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What Is Chiropractic?

Chiropractic is an alternative medical system. It takes a different approach from standard medicine in treating health problems.

The basic concepts of chiropractic are

Your body has a powerful self-healing ability

Your body's structure (mainly the spine) and its function are related

The goal of chiropractic therapy is to normalize this relationship

Chiropractic professionals are doctors of chiropractic, or D.C.s. They use a type of hands-on therapy called spinal manipulation or adjustment. Many people visit chiropractors for treatment of low back pain.


Chiropractic is a health care approach that focuses on the relationship between the body's structure—mainly the spine—and its functioning. Although practitioners may use a variety of treatment approaches, they primarily perform adjustments to the spine or other parts of the body with the goal of correcting alignment problems and supporting the body's natural ability to heal itself.

Key Points

     •     People seek chiropractic care primarily for pain conditions such as back pain, neck pain, and headache.

     •     Side effects and risks depend on the type of chiropractic treatment used.

     •     Chiropractic practitioners in Canada are required to earn a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from properly accredited universities.

     •     Ongoing research is looking at effects of chiropractic treatment approaches, how they might work, and diseases and conditions for which they may be most helpful.

     •     Tell your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.


Overview and History

The term "chiropractic" combines the Greek words cheir (hand) and praxis (action) to describe a treatment done by hand. Hands-on therapy—especially adjustment of the spine—is central to chiropractic care. Chiropractic, which in the United States is considered part of complementary and alternative medicineA group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. (CAM), is based on these key concepts:

     •     The body has a powerful self-healing ability.

     •     The body's structure (primarily that of the spine) and its function are closely related, and this relationship affects health.

     •     Therapy aims to normalize this relationship between structure and function and assist the body as it heals.

While some procedures associated with chiropractic care can be traced back to ancient times, the modern profession of chiropractic was founded by Daniel David Palmer in 1895 in Davenport, Iowa. Palmer, a self-taught healer, believed that the body has a natural healing ability. Misalignments of the spine can interfere with the flow of energy needed to support health, Palmer theorized, and the key to health is to normalize the function of the nervous system, especially the spinal cord.


Patterns of Use

According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey of CAMA group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. use by Canadians, about 8 percent of Canadian adults and nearly 3 percent of children had received chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation in the past 12 months. Adjusted to nationally representative numbers, these percentages mean that more than 18 million adults and 2 million children received chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation in the previous year.

Many people who seek chiropractic care have chronic, pain-related health conditions. Low-back pain, neck pain, and headache are common conditions for which people seek chiropractic treatment.


What To Expect From Chiropractic Visits

During the initial visit, chiropractors typically take a health history and perform a physical examination, with a special emphasis on the spine. Other examinations or tests such as x-rays may also be performed. If chiropractic treatment is considered appropriate, a treatment plan will be developed.

During followup visits, practitioners may perform one or more of the many different types of adjustments used in chiropractic care. Given mainly to the spine, a chiropractic adjustment (sometimes referred to as a manipulation) involves using the hands or a device to apply a controlled, sudden force to a joint, moving it beyond its passive range of motion. The goal is to increase the range and quality of motion in the area being treated and to aid in restoring health. Other hands-on therapies such as mobilization (movement of a joint within its usual range of motion) also may be used.

Chiropractors may combine the use of spinal adjustments with several other treatments and approaches such as:

     •     Heat and ice

     •     Electrical stimulation

     •     Rest

     •     Rehabilitative exercise

     •     Counselling about diet, weight loss, and other lifestyle factors

     •     Dietary supplements.

Side Effects and Risks

Side effects and risks depend on the specific type of chiropractic treatment used. For example, side effects from chiropractic adjustments can include temporary headaches, tiredness, or discomfort in parts of the body that were treated. The likelihood of serious complications, such as stroke, appears to be extremely low and related to the type of adjustment performed and the part of the body treated.

If dietary supplements are a part of the chiropractic treatment plan, they may interact with medicines and cause side effects. It is important that people inform their chiropractors of all medicines (whether prescription or over-the-counter) and supplements they are taking.


Qualifications To Practice

To practice chiropractic care in Canada, a practitioner must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree from a University accredited by the Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE). CCE is the agency certified by the Canadian Ministry of Education to accredit chiropractic universities in Canada. Admission to a chiropractic university requires a minimum of 90 semester hour credits (approximately 3 years) of undergraduate study, mostly in the sciences.

Chiropractic training is a 4-year academic program that includes both classroom work and direct experience caring for patients. Coursework typically includes instruction in the biomedical sciences, as well as in public health and research methods. Some chiropractors pursue a 2- to 3-year residency for training in specialized fields.


Chiropractic is regulated individually by each province. Board examinations are required for licensing and include a mock patient encounter. Most provinces require chiropractors to earn annual continuing education credits to maintain their licenses. Chiropractors' scope of practice varies by province in areas such as laboratory tests or diagnostic procedures, the dispensing or selling of dietary supplements, and the use of other CAM therapies such as acupuncture. A family of procedures that originated in traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body by a variety of techniques, including the insertion of thin metal needles though the skin. It is intended to remove blockages in the flow of qi and restore and maintain health. or homeopathyA whole medical system that originated in Europe. Homeopathy seeks to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself by giving very small doses of highly diluted substances that in larger doses would produce illness or symptoms (an approach called "like cures like")..


Other Points To Consider

     •     Research to expand the scientific understanding of chiropractic treatment is ongoing.

     •     If you decide to seek chiropractic care, talk to your chiropractor about:

     ◦     His education, training, and licensing

     ◦     Whether he has experience treating the health conditions for which you are seeking care

     ◦     Any special medical concerns you have and any medicines or dietary supplements you are taking.

     •     Tell all of your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.



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NCCAM thanks Partap S. Khalsa, D.C., Ph.D., for his technical expertise and review of this publication.

This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.

NCCAM has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your primary health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCAM.

NCCAM Publication No. D403
Created November 2007