What Does a Chiropractic Adjustment Do?

This is such a common question, it is continually being researched and the answer refined.  It is so rarely answered well, that I thought it would be good to create a full page to answer.  I will also update it periodically?  When I do update it I will create a post about the update so that you can be kept up to date, and the information will be all in one place.

In my first post on this topic.  I decided to leave out some reasons for space limitations (I try to keep my blogs under 400 words, not that I’m always successful), and some for the lack of research, some for  them being controversial, and many others I just don’t know about.

So, here goes…

Chiropractic manipulation is not just joint popping. In fact the audible pop doesn’t even need to occur for a successful manipulation, though it often does, and some patients and doctors like to hear it. Research has found that pop or not, the same benefits are experienced and that trying repeatedly to get a pop can actually cause damage.

The mechanism of why manipulation works is not completely understood. One thing that is understood is that it does work. Most of the simple explanations are incomplete or just plain wrong. The most recent research points to a more complex reason for the therapeutic effects of chiropractic manipulation. It is suggested that many things are occurring at the same time that provide the benefits.

Here are some of the known things that can begin to explain why manipulation works.

1. Proprioceptive stimulation triggers the release of endorphins. These endorphins cause a near instant and temporary relief similar to pain medication making you less aware of the problem. This trick of the body can cause a secondary benefit, that of relaxing local tissues such as trigger points or tight musculature that may be pinching nerves.

2. Manipulation provides improved nutrient supply. The cartilage and other structures inside of a joint have no blood supply. These structures get their nutrients through motion. The blood supply goes to the outside of the joint and nutrients move into the synovial fluid of the joint. Joint motion moves this fluid around thus providing fresh nutrients to all parts of the joint, as well as removing waste. If a joint becomes locked down by muscle spasm, scar tissue, a cast, or any other means, for a prolonged period of time the joint begins to feel stiff. You know the feeling of needing to stretch after sitting in the car for a long time.

The facet joints in your spine are particularly vulnerable to this problemskeleton because they work in tandem and because of the body’s amazing ability to compensate. Your facet joints all work together, if one is injured it can become locked down to prevent further injury. When this happens you may get the desire to stretch or move your back. This usually works, but if all of the other joints compensate for the problem joint and take that added stress of movement on themselves then the problem joint stays locked down. Specific manipulation induces full range of motion and synovial fluid movement.

3. Manipulation can reduce pressure on the nerves. Your nervous system is the control center of your body, and it is not without weaknesses.  Nerves and nerve bundles are soft tissue.  They don’t function well under physical pressure.  In fact it has been shown that inflammation, a bulging disc, or fragment floating around can interfere with proper nerve conduction.  The stuck joint as discussed previously can also physically be stuck pressing on a nerve, or could be causing inflammation that is pressing on the nerve, or could just be moving in a way that rubs the nerve.  In any case.  The adjustment can cause a relief of this pressure. through movement of the joint to the correct position, or motion.

4. Proprioceptive retraining allows for improved function. The brain also records these proprioceptive signals from the joints motion. Especially for chronic conditions the brain is in need of retraining regarding the motion of that joint. Manipulation takes a joint through its full range of motion. This new input is then stored and replayed in the brain, similar to muscle retraining that physical therapists will do, or physical training of athletes, when the body has done the motion enough times it remembers it. This retraining provides a functional correction that may provide pain relief.

Here are some of the more controversial observations, benefits, and mechanisms of chiropractic. (I must note that just because we don’t know how it works doesn’t mean that it doesn’t.)

Somatovisceral effects – That they exist is not so much controversial as is the predictability.  We know that the spine can effect the visceral organs, but we can’t really say that if you adjust this level this often in this way that you will get the pancreas to produce this much more insulin.  The mechanism, more likely, is one of many things acting on the organs.  As with everything else in the body it is more complicated than one single interaction.

Reduced high blood pressure – WebMD research article more research needed, and mechanism unknown.

Improved immune system response – I have yet to see a great side by side study of people who receive chiropractic care next to a control group who doesn’t, to see who gets a cold and how long they last.  However there are articles and case studies out there.  Even if chiropractic does benefit the immune system, we don’t know the mechanism of how.

Decreased colic in babies – I’ve seen an association, and I’ve read studies that show that there is an effect.  I don’t know the mechanism, and I’ve not seen anything more than theories.

I have taken to recording my own observations and creating case studies of the effects of chiropractic that I have seen. Two new and relatively unstudied benefits that I have found are  an improvement in vocal performance, and a decrease in bed wetting with chiropractic manipulation.  A mechanism for these is not fully understood yet.

Many other benefits have been observed, and still others suspected. Research is still going on and much more is needed.  I will add them and any new or additional documentation as I find them, and as my time permits.

222 thoughts on “What Does a Chiropractic Adjustment Do?

  1. Dina

    I found out I have DDD about two months ago. I do chiropractic treatments twice a week. Every so often I feel the muscles on my lower back throbbing and tighten. I asked my chiropractor why it’s happening she didn’t seem to have an answer. I also have pain on my lower spine it especially hurts when I lay on hard surfaces or push on that area. Is that some how connected to my muscles throbbing

    Thank you in advance

    1. cmnacnud Post author

      I’m sorry Dina. There are too many possibilities to speculate over the internet. With an examination I may know more, but even then symptoms that happen every once in a while are hard to pin down to a particular problem. It could be anything that you’re doing. Laying on hard surfaces or pressing on an inflamed area could be related to the throbbing, but may not be. With more info I may be able to help such as a postural and functional analysis.

  2. Mel

    I’ve seen a chiropractor off and on for a few years. I know from xray that i have compensatory scoliosis, my right leg is 9mm longer than my left. I have to wear an orthotic in my left shoe for this. I have 3 curves in my spine. I don’t have a ton of pain, but most of it is in my lower left back. My chiro used to do the usual routine and then yank my arms very abruptly. I’d feel a sharp pain in that location i have most of my pain and then a lot of relief. Each time he did it, it hurt less and less. Curious what he was doing and why it worked.

    1. cmnacnud Post author

      Your description of his adjustments are very vague. I’m not sure what the usual routine is, and I’m also not sure how he would “yank” your arms. The best thing to do would be to contact him and ask him what he was doing. If he is unavailable please try to get as specific with your description as possible so that I might know what technique he was using. Without knowing that I will be unable to determine what was going on.

  3. Greg Forrester

    I just started going to the chiropractor a few weeks ago. Just for my lower back and neck. And to see if my swollen wrists could be fixed. Gave me electric pulses in both forearms. Forearms worse. After second time both knees are swollen. Sometimes very hard to stand and walk. I workout. BUT HAVEN’T SINCE BEFORE GOING TO THE CHIROPRACTOR. TOES HURT. ANKLE HURTS. BOTH KNEES ARE SWOLLEN. BEEN OVER A WEEK AND A HALF ALMOST TWO WEEKS. Did the chiropractor mess me up? Need help asap. Greg

    1. cmnacnud Post author

      With the limited information that you have given me it is impossible to tell if your chiropractor might be at fault. The only treatment that you mentioned the chiropractor doing was some “electric pulses” (I assume TENS) in your forearms. I don’t see how that would affect your standing, walking, knee swelling, toe or ankle pain. What did your chiropractor say when you asked him why this might be happening? Was there any other treatment done? Can you tell me more about the diagnosis and treatment methods? Were you given any home care to do, and did you do it? Ultimately I would suggest that you speak to your chiropractor about your concerns as he is the one who knows the case. If you would like, then get a second opinion exam through a different doctor. That would be my recommendation. I hope that helps.


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