New York resident Erin Mitchell has always considered herself a fan on alternative medicine treatments from aromatherapy to holistic medicines to acupressure and acupuncture treatments. However, she’s always been reluctant to visit her local chiropractor.

“I’ve run into chiropractors over the years and taken the opportunity to ask them exactly what they do,” Mitchell explains. “Not a single one has ever been able to give me a clear and concise answer.”

This ambiguity leads many Americans to question the profession’s legitimacy, despite the fact that chiropractic care is the treatment of choice for many people seeking alternative treatments. Just in June, a study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine indicated that chiropractic care was the favored approach of alternative care, with 60% of all of the survey’s participants indicating that these treatments improved their chronic back pain.

Additionally, another 2010 study published in the medical journal Clinical Rehabilitation found that spinal manipulation provided better short and long-term functional improvement and more pain relief in follow-up assessments than other physiotherapy interventions.

However, glowing testimonies do little to explain what chiropractors actually treat.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), chiropractic is a health care approach that focuses on the relationship between the body's structure, mainly the spine, and its functioning. Practitioners use a variety of treatment approaches that primarily include physical adjustments to the spine or other parts of the body with the goal of correcting alignment problems.

“The idea is that the body has an innate ability to heal itself,” Karen Erickson, a New York chiropractor and spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), explains.
While some chiropractors apply their techniques to active or existing medical conditions, such as chronic back pain, others advocate preventative care. This facet of the practice, coupled with the fact that many chiropractors also claim to be able to solve more far-reaching problems, such as bed-wetting, can often seem off-putting to many Americans who don’t place a value on preventative care.

However, Erickson says the cultural schism actually stems from the fact that chiropractors are trained outside of mainstream medical schools.  

According to Vineta Campau, Media Communications Coordinator for the Colorado Chiropractic Association, chiropractors undergo a minimum of six years of college before they are able to start their practice. Students obtain a traditional bachelor’s degree, typically in biology or other sciences and then attend one of 16 accredited chiropractic universities. They also must pass a four-part standardized national exam. Many states also will require chiropractors to pass an exam before they’re permitted to practice in the state.

Once they are practicing, chiropractors are subjected to the same type of diagnostic standards as medical doctors, which means any misdiagnosis or mistreatments can be considered malpractice. This means that the story you may or may not have about a chiropractor severely injuring a patient could very well be just an urban legend (or an extremely expensive and weighty court case).

Of course, for each of those stories, there is another person ready to extol the virtues of the practice.

“I suffer from regular sinus infections and with one visit to my chiropractor, the tension and pain is relieved in a way that antibiotics cannot do,” Hawaii resident Krista Sherkey tells MainStreet.
According to Erickson, Sherkey’s sentiments are more common than you may think as the field has become increasingly embraced by the public in recent years.

“The climate has changed so much over the last 10 to 15 years,” Erickson says. “There are so many people totally devoted to this type of care.”

“Years ago, wellness wasn’t something people understood. It was considered nebulous. Now, the concept of preventative care has become much more accepted,” Perry Wolk-Weiss, a chiropractor from New Jersey’s Get Well Center, agrees. Wolk-Weiss cites the large part of the population that practices yoga regularly, visits acupuncturists or gets monthly massages.

Unlike other types of alternative healing methods, however, insurance coverage for chiropractic services can be extensive. Many HMOs (health maintenance organizations) and private health care plans cover chiropractic treatment, as do all state workers' compensation systems. Federal employees, for example, can visit a chiropractor through Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

The specifics of these types of coverage do vary from plan to plan. Wolk-Weiss says that the majority of insurance companies will pay for visits related to existing problems or have an active condition, such as chronic pain in your lower back, but limit visits that are classified as preventative maintenance.

“Insurance companies typically cover medically required care,” Erickson says. She explains that patients paying for maintenance visits out of pocket can pay anywhere from $25 to $200 a visit depending on location, duration of the visit and what type of treatments are provided during their appointment. (Some chiropractors will include massage therapy in an addition to traditional spinal adjustments.)  
This means that those looking to visit a chiropractor fairly regularly for wellness care may want to check with their health care provider before scheduling monthly adjustments. You should also consider doing a little research before settling on a chiropractor in your area.

Local organizations such as the Colorado Chiropractic Association typically list all of the licensed chiropractors practicing in the area. You can also see whether or not a chiropractor is under any current disciplinary action. To find a state association near you, you can check here at the American Chiropractic Association’s website.

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