What Does a Chiropractor Do?

I have spent the 19 years in practice trying my best to educate my patients, and the general public, about the many different physical problems that I see in my office. When doing this, I often use a chiropractic term called a “subluxation”. Although other health care practitioners may have a slightly different definition for the word, chiropractors have been using this word to describe a very specific problem for over 100 years. There are volumes of quality scientific information and studies demonstrating what a subluxation is and how chiropractors successfully treat it. In this article, I will attempt to answer the question “what does a chiropractor do?”


In order to keep this interesting, I will simplify the definition harshly. As we go through our daily lives, we expose ourselves to all kinds of stress. They may be physical (such as an accident) or emotional (such as job or family stress). Either way, they have a negative effect on your physical health, particularly in the muscles, nerves and joints of your spine. In my practice, I see people every day who are or have been under some form of stress. These people are often seeing a chiropractor to correct the lack of mobility or restricted areas in their spine. When these problem areas are present, they can cause irritation of the nerves as they exit the spine. These nerves control the neighbouring muscles, pain sensation, and other internal organs and glands. If left untreated, the muscles can go into spasm, mild to severe pain can occur, and other seemingly unrelated problems can occur at different areas where the nerve travels to. By doing a series of “chiropractic adjustments”, the movement or “alignment” (as my patients like to call it) of a problematic area can be restored. This allows the joints and nerves of the spine to function normally and the person feels much healthier because of it.


Once a person has achieved a healthy spine and the associated nerves are functioning normally, it is at this point that he or she must incorporate some form of consistent mild to moderate exercise into their life. This can be done with the guidance of a chiropractor as well.


By combining a healthy spine and nerves with consistent mild to moderate exercise, your body will be able to reach its maximum physical potential. This will allow one to accomplish more and do the things that are important to him or her in life. This should not be taken for granted. One only has to ask someone who no longer has the physical ability to do the things he or she wants to do to find out how depressing it can be.


Treat the “Cause” of Your Problem, Not the “Symptoms”

In a chiropractic clinic, we see people with all sorts of problems. A typical day includes seeing patients who have problems with one or more joints, nerves, muscles, ligaments, tendons and, bursae. The number of different ways people have discovered to injure themselves is quite mind-boggling.


However, the thing that still surprises me the most is that many of the new patients entering our office are only looking for relief of their pain or other symptoms. Especially if the pain is interfering with whatever it is they like to do the most (such as golfing). A majority of them have tried the typically prescribed drugs (medications such as anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, pain-killers and even valium) without any long-term relief. They have still not realized that if the treatment or medication they were given previously only addressed the “symptoms” of the problem (inflammation, pain, muscle spasm). It was no wonder that these symptoms simply returned once the treatment or medication was discontinued. Frustrated, these new patients enter my office hoping that I will have a simple solution that will allow them to return to their pain-free lifestyle as soon as possible. It is at this point that i have to make them realize that they have to treat the “cause” of your problem, not the “symptoms”.


Often to their disappointment, I have to inform them that rarely is there a “quick-fix” for any problem. If that doesn’t upset them, they usually are once I tell them that it is more important to identify and treat the actual cause of their problem than it is to temporarily relieve the pain or symptoms. That is the goal in our office. Instead of trying to find a new and quick way of eliminating their pain, we find out what needs to be treated in order to correct the actual problem. As well, we need to identify what needs to be changed in their lifestyle to prevent the problem from coming back. I will try to give you a couple of examples:


1) You have headaches. Tylenol relieves them but they keep coming back. Instead of wondering what pill to try next, consider the following:

-Have you tried to identify exactly what is causing the headaches or have just been trying to eliminate the pain?

-Is your poor posture putting physical stress on your neck joints and muscles, causing headaches?

-How long do you spend sitting in front of a computer or television each day? Is your television or computer monitor positioned so that you do not have to move your head left or right, up or down?

-Are you taking any other medications that may cause headaches as a side effect? Ask your pharmacist.

-Have you experienced any trauma (car accident or fall) to your neck that may now be causing irritation of the nerves in your neck? This will result in spasm of the neck muscles and lead to tension headaches.

-Do you do any stretching or strengthening exercises for your neck? If your answer is no, you should almost expect the joints and muscles to eventually become stiff and tight, eventually causing headaches.

-How much emotional stress are you experiencing at home or work? Higher levels of this will definitely cause headaches.


