If you were asked to name a condition commonly treated by chiropractors, chances are neck and back pain would come to mind. But the list could be much longer.
Even though 11% of Americans seek the services of a chiropractor each year, most people are unaware that chiropractic care — a more than 100-year-old hands-on discipline that focuses primarily on manipulation of the spine — can be used to treat discomfort in many parts of the body.*
To learn more about the surprising conditions that chiropractors can help relieve, Bottom Line/Health spoke with James N. Dillard, MD, DC, CAc, a medical doctor, chiropractor and acupuncturist who specializes in treating chronic pain. For example…
Asthma. The goal of treating people with asthma is to stimulate the rib cage muscles to ease breathing, optimize blood and lymph flow and enhance nervous system activity, all of which help reduce symptoms such as chest tightness and shortness of breath. In treating asthma, chiropractors typically use not only spinal manipulation but also other modalities such as stretching and/or trigger-point massage. Exercise, good eating habits and meditation also may be discussed. Additionally, chiropractic and acupuncture can be an effective combination for asthma.
Scientific evidence: A 2010 study in The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, which compiled data from eight scientific articles, showed improvements, based on pulmonary function tests, in 5,882 asthma patients who underwent chiropractic care.
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). This condition, which causes shooting pain and numbness in the hand (usually the thumb, index and middle fingers), often occurs in people who have poor posture while performing repetitive tasks, such as working with small hand tools or typing at a keyboard.
Chiropractors can improve CTS by doing stretching and manipulation at the wrist, guiding physical therapy exercises and counseling patients on how they position their hands at the computer or while using hand tools. Wrist splints, worn at night, also may help.
Scientific evidence: Two studies support the use of chiropractic for CTS, including one reporting significant progress in strength, range of motion and pain after several chiropractic sessions. Most improvements were maintained for at least six months.
Fibromyalgia. Characterized by chronic pain and tenderness in joints and muscles, fibromyalgia is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning other illnesses must first be ruled out, since no laboratory tests can identify it. Chiropractors can help relieve symptoms by focusing on the tender points — and relaxing these areas as well as the patient’s entire frame. They can also apply heat, ice or electrostimulation, which uses electric current to promote muscle contractions, improving blood flow.
A diet that reduces the systemic inflammation that fibromyalgia patients typically have also may be recommended. Such a diet emphasizes fish, fresh vegetables and fruit and discourages fatty meat, fried food and dairy products.
Scientific evidence: A 2009 study of fibromyalgia patients in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine tested the effects of resistance training — including chest presses and leg extensions — combined with chiropractic care. It found that the resistance training’s positive impact on patient strength was enhanced by the addition of chiropractic, which improved flexibility, balance and coordination.
In addition to the healing effects of chiropractic’s hands-on approach, chiropractors tend to excel at listening to their patients, which also provides comfort.
Headache. Many of the up to 45 million Americans affected by chronic headache (occurring at least 15 days a month) try one drug after another to find relief. While headache pain obviously manifests in the head, a significant number of headaches are related to the alignment of the cervical spine (neck).
Scientific evidence: Research has found chiropractic care to be especially useful for tension headaches, the most common type experienced by adults in the Western world. Chiropractic may also help with migraines. A 2009 study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics suggested that the combination of spinal manipulation and amitriptyline (Elavil), an antidepressant also used for migraine pain, produced stronger results than either alone.
The hand movements chiropractors use to stretch the neck, which often include manual traction to increase space between the vertebrae and/or side-to-side stretches of the neck, may relax the muscle tension at the root of tension headaches in ways that can’t necessarily be achieved with drugs.
Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD). This refers to a variety of conditions marked by intermittent pain in the jaw joints and surrounding tissues, making it difficult to chew or yawn. Many patients have a genuine mechanical malfunction in the jaw, but in my experience, the majority who think they have TMD simply have too much tension in their jaws. They’re holding their jaws too tightly and/or grind their teeth at night.
Chiropractic, which may involve manually stretching the jaw and the surrounding muscles, can be enormously helpful for jaw pain. Spinal adjustments to the upper neck and jaw can properly realign the joints, and exercise and lifestyle changes can prevent a relapse. Mouth guards also can be used by people who grind their teeth at night.
Scientific evidence: Research published in 2003 in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics tracked nine TMD patients who suffered pain while opening their mouths. After eight weeks of chiropractic therapy, all of the patients were able to open their mouths more widely and with less pain.
To find a chiropractor near you: Consult the American Chiropractic Association.
*Chiropractic care is safe for most people. However, people who have osteoporosis or take blood-thinning medications could be at increased risk for bone fractures and/or internal bleeding, while in extremely rare cases, those with a history of stroke may have an increased risk for a subsequent stroke. If you have these conditions or any other chronic health problem, consult your doctor before seeking chiropractic care.