Are there risks of seeing chiropractors?

Snap, crackle, pop! Over the years chiropractors have had to fight for their justifiable reputation as safe and effective healthcare providers. 

Yes, some of the sounds your body makes during the treatment may at first sound disconcerting but it’s been concluded time and time again that seeing a chiropractor is safe and effective.

So, let’s pop the rumour that seeing chiropractors is unsafe and let you crack on with getting the healthcare you deserve. 

How safe is it to see a chiropractor? 

The short answer – very. Although you may have heard horror stories of  neck injuries following a trip to the chiropractor this is simply untrue. Of course, horror stories make headlines but the data clearly shows that this simply isn’t the case.

One 2010 review suggests that fewer than one per million patient visits to the chiropractor have a serious adverse event (AE) occurring during lumbar spine manipulation. The same conclusion is again echoed in a more recent review from 2019 that included data from over 9000 participants. If you’re still wondering about strokes, there’s also research that strongly suggests the risk of suffering a stroke following seeing a chiropractor is extremely low, on par with the risk associated with visiting a physician.

In fact, there is evidence patients seem to be more at risk when taking a common medication for their low back pain, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) due to serious complications such as opioid dependency and or gastric inflammation. 

However, naturally moving the body can sometimes cause a little bit of stiffness and pain. Just like going to the gym, getting treated by chiropractors can sometimes result in muscle soreness and stiffness do occur shortly after a treatment for some people However, this is common and typically resolves itself within the next 24 to 48 hours.

What should I tell my chiropractors about?

Like any treatment, certain conditions will change how the chiropractor carrying out that treatment conducts it.

For your chiropractors, you should let them know if you have a serious medical condition, especially involving your spine… which of course you naturally would do. Chiropractors refer to certain spinal conditions as “red flags,” which prevent spinal manipution being an appropriate form of treatment, here are a few examples:

  • Severe osteoporosis (metabolic bone fragility disease)
  • Multiple myeloma (cancer affecting the body’s plasma cells)
  • Osteomyelitis (spinal bone infection)
  • Bone tumors (benign or cancerous growths)
  • Paget’s disease (a disease that can cause bone deformities, fractures)

Rare progressive or sudden neurologic conditions, such as cauda equina syndrome (where the spinal cord is compressed by a disc) also can be red flags. Generally, any condition that results in unstable joints is a red flag (including joint infections), so this can include a number of inflammatory conditions, including:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (whether in the active, systemic stage or locally in the presence of inflammation)
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Psoriatic arthritis (a type of inflammatory arthritis)
  • Reactive arthritis (Reiter’s syndrome; joint pain caused by infection)

What if I have a red flag?

As mentioned, this doesn’t necessarily completely rule you out of receiving chiropractic treatment. It just means you should let your chiropractor know so they can adjust how they treat you, just as another practitioner would. Chiropractors are will not treat any of the conditions above – they all sit firmly in the scope of traditonal medicine. Your chiropractors  may be able to gently work around them and help assist with making you more comfortable if you are in pain.

Everybody who has a serious health condition is still alowed to have other things wrong with them, in fact you may be even more likely to have additional pain issues that dont come directly from the disease process if you are unwell.. we call these issues co-morbidities! Chiropractors can sometime help with painful co-morbidities while you are receiving the necessary medical care to resolve your primary health issue.

The goal of care is always to help you live a fuller life with as little pain and as much healthy function as possible. Our entire quality of life is predicated on our ability to move comfortably after all.

Remember, we’re qualified professionals too

Chiropractors are highly qualified health care professionals. They are primary healthcare providers and as such have the same basic legal standing as a doctor or a dentist, which means they are qualified to know when to treat and when not to treat. To become a chiropractor you must complete a Diploma in Applied Science and then a Bachelor of Chiropractic (BChiro) degree. All chiropractors in New Zealand must be registered with the Chiropractic Board of New Zealand and hold a current Annual Practising Certificate. There was a time when all this was under threat however, and it was a time when people felt very unsure about whether it was ever safe to see chiropractors.

Early attempts to have chiropractic treatments subsidised by the NZ government and funded by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) were vigorously resisted but the medical profession in NZ. This episode of inter-professional melodrama led to the NZ Commission of Inquiry into Chiropractic in 1978. At which time the medical profession was stating that it is NEVER appropriate to go to a chiropractors office due to the fact that it is an intrinsically unsafe and unscientific methodology :))) Looking back now its lucky for them that humble pie is a perfectly nutritious dish.

Despite efforts to portray the therapy as disreputable and unscientific, the inquiry concluded that it was effective and safe, and successfully recommended that it be subsidised. It was the first government commission to adopt a full judicial procedure, hearing evidence on oath and subject to cross-examination when examining patients, chiropractors, medical doctors and others on the role of the chiropractic profession. And chiropractors came up smelling or roses. So much so in fact that it became a global landmark study which led the development pot chiropractic legislation in many other developed countries.

The take home 

All effective healthcare carries risk and chiropractic is no exception, although in the case of chiropractors treatments the risk is considered extremely low. And as low as it is, it becomes even lower when there is great car taken in the history examination and communication with patients. This is because the low risk factors chiropractors treatments  largely applies to people with fairly extreme prescription-exisitng medical conditions.


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