2) You have chronic bouts of low back pain. The painkiller and muscle relaxer medications you were prescribed help only as long as you continue to take them. As well, they cause stomach upset and constipation. Does this sound like you? What are your answers to the following questions?

-Have you figured out what exactly is wrong with your back instead of just trying to eliminate the symptoms?

-Do you have poor muscle flexibility and/or joint mobility in your back, hips, or legs that will make you prone to low back injuries?

-Are you putting extra pressure on your low back every day by being overweight? Are you exercising enough each day to burn more calories than you eat in order to lose that extra weight?

-How much regular stretching and strengthening do you do for your back muscles?

-Do you have problems with the arches in your feet that may have secondary effects on your low back?


If you have headaches or chronic low back pain, it is likely you may be slightly disappointed with your own answers to the above questions. If that is your case, see a chiropractor so he or she can identify your actual problem and become your own personal coach on how to prevent it from returning. Solutions to many of these questions have been discussed in other articles located on this website. Feel free to browse them.


Facet Joints

When it comes to problems in your neck or back, a common problem I see in my office is related to one or more of the small joints located between each of the vertebrae or bones of your spine. They are called vertebral “facet joints” and are located at the back of each vertebra. These joints, along with a disk and some strong ligaments, are what interlock two neighboring vertebrae together. Due to the fact that the facet joints between each vertebra allow one vertebra to move relative to the one next to it, the overall spine can actually be quite flexible.


The facet joints have many nerve endings in them and are therefore highly sensitive to pain. When these joints are injured traumatically, as in a car accident, or mildly stressed for extended periods of time, as in poor posture at school or work, they can become very stiff and acutely painful. Chiropractors are highly trained to use “spinal manipulation” to restore the proper mobility of these joints. Muscle relaxant and painkiller prescription medication may give you some relief temporarily but they will not restore the motion to the affected joints, making you vulnerable to the problem reoccurring in the future.


Once the facet joints have been manipulated a few times, the pain should begin to subside. However, the inflammation within the joint and the surrounding connective tissue may take several weeks to fully settle down. During this time, you should be receiving regular chiropractic adjustments in order to maintain the mobility within the joints as they heal completely and naturally. As well, I would encourage you to do some simple stretching exercises to help speed up the process. When the joints and muscles have healed to the point that you are able to become more physically active, then I would suggest that more vigorous core strengthening exercises be done. A stronger core will offer more support to the joints of the spine and help prevent the injury from happening again.


Finally, it is important to remember that, when you injure yourself, it is YOUR body that does the healing and not your chiropractor, medical doctor, or the prescription drugs. You must be patient during this process because it will take some time. For me as the chiropractor, my job is to simply help the healing process along and make it happen as quickly and completely as possible.


Headaches From Your Neck


Did you know that one of the most common forms of headache is actually caused by problems in the neck? Although you may “feel” pain around the eyes or the back, side, and/or the front of the head, the source of the symptoms may actually be the neck. This form of headache is often called a “tension-type” headache.


Unfortunately, the medical understanding of headaches often does not take into account the chiropractic model. The concept that headache pain can emanate from problems in the neck (cervical spine) remains foreign to many within the medical profession.


Noted researcher Nikolai Bogduk, MD, PhD, professor of anatomy at Newcastle, Australia, recently commented: “the people in control of the headache field seemingly have not, cannot, or will not, recognize this paradox … that the model for cervicogenic headache is not only the best evolved of all headaches but is testable in patients with headache complaints. No other form of headache has that facility.”

Several years ago, a Canadian anaesthesiologist, Peter Rothbart, MD, FRCPC, came to the same conclusions about cervicogenic headache. Dr. Rothbart made many observations in his own pain management practice that subsequently led to an article in the Toronto Star, the most widely read newspaper in Canada. The Toronto Star article, “A Pain in the Neck,” was subtitled: “Chiropractors were right”.

Many headaches are caused by damaged structures in the neck — and scientific evidence proves it. French medical professor Robert Maigne wrote in his recent article that he “came to believe that many headaches originated with a structural problem in the neck.” At first, he was thought to be a lunatic. But, others took up Dr. Maigne’s work, including the aforementioned Dr. Nikolai Bogduk.

