An injury three weeks back forced me to tend to my lower back. Since an appointment with my family doctor could not be met for another two weeks, I used a combination of home remedies including BENGAY® massages, Advil, hot bag/cold bag press and simply lying down on flat surfaces. While they all gave temporary relief, nothing seemed to better the pain. Since we happened to find a Groupon for Chiropractor massage, we thought – why not? (the fact that a certified-medical therapy-by-certified-doctors was offered on a 93%-off discounted Groupon sale must have indicated something, but I was too desperate, so I conveniently chose to ignore).

On the day of my appointment, I spent a good 30 minutes reading up on several articles on chiropractic treatment. Bad idea, number 2. Unnecessary information clouded my mind. Anyway, I left to the clinic hoping for a nice, pain relieving therapeutic massage. What I will describe in the coming paragraphs will give a glimpse into MY personal experience (skepticism and opinions) on chiropractic therapy. Of course, I am no physician, and my experiences here do not constitute a medically certified recommendation for or against chiropractic medicine. If you happen to be a chiropractic doctor, please take no offense. I am naturally interested in understanding the medical terms used by my doctors (on me), so as always, I took to researching about them myself. The University of Google, and a few brochures at the doctor’s clinic are all of my bibliography. 

It was a small, home owned Chiropractic clinic. The doctor met with me first, announcing that their expertise lied in vertebral subluxation therapy, which collectively refers to symptoms of pain concerning the spine that have resulted from mild-to-medically significant displacement of one/many spinal segment(s) in your vertebral column. Furthermore, my doctor (and is a common practice among most chiropractors) extrapolated that this vertebral misalignment can *directly* affect neurological functions and lead to dysfunctional neuromuscular, neuroskeletal and other internal organs in the body. In the vocabulary of non-chiropractic Medical doctors, a mild structural displacement is not considered a subluxation, in fact a vertebral subluxation would be an actual displacement of a vertebral segment (which is a severe condition) and will be visible on an X-Ray. The claimed displacement or vertebral subluxation by chiropractors are NOT necessarily even visible on X-rays. Hence, there are several controversies about the actual definition of vertebral subluxation and the supposed effects on overall health, within the chiropractic profession itself

As we began talking, the doctor used a hand-held computerized device to detect my vertebral subluxations. Asking me to stand upright and straight, she applied the device on 6-8 points along each side of the spine – starting from my neck-shoulder region, all the way to my lower back. Basically speaking, this device measures two things: temperature on the surface of the skin, and electrical activity of the underlying muscles. After few continuous beeping from the computer connected to this device, it computes these two data values and displays a series of multi-colored bars on either side of a vertical line (which indicates my vertebral column). These bars are aligned as an overlay on reference-value bars, so that any misalignment of vertebral segment will no longer be aligned above the reference bar. The color of the bars indicates the severity of subluxation in that vertebrae, and the length of the bar displayed numbers in negative values, which presumably indicated how off-set my vertebrae were from a normal, well-aligned vertebrae. The values near my neck and lower back were in the orders of thousands, and negative. Diagnosis: my spine is officially severely misaligned – nearly 1000 fold relative to a normal well aligned vertebrae.

Being a researcher myself, I have realized that it takes experience to know how much to believe numbers. Numbers are powerful, when correctly computed and statistically accurate. As I was trying to comprehend the extent of this purported diagnosis, I was frantically reminding myself that I am a moderately active 29 year old researcher who spends a big chunk of the day bending over a research bench, who can also comfortably get into that tiny door of my three-year old niece’s jumpy house and run 5K in under 45 minutes. All that had happened, was an acute injury and sprain to my lower back, and I need some relief. I had no chronic pain whatsoever. However within those few seconds, those graphic bars made me feel very sick and abnormal. My doctor’s expression on her face only confirmed my paranoia as she quickly recommended follow up tests and treatment to “correct” the multiple vertebral subluxations that I had been harboring in my back.

This, which I later found out, is a common critique of most patients who underwent annual physical exams at their chiropractor’s. Many patients reported in online reviews (assuming they were genuine, and not fake) that they – who were otherwise leading a healthy musculo-skeletal-life with no neurological or physical symptoms, were persuaded to undergo treatments to correct several vertebral subluxations so as to prevent development of symptoms in the future. I should point out that other chiropractors might use a combination of other devices to diagnose and locate these subluxations. However, based on this incident of mine, I couldn’t help buy find flaws in this type of clinical diagnosis. A text-book style diagnosis entirely based on comparing computer generated numbers and supposedly normal-reference values, without testing the movements in my body and my abilities to flex my spine and back muscles? Perhaps it would have convinced me better to know how their reference values were generated. Do they factor in the race, ethnic group, age, gender, lifestyle, medical histories, etc.? Well, mine wasn’t. The next day I got a chance to chat with my family physician, with whom I asked about the significance of surface electromyography and thermography. I was told that these were routine and valid clinical tests that are performed to detect any disturbance to blood flow on the skin, and to test for muscle function. However, my family physician accepted that it has not yet been scientifically and medically proven that these tests are sufficient to correctly *locate* chiropractic vertebral misalignments, which are a bit different from the muscular system. I should again point out this is a personal opinion of my family physician and can, in no circumstances, replace actual backing by scientific literature (which I clearly don’t have here).

Soon after my X-rays were taken. I was given a back press using two hand held electrical devices that were producing a low electric current, resembling that of a lumbar traction. It lasted for about 15 minutes, during when the doctor placed the devices on my back and… was gone. For 15 minutes. I was a bit peeved that I was left there with electric-traction pads vibrating on my back without any supervision.

And my back pain faithfully remained with me.

The doctor came back in and very briefly gave me a few stretches. One particular stretch was on my neck – without a notice, she held my jaw and the back of my head with her hands, and darted a quick, sudden twist to my neck, causing a cracking-type noise. Of course she performed the stretch deftly with her skillful hands and it caused no pain, but it definitely jolted me for a second bringing my hands to my neck to check if it was still in there. I felt silly, and a bit amused. I think I have seen this in movies, and it felt cool, but this obviously did not help the main problem I came to the clinic for – lower BACK pain.

I left the office making the next appointment to see the Doc to discuss my X-Rays. After three days, and with my back pain still worse, I cancelled my appointment.

Those were my two cents on my chiropractic-experience. My intention was definitely not to trash this alternative medicine of chiropractic therapy. I merely wanted to share my experience and the bit of research I did afterwards. But by no means, should this deter you from trying this out for yourself, after all – my experience could simply be one isolated incident with probably a not-so-good doctor. Awareness is the key, so please go check it out for yourself! There are success stories of people who have benefitted from alternative medicines. I was just not very impressed with my experience, and will NOT go back to chiropractic therapy.

Cheers, and wishing you good musculo-skeletal health!

Related links on the www:

1. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine: http://www.journalchiromed.com/

2. The American Chiropractic Association: http://www.acatoday.org/

3. Some news articles related to chiropractic therapy: