly those of your spine

Chiropractors don’t use drugs or surgery. Manipulation puts the bones and joints back into their natural place. Manipulating the spine in this way is called spinal manipulation. Spinal manipulation is also sometimes used as part of osteopathy.

Chiropractors are trained to diagnose physical problems and so are more likely to call themselves primary healthcare practitioners than complementary therapists. Some GP surgeries provide chiropractic treatment within their service. Chiropractic treatment in the UK is regulated by law and chiropractors must register with the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). It is very important to make sure that your chiropractor is registered with the GCC.


Why people with cancer go to chiropractors

One of the main reasons why people with cancer use chiropractic treatment is to help control pain, headaches and tension. There is some scientific evidence to suggest that chiropractic therapy may help to relieve pain, stress, headaches and back pain. But there is no evidence to suggest that it helps to prevent, treat or cure cancer and chiropractors would not claim to be able to cure cancer.

There is general information about why people with cancer use complementary therapies in our complementary therapy section.


Evidence on the use of chiropractic treatment

Trials have looked at spinal manipulation techniques (including chiropractic treatment) as a treatment for various conditions. Research studies have found that chiropractic treatment works well for ongoing lower back pain. In 2009 the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommended chiropractic treatment, including spinal manipulation, as a 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 2010 review stated that spinal manipulation does not appear to be helpful for asthma, high blood pressure or period pain. The studies could not tell whether it helps with fibromyalgia, pain in the middle area of the back, pre menstrual syndrome, sciatica, or jaw joint disorders. 

Further clinical trials will help to show how well chiropractic treatment works, and which other conditions it might be used to treat. Trials may also tell us more about possible side effects. It is important to make sure that any side effects of treatment don’t outweigh potential benefits.

It is important to remember that none of these studies were specific for people with cancer. We don’t have any evidence to show that it helps to treat people who have cancer. And it’s important that some people shouldn’t have chiropractic treatment if they have certain conditions.


What chiropractic treatment involves

On your first visit to a chiropractor they 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 muscle or bone injuries you have had
  • Your work
  • Where and how often you have pain
  • Perhaps the type of bed or mattress you have

The chiropractor will want to do a physical examination, which will include checking your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing pattern. They may suggest that you have an X-ray of your spine. They sometimes need to speak to your GP. This is just to check that your doctor is happy for you to go ahead and use chiropractic treatment. It is rare that your doctor will say no. But there may be situations where your doctor recommends that you don’t use chiropractic treatment.

To have chiropractic treatment you may need to take off your clothes, except your underwear, and will be given a gown to wear. But often you can keep your clothes on. You will usually lie on a couch (table) to have the treatment. The chiropractor will use their hands to manipulate (realign) 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 use other techniques as part of the treatment, such as

  • Massage
  • Hot and cold treatment
  • Physical stretches
  • Exercises
  • Equipment such as electrical currents or ultrasound

Most chiropractic sessions last about 15 to 20 minutes. During your treatment it is important that you tell your chiropractor if you are in any discomfort or want them to stop. The number of treatments you will need will depend on the problem you have. After treatment your chiropractor may suggest exercises that you can do at home to help or prevent further problems. You may need treatments once or twice a week or only once every few weeks.


Side effects

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

There have been some concerns about the possible risk of having a stroke because of manipulation to the neck. The British Medical Journal’s clinical evidence website claims that between 1 and 3 out of every 1 million people who have manipulation to their neck are at risk of having a stroke. But your chiropractor will follow strict guidelines set out by their regulatory body to prevent them from using specific manipulation techniques on people at high risk of having a stroke. 

It may also help you to know that a research review comparing the risks linked to using spinal manipulation for neck pain and the use of non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs found that manipulation was much safer than using the drugs.


Who shouldn’t use chiropractic treatment

If you have cancer it is important that you let your cancer specialist know before you have chiropractic treatment. And also let your chiropractor know that you have cancer. In most cases you will be able to go ahead with treatment. But most doctors and chiropractors wouldn’t recommend treatment for people who have

You also shouldn’t have chiropractic treatment if you are taking drugs to help thin your blood (anti coagulants) or if you are taking some types of steroids. There may be other medical conditions for which your doctor would not recommend chiropractic treatment, so always ask them before going ahead.


The cost of chiropractic treatment

If you have chiropractic treatment privately, it will usually cost between £30 and £45 for a session. Some GPs will refer you for chiropractic treatment on the NHS, although this varies between primary care trusts. And if you have private health insurance your policy might cover chiropractic treatment.


Finding a chiropractor

The best way to find a chiropractor is to contact the General Chiropractic Council and ask for a list of chiropractors in your area. You can ask the chiropractor

  • How many years of training they've had
  • How long they've been practicing
  • If they have treated cancer patients before

For general information about finding a reliable therapist and the questions you should ask look in our complementary therapies section.


Chiropractic organisations

In the UK the chiropractic profession is one of only two complementary therapies regulated by law. The other is osteopathy. The professional regulatory body for chiropractors is the General Chiropractic Council. Anyone who refers to themselves as a chiropractor 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 insurance. About 2,500 chiropractors are registered with the General Chiropractic Council. You can find information about their code of practice on their website.

General Chiropractic Council
44 Wicklow Street
London WC1X 9HL
Phone: 020 7713 5155

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Updated: 16 January 2013