Snap, Crackle, Pop


by By Jeanne Faulkner /

Posted on April 15, 2009 at 9:10 AM

Updated Thursday, Oct 22 at 4:28 PM

About the Author

Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other publications.

Oh my aching back. What a pain in the neck. What a headache. They may sound like clichd complaints but they're really common afflictions. In fact,  more than 40 percent of Americans suffer from chronic pain, which is defined as lasting more than three months,  Injuries that hurt like heck but have quick resolution are called acute (and annoying). While most acute injuries clear up on their own with rest and at-home care, those that don't can drag the injured one into a spiral of pain responses that can be a real headache. Most Americans turn first to their family practice doctor, but many are now turning to another kind of primary care physician--a chiropractor.

Chiropractic, according to the official medical definition, is a system of diagnosis and treatment based on the concept that the nervous system coordinates all of the body's functions, and that disease results from a lack of normal nerve function. Chiropractic employs manipulation and adjustment of body structures, such as the spinal column, so that pressure on nerves coming from the spinal cord due to displacement (subluxation) of a vertebral body may be relieved.

Here's the unofficial definition: The neck bone's connected to the body bone.  Chiropractic practice is based on the belief that all body systems work together. If nerves, bones, the spinal cord and musculature are out of whack, the rest of the body goes with it. By returning the body to its optimal alignment and balance and addressing lifestyle issues like diet, exercise and occupational habits, patients get healthy. 

Chiropractic college graduates complete a medical degree program as extensive as traditional medical doctors, and one that typically includes 100 more classroom hours specific to bone and spine health. They study biochemistry, pathology, histology, orthopedics, neurology and radiology. Chiropractors use state-of-the art diagnostic tools like x-rays,  , MRIs and blood work.  

Katherine Ellison, DC at Always Chiropractic and Wellness Center in Seattle, Wash., says chiropractors enjoy an overall high success rate for treating pain. "The chiropractic approach involves deciphering if anything is interfering with how the body heals and functions. If muscles can't repair and rebuild, or vertebra can't move, over time, that leads to pain signals. A chiropractic exam looks at how well the nervous system sends signals to the muscles, blood vessels and organs. Anything getting in the way of that inhibits the body's ability to function and heal optimally, and causes areas of hyper-inflammation that create pain."

Ellison explains that while some people deal with this from the outside in by taking ibuprofen or some other anti-inflammatory, chiropractors prefer to work from the inside out--focusing on the cause of the inflammation itself by identifying nerve interference. "We look for areas of the spine that are subluxated [out of alignment] and interfering with the nervous system's ability to communicate with the muscles, joints and organs on the other end of that nerve. A chiropractic adjustment takes tension off that nerve, allowing the body to restore its own function."

Shireesh Bhalerao, DC at Equilibrium NW, a Portland, Ore., multidisciplinary clinic, says that 85 percent of his patients are referred for pain. He estimates that 65 to 70 percent have spine pain either in the low back, neck or head. The rest have pain in the extremities or abdomen. Dr. Bhalerao encourages patient empowerment. "We want patients to be as functional as possible as soon as possible. We don't want pain to limit them. We believe the more movement and function, the better--regardless of what stage of pain they're in."

Bhalerao explains why chiropractic adjustment works. " ... decreased function due to pain is probably due to a lack of motion in particular joints. By restoring motion, we help facilitate the return to 100 percent function. We also impart a quick stretch to local stretch receptors in the muscles, and they reflexively relax."

Dr. Bhalerao busts myths that chiropractors "crack your back."  He says: "There are a lot of misperceptions about treatment. It's not like a Steven Segal movie where he breaks necks. It's actually very gentle. Every evaluation includes education about physiology. We know patients are afraid of the popping noise they might hear or that manipulation might be painful. Most of the joints in our spine and extremities are fluid-filled. Quickly changing the fluid pressure causes gas within it to release and make an audible pop. Like opening a soda can. Knowing that it's obviously not anything like bone being crunched helps people relax."

Both Ellison and Bhalarao say the biggest focus in chiropractic is on wellness. Bhalarao says: "We want patients to feel like they're in control of their lives and pain. We give them strategies to deal with pain on a daily basis. We tell them, 'Working is good for you.  Exercise is good for you.' We don't want them to fear doing the things they normally would in a typical day. That's where empowerment comes in. We'd rather see our patients out in the city doing their job or at home living their lives than in our office."

Ellison says: "Wellness or lifestyle care is what chiropractors ideally help patients with. We help them ask: 'How did I get like this?' If it's because of physical stress, we help with exercises and posture. If it's because of a diet that's hyper-inflammatory or ...   [dehydrating], we look at nutritional balance. Stress causes inflammation and weakens the immune system. We help them address things like: Do they like their job and have a good support system at home? We'd rather address the causes of subluxation than wait until pain occurs to do something about it."

If you're regularly using clichs to describe the way you feel, visiting a chiropractor might cure what ails you. Chiropractors agree they sometimes have to refer patients back to medical specialists. Focusing on the body's natural ability to heal itself is what wellness and chiropractic is all about.