How Chiropractors Can Help Arthritis Pain
Learn about the different ways chiropractic care can ease joint pain and stiffness.
Are you looking for a holistic way to take the edge off of those painful joints? Chiropractic medicine may be for you, as long as you remember to listen to your body.
Unlike what you see on TV, most of what chiropractors do today is more gentle than cracking backs or popping necks into place. In fact, there are more than 150 techniques that chiropractors use to manually adjust the spine, joints and muscles with varying degrees of force.
While an athlete with lower back pain may benefit from a high-velocity spinal adjustment, you would receive care specific to your needs. A chiropractor may gently manipulate your soft tissue to stop muscle spasms and relieve tenderness. Or she may use active exercises or traction to slowly stretch your joints and increase your range of motion. Your visit may feel like a more hands-on version of physical therapy.
Chiropractors focus on the relationships between structure and function, explains Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association who has been in private practice for 22 years. They are different from an osteopath, who uses manual manipulations but also treats the entire body and may use medication or surgery.
The thinking is simple, he says. If the structure of a joint is not right then it can’t work as it was designed. “The place where chiropractic really shines is in maximizing the function of an arthritic joint,” he adds. “Our goal is to restore patients’ function so they can have the kind of life they want.”
When to Use Caution
If you have back or neck pain due to osteoarthritis, chiropractic is one of the safest therapies you can use, explains Scott Haldeman, MD, a neurologist in Santa Ana, California and Chairman Emeritus of the Research Council for the World Federation of Chiropractic. But if you have an inflammatory disease, like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis, you are going to need to be more careful.
During your first visit, make sure the chiropractor takes a detailed medical history and performs a physical exam of every joint to determine what approaches are right for you. The doctor may also take an X-ray of your spine.
“If a patient has joints with active swelling, I would not recommend going to a chiropractor,” says Alyce Oliver, MD, PhD, assistant professor of rheumatology at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. “If you can’t get swelling under control, it would be dangerous to get an adjustment.”
Chiropractors Do More Than Adjustments
Dr. Hayden agrees that inflamed joints should be “off-limits,” but notes that chiropractors offer several adjunctive therapies that can help.
- Ultrasound. Many think of ultrasound as imaging technology, but when applied to soft tissues and joints, sound waves can also produce a massaging effect that helps reduce swelling and decrease pain and stiffness.
- Electrotherapy. These tiny electric pulses are not painful. They treat soft tissue injuries by stimulating nerves and muscles.
- Low-level laser or “cold laser.” This technique uses a non-heat-producing laser or light that penetrates deep into the tissue, sometimes reducing inflammation.
- Infrared sauna. Imagine having a hot compress warm up your joints from the inside. These rooms use controlled amounts of heat to relieve pain and increase circulation.
Even if they never touch your arthritic joint, David Feschuk, DC, a chiropractor in Stone Mountain, Georgia, says treating the surrounding tissues may significantly reduce overall pain.
“If someone is having a flare in a knee that is causing him to walk awkwardly, it may lead to a secondary pain syndrome in the lower back. I would not treat an inflamed joint, but if I adjust the pelvis I may be able to reduce overall pain by 4 to 5 units on the 1-to-10 pain scale and make daily living activities easier.”
What Medical Doctors Think
In the past, chiropractic got mixed reviews from physicians. However, in early 2017, The American College of Physicians released new guidelines. It now supports the use of nonpharmacologic therapies, such as chiropractic and acupuncture, as first-line treatments for low back pain, before using medication.
Several studies, including a 2017 review in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that spinal manipulation reduces lower back pain. While research shows a clear benefit with back and neck pain, the jury on manual therapy for hip and knee arthritis is still out. “Although chiropractic can relieve pain there is no clear evidence that chiropractic or any other treatment offers long-term change in the x-ray findings in arthritis,” says Dr. Haldeman.
The bottom line, he says, is chiropractic is worth a try. “However, if any clinician says her treatment will permanently cure your arthritis, you should walk out,” he warns. “If you don’t see improvement within four to ten treatments, either switch chiropractors or try a new treatment path.”