In 1995, a team of MDs at Syracuse University established neck problems as the cause of many headaches “with scientific, anatomical proof.” The head of the team, Dr. Rothbart, termed the Syracuse results “a minor miracle.” In the Toronto Star article, Dr. Rothbart made several insightful comments:

“Some brilliant people have put their hearts, souls and minds to this (headache) problem and haven’t come up with anything. All we’ve been able to do is treat people with an array of medicines, one after the other, and hope the side effects won’t be too bad.”

“We couldn’t believe it at first. We’ve been able to put together a scientific explanation for how neck structure causes headaches — not all headaches, but a significant number of them.”

“It’s true that chiropractors have been saying this for years. Unfortunately, many (medical) doctors tend to have a jaundiced view of chiropractors, but they were right about headaches.”

“Most physicians are unaware of this entity (headaches originating from the neck), so a diagnosis of cervicogenic headache is rarely made. Thus, there are a large number of chronic headache sufferers who go through life with the wrong diagnosis and hence the wrong treatment for their headache.”

Personally, I am encouraged to read that health care professionals, other than chiropractors, are realizing that some forms of headache can arise from problems in the neck. As a chiropractor, I know there is a connection between the neck and headaches and I have many patients who are now symptom free as a result of treating the actual cause of their headache –the neck. If you want to know more about how chiropractic care can help alleviate your headaches, click on this link. However, keep in mind that there are forms of headache that can be much more serious and even life threatening. Therefore, don’t simply ignore your headaches. Once these more serious possible causes are ruled out, seek conservative and safe chiropractic care.




Did you know that one of the top reasons why someone visits their doctor is because of headaches? Even headaches of moderate severity can prevent you from enjoying many “fun” activities that life has to offer. In fact, in my practice, the number children, teenagers, and adults who are seeking chiropractic care for relief of headaches is right up there with neck or back pain. Yet, it still surprises me that most of these people do not know that the headaches they are experiencing are primarily “tension-type headaches”, and not “migraines”


Tension-type headaches are the most common, yet the easiest to treat, type of headache. Muscle tension, joint stiffness, and nerve irritation at the back of the neck and head can create a dull, steady pain over the forehead, temples and the back of neck. Commonly, there is a band-like pressure on both sides of the head. The pain is usually constant, non-throbbing, ranges from mild to moderate in severity, and usually builds in intensity. It is very common for people to even wake up in the morning and feel the headache before even getting out of bed! Tension headaches may last from 30 minutes to several days, and are commonly related to stress, poor posture, and a lack of regular physical exercise. They affect both men and women in equal numbers, and are common in children. They can cause nausea and are not made worse by routine physical activity.


Studies have shown that more than 70 percent of people who experience this type of headache also had frequent disrupted sleep due to the associated neck stiffness or pain.  In addition, these people reported that, over time, this scenario created further fatigue and headache-related anxiety or stress. The same studies also found that forty-four percent of the people who experience this type of headache said that it affected their performance at work or school and 72 percent said the pain caused them to miss work or school an average of 3.5 days in the last six months.
Over the past few years, research has shown that spinal manipulation – the primary form of treatment provided by chiropractors – is an effective treatment option for tension-type headaches and headaches that originate from the neck. For example, a report released in 2001 by researchers at the Duke University Evidence-Based Practice Center in Durham, NC, found that spinal manipulation resulted in almost immediate improvement for those headaches that originate in the neck, and had significantly fewer side effects and longer-lasting relief of tension-type headache than a commonly prescribed medication. Also, a 1995 study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found that spinal manipulative therapy was an effective treatment for tension headaches and that those who ceased chiropractic treatment after four weeks experienced a sustained therapeutic benefit in contrast with those patients who received a commonly prescribed medication.  In addition to chiropractic treatment, anyone who suffers from neck stiffness or headaches should be stretching their neck muscles daily, the ergonomics of their place of work should be reviewed to prevent poor posture, and they should participate in some form of regular physical activity.  For more information on headaches, neck pain, and free examples of neck stretches/exercises, visit our website at www.merrittchiro.com.


On a final note, if you are experiencing severe headaches that are worse than you have ever had before, dizziness, facial numbness, slurred speech, or altered vision, go to the hospital immediately to rule out more severe sources of headache. This is particularly true if you have a history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or stroke in your family.

if your headaches are due to a whiplash injury, please see our whiplash article as well. For information on what a chiropractor can do for your headaches, click on this link and review another article on this website.