Do you really need to see a chiropractor forever?

Whenever someone starts up with me, there are several common questions that come up. One of them is a variation of these:

What do you think of chiropractic?

Should I keep seeing a my chiropractor?

Do I need to see a chiropractor for the rest of my life?

These days, you don’t have to go far to find a chiropractor. There is practically one on every corner in the United States. It’s rare for me to ever even see a client who has NOT been to a chiropractor at some point. Most of my clients have had reasonably good experiences with their chiropractors; some have had bad experiences. My own personal experience has been a mix of satisfactory and not so satisfactory.

I know many of us tend to seek out universally correct answers for questions like this, but it’s hard to give a blanket statement that will apply to everyone’s situation. So in this post I’m going to discuss the major variables involved in answering this question.

What kind of chiropractor are we talking about?

This is a huge thing to consider. I remember between 10-15 years ago, when I first sought out chiropractic treatment, all the chiropractors I saw were really good with their “adjustments” at making my spine snap, crackle, and pop like a bowl of Rice Krispies. Thoracic spine, lumbar spine, cervical spine — pop, pop, pop! And then out the door.

In more recent times, there has been a rise in the number of chiropractors who focus on being less forceful with the way they approach the body. There are chiropractors who focus on extremely gentle approaches (some of which seem suspiciously like placebo to me), some who focus on doing soft-tissue work (A.R.T., for example, really focuses on dealing with muscle and fascia and improving range of motion joint by joint), and some who will even focus on things like lasers and spinal decompression with fancy high tech machines.

Looking at the huge range of chiropractors, your decision about seeing a chiropractor once a week or once a month or whatever schedule it is can be heavily influenced by the chiropractor’s approach. Are they muscle focused? Or are they bone focused?

What I’m about to say isn’t based on any widespread study. It’s based on my own observation with clients, family members, and my own body.

If the chiropractor is focused on your muscles – meaning s/he is doing a lot of soft-tissue work and showing you exercises that you find effective – it’s probably not a bad thing to see your chiropractor regularly (assuming they’re good at helping you with your tweaked muscles). A good professional can really help you assess yourself better than you can often assess yourself. If you find yourself with a muscle that’s tied up in a knot and your whole body feels a bit off, a helping hand can go a LONG way.

The upshot to this is that someone who is good with muscles need not be a chiropractor. This could be a good massage therapist, physical therapist, trainer, etc. That may sound self-serving (since I’m a trainer and orthopedic massage specialist), but the reason I do what I do is because I’ve chosen to do the things that I’ve found to be the most effective and helpful for myself and for people I’ve worked with in my career.

If the chiropractor you’re thinking about seeing for the rest of your life is focused only on snap, crackle, pop and sending you on your way, it’s probably not a good idea. I believe you are much better off learning how to retrain your muscles to stabilize your body yourself. More on that later.

What kind of YOU are we talking about?

This is also a huge variable and one you really seriously need to consider.

Are you an athlete? Are you participating in a rough and tumble sport, a martial art, or an endurance event where you personally are likely to get muscle strains or joints suddenly and violently impacted?

Are you more on the sedentary side? Or are you a desk jockey? Is your exercise mostly from doing things around the home and in the garden? Do you do group exercise classes at the local gym to get a sweat on and find you often get aches and pains from them?

If you’re in the first group, it would make sense to have a good chiropractor (or other health professional) who is good at addressing muscles to help you with the inevitable issues that will crop up. You probably don’t need to see the chiropractor every week (unless you are seriously beating yourself up with your activities of choice).

If you’re in the second group, I want to make you think for a second about how your body works.

What are you doing for your muscles?

One of the reasons that I stress the importance of finding someone who can help you with the muscles (rather than the bones) is that muscles are much more important in influencing your body’s position. I mentioned earlier that you’re better off learning to retrain your muscles to stabilize your body than relying on someone to crack and pop your back. Let’s look at that more in detail.

A quick mental exercise: strip your body of all its skin. You still have a human being standing there (albeit quite bloody). Strip your body of all the muscles, and what are you left with? A bunch of bones and blood vessels lying on the floor.

The position your bones are in at any point in time is determined by the muscles and their activity.

You want to raise your arm? Muscles fire. You want to lift your leg? Muscles fire.

Your thoracic vertebra is out of place? Muscles are firing – just not in the right way.

If all you do is knock that bone “back” into position, what will determine whether that bone will stay in position? Muscles firing (or not firing).

So a good adjustment to help put things in position can be great, but if you aren’t also doing things to ensure that things STAY in position, you’re developing a dependence on adjustments. That doesn’t serve you well in the long run. Sometimes, the more times you jolt the bones, the less stable the position, and the more often you need to have those bones jolted back in place.

I don’t want to say that this is only true with chiropractic, by the way. If you have a massage therapist telling you that the only thing that will keep you aligned is more massage, then you’ve got yourself a similarly bad scenario that’s going to leave you feeling more and more dependent on your massage therapist.

In summary

If you want your body to stay well aligned and functioning well, focus on your muscles. They are the things that help you move. They are the things that position your bones. If you have a chiropractor, massage therapist, physical therapist, trainer, etc. who is good at helping you get things in the right place AND keep them in the right place, you’re golden!

If you are not someone who’s constantly getting tweaked in combat or high impact activities, and you have a health professional who’s telling you that the best you can hope for in life is a never-ending series of appointments and treatments that keep you just in a reasonably comfortable holding pattern (e.g. “I get adjusted, massaged, etc. twice a month, and it keeps away my neck pain for the most part”), you may want to consider the long term results of that strategy.

If you aren’t getting stronger and more stabile week by week, you’re getting more dependent on someone else “fixing” you. This isn’t good for your body, your mind, or your pocketbook! Think about intelligently training your muscles to do the right thing.

If you are in combat/high impact sports, you probably need a team of people to keep your parts in place – in which case make sure you find someone good who can help you with your muscles – and hold onto them for a long time!


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.