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Can a Chiropractor Help With Arthritis?

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If you have experienced back pain or a stiff neck due to arthritis or injury, you may have contemplated seeking help from a chiropractor. Chiropractors manipulate or adjust the spine to alleviate pain and improve mobility, and the benefits could extend beyond the back and neck. By employing varying degrees of force to adjust misaligned joints, chiropractors aim to enhance the relationship between the spine and the nervous system, which they believe could affect the function of all organs and systems in the body.

As primary care professionals, chiropractors not only address back pain but also evaluate the entire body. Chiropractic treatment is steadily gaining recognition in mainstream medicine. According to a 2015 Gallup poll commissioned by Palmer College of Chiropractic, 60% of over 5,400 respondents believed chiropractic care is an effective treatment for neck and back pain. However, you may wonder what to expect from a chiropractor visit and if it is safe for arthritis.

What to Expect From a Chiropractor

If you seek a non-medication approach to alleviate joint pain, chiropractic medicine may be suitable for you, provided you listen to your body. Nowadays, chiropractors employ over 150 techniques to manually adjust the spine, joints, and muscles with varying degrees of force, which is gentler than cracking backs or popping necks.

Depending on your specific needs and type of arthritis, a chiropractor may gently manipulate your soft tissue to halt muscle spasms and relieve tenderness or use active exercises or traction to gradually stretch your joints and enhance your range of motion. A chiropractor visit may feel like a more hands-on version of physical therapy.

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Chiropractors concentrate on the relationships between structure and function. They differ from osteopaths who use manual manipulations but also treat the entire body and may utilize medication or surgery. The rationale behind chiropractic care is that if the structure of a joint is not optimal, it cannot function as intended. Chiropractic care is particularly effective in maximizing the function of an arthritic joint, aiming to restore patients' function and enable them to live the life they desire.

During your first visit, the chiropractor should take a detailed medical history, perform a physical exam of every joint to determine suitable approaches, and may also take an X-ray of your spine.

Is Chiropractic Care Safe for Arthritis?

Chiropractic care is one of the safest therapies for back or neck pain due to osteoarthritis. However, if you have an inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or ankylosing spondylitis, you must exercise caution.

Chiropractic therapy is not recommended for individuals with active inflammation, a fused spine, or osteoporosis in the spine or neck. Inflamed joints should be off-limits, but chiropractors offer several adjunctive therapies that can help, such as ultrasound, electrotherapy, low-level laser or "cold laser," and infrared sauna.

Even if a chiropractor does not directly treat your arthritic joint, addressing the surrounding tissues may significantly reduce overall pain. The American College of Physicians now supports the use of nonpharmacologic therapies, such as chiropractic and acupuncture, as first-line treatments for low back pain before using medication.

Increasingly, studies in mainstream medical journals are demonstrating the benefits of chiropractic care for back and joint pain. However, while research shows clear benefits for musculoskeletal pain, its effects beyond pain relief are not known, and the efficacy of manual therapy for hip and knee arthritis remains uncertain.

In conclusion, chiropractic care is worth considering. However, be cautious of any clinician claiming to permanently cure arthritis. If you do not see improvement within four to ten treatments, consider switching chiropractors or exploring a new treatment path.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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