If you’ve never had back pain, you should consider yourself fortunate. Or it may just be that your time has not yet come.
Approximately eight out of 10 Americans experience back pain at some point. Back and neck pain are among the most common reasons for sick leave in the workplace.
“Neck pain, back pain and headaches are the most frequent complaints in a chiropractic office. While sometimes these problems are attributable to muscle or ligament strains, there are cases with more serious causes such as disk injuries or degenerative joint disease,” notes Robert A. Hayden, DC, Ph.D., FICC, who practices at Iris City Chiropractic Center in Griffin, Georgia and is also a media spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association (ACA).
The Big Picture
It’s easy to ignore the health of your spine when you don’t have back pain, but you may not realize your spine and nervous system play into your overall health—and not just when it comes to walking.
“The nervous system is the control mechanism for the body,” explains Hayden. “The central nervous system is composed of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nerves take information to and from our body parts from the brain and spinal cord.
“This information includes, for example, control of circulation, movement, digestion and influence on the immune system,” Hayden continues. “It constantly monitors input from the environment through our senses and reacts appropriately to maintain the delicate balances required for stable metabolism. The nervous system is truly marvelous. King David said it well: ‘We are fearfully and wonderfully made.’”
It’s All Connected
“With the hip bone connected to the back bone, and the back bone connected to the neck bone…”
You may dismiss that old ditty as just a silly childhood song, but it contains an important kernel of truth: When something goes wrong in your spine, numerous areas of your body can be affected.
Hayden points out that proper alignment may prevent or impact systemic problems. For example, alignment issues in the neck and upper back may affect breathing in the upper airways or in the lungs if the thorax does not move properly.
Your gastrointestinal tract also has important ties to your spine. Thoracic nerve roots come out of the mid back and coalesce to form important nerves that actually control the GI tract.
“One of our patients endured a very expensive medical workup to track the source of his right upper abdominal pain that revealed nothing significant,” Hayden recalls. “When he returned for chiropractic care, we found a thoracic disc herniation that was causing the radiating pain to the abdomen. This was an interesting case because gastric reflux produced a chronic cough, and the cough herniated the disc. The nerve squeezed by that herniated disc caused his abdominal pain. That is an interesting chain of events but not unusual. Every patient’s situation is like a mystery novel waiting to be read and solved.”
Help For What Hurts
There are typically two causes of pain originating in the spine: nerve and disc.
When a disc has degenerated, the disc itself is painful. In other cases, a nerve may be pinched or irritated as a direct result of damage to a disc, and because a nerve is involved, the pain can radiate out to other areas of the body. Your health care provider can help determine the exact cause of your pain and what treatment is recommended.
There are many different injuries and conditions that may be helped by chiropractic care, from lumbar spinal stenosis and sciatica to whiplash and herniated discs.
Each year, some 30 million Americans turn to chiropractic care, and no, you don’t need a medical referral. Doctors of chiropractic are educated as primary-contact health care providers, with an emphasis on diagnosis and treatment of conditions related to the musculoskeletal system (the muscles, ligaments and joints of the spine and extremities) and the nerves that supply them.
“Most people consult us with a pain problem,” says Hayden. “A doctor of chiropractic will use the same knowledge base and diagnostic tools as our medical colleagues but with a very different approach to treatment that is drug-free, non-surgical, safe and effective.”
Although it’s often pain that drives a person to seek chiropractic care, how does the chiropractor know where adjustment is needed?
“Pain is like a rattle in a car. It tells you something is wrong, but it is not necessarily specific,” notes Hayden. “Chasing pain can be frustrating because sometimes people hurt in places remote from the cause.”
The chiropractor takes the patient’s history, including this specific complaint and other parts of the medical history. A careful examination will include multiple body systems, and imaging may be necessary to complete the picture. All of that together leads to a diagnosis, and that guides the chiropractor toward specific therapy.
Let’s say you seek out a chiropractor because of frequent headaches. Those headaches may be related to alignment issues in the neck, alignment issues of the skull or they may be totally unrelated to musculoskeletal issues. The answer will be found via your patient history, physical exam and imaging, allowing the chiropractor to know precisely where adjustment is needed.
Chiropractic adjustment is a carefully controlled procedure that manipulates the body’s joints, in particular the spine. This can reduce pain and helps resolve inflammation of joints. Depending on the nature of the problem and whether it is acute or chronic, a patient may need several adjustments over a period of time.
Chiropractors aren’t limited to just using their hands for adjustments. There are many chiropractic techniques, some of which involve the use of devices and machines.
“Some doctors use activators, which are handheld devices that impact bones very lightly and very quickly,” says Hayden. “Some use special tables, such as flexion distraction or decompression, to affect pressure inside intravertebral discs. There are several physiotherapies at our disposal, including numerous electrotherapies, ultrasound and infrared light, all of which can be used as adjuncts to support soft tissue, along with the adjustments.”
In some cases, a misalignment is causing the pain, so adjustment brings immediate relief.
An adjustment may also release endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers that are embedded in our tissues. Adjustments of the thoracic spine probably also release epinephrine, which is made in nervous tissue surrounding the thoracic spine.
“I have a patient who is a recovering heroin addict,” relates Hayden. “Heroin and our own endogenous endorphins ‘tickle’ the same opiate receptors in our brains. When I do thoracic adjustments for that gentleman, he nearly goes unconscious as the endorphins hit his brain, which is screaming for stimulation after being exposed to heroin in his youth. He states that this adjustment feels like when he ‘shot up.’ It is not that his endorphins are more powerful than ours, but he is more sensitized than most people and reacts very strongly.”
If you have a physical job, you may want to consider seeing a doctor of chiropractic before you run into back problems. Athletes, for example, often seek chiropractic care.
“Right now 28 professional baseball teams and all 32 professional football teams have chiropractors maintaining finely tuned athletes,” remarks Hayden. “As chiropractors optimize a patient’s structure by adjusting the spine and extremities, there is a direct improvement in function that is reflected in performance.
“I have some high school athletes who come to see me before a big game. After adjustment of the spine and extremities, they report better speed and agility. The whole team appreciates that!”
Hey, Doc, What’s That Noise?
When joints are adjusted, sometimes there is an audible sound. (You’ve heard it when you crack your knuckles.) Chiropractors refer to this noise as “cavitation.”
There’s no need for concern. Adjustment can change the pressure within the joint, and any sound you hear is caused by the release of tiny gas bubbles between the joints.
Take Care Of Your Spine!
Have a desk job?Use a chair that offers ergonomic support, ideally with your knees slightly higher than your hips to maintain the natural curve in your lower back.
Don’t slouch.Adjust your computer monitor to look directly at it, not up or down.
Take regular breaks: Get up, stretch and walk around.
Have a physical job?Never twist while lifting something. Pick up heavy items by kneeling on one knee close to the item with your other foot flat on the floor, or bend at the knees and squat. Lift with your leg muscles, not your back muscles.
Sweet dreams.Sleeping on your back puts significantly more pressure on your spine than sleeping on your side. Better to sleep on your side with just enough pillow to keep your head level. Hug a body pillow so your upper arm and knee are supported by the pillow.
American Chiropractic Association
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