Your back is one of the most important parts of your body, but many people don't pay it much attention until something goes wrong. Since back pain is often debilitating and can negatively impact all aspects of your life, it's critical to seek out a health care professional who can correctly diagnose and treat the condition. That's where chiropractors come in.

What is a chiropractor?

Chiropractors work to treat mechanical disorders of the spine and other areas of the back through spinal adjustment. Their treatment method emphasizes manual therapy — the use of their hands as an alternative to drugs or surgery. If your condition requires surgery, that will usually be an orthopedic surgeon's domain instead of a chiropractor's.

There are two primary schools of thought in chiropractic treatment that you'll want to take into account when choosing who to go to.

  • Chiropractors who focus entirely on spinal manipulation and the treatment of symptoms that are present right now. In some cases, this can involve something as relatively simple as consistent massage treatments rather than outright spinal manipulation.
  • Chiropractors who focus on the traditional method of the practice; they emphasize correcting misalignments in the spine instead of the direct symptoms you're feeling and believe spinal misalignment is related to your entire health.

Reasons to see a chiropractor

Chiropractors primarily deal with spinal health, but other health issues are either directly or indirectly related to a chiropractor's line of work. In addition to expected issues like back pain, people often see chiropractors when they've been experiencing:

  • Tingling or numbness in the extremities, which can be a sign that your nerves in that area aren't functioning as they should.
  • Poor range of motion. Many athletes frequent chiropractors to help their flexibility and overall strength, and you may benefit for the same reasons.
  • Neck pain, which can directly relate to back pain and overall spinal health.

Common chiropractic methods

Chiropractors employ a variety of treatment methods depending on the circumstances. Some of the most commonly used include:

  • The activator technique, in which an instrument stimulates your vertebrae with a series of soft pulsations. This method is considered a gentle procedure that's appropriate for many forms of therapy.
  • The Gonstead technique, in which chiropractors use their hands to adjust a patient's back. This technique is a type of realignment therapy that's intended to decrease pain and improve your sense of mobility.
  • Decompression manipulation is often used to treat scoliosis or spinal hernias. The procedure is done on a table designed for the purpose and is intended to stretch the back muscles gently.

How is a chiropractor certified?

Chiropractors must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree from an accredited school, which is a four-year program that emphasizes anatomy and spinal health within the context of chiropractic treatment.You can check whether a chiropractic school is accredited by visiting the Council on Chiropractic Education. Each state in the U.S. regulates and licenses chiropractors to practice, and they can only work in the state in which they are licensed. D.C. practitioners typically must take continuing education credits each year to maintain their licenses. 

Referral and research 

Your primary care physician (PCP) is in charge of your everyday care, but there are inevitably some conditions for which you need to see a specialist. When you first go to your PCP with back pain, they may suggest several treatment options, including making an appointment with a licensed chiropractor. Your doctor might recommend a chiropractic practitioner or clinic, but you may have to research and select your own chiropractic doctor. The American Chiropractic Association maintains an updated listing of certified chiropractors across the country. 

Referrals are typically not required to see a chiropractor, but it's a good idea to initiate a communication plan between your PCP and your new chiropractor. You'll also have to find out whether your insurance covers this type of treatment, and if so, you'll need to find a provider who accepts your insurance. Your insurance company may have a list of in-network chiropractors.

There are many important factors to consider when choosing a medical doctor of any kind, learn how to find a specialist who is well suited to your needs

Asking the right questions

Before you schedule your first appointment with a chiropractor, it's wise to ask the following questions to help make sure you are choosing a specialist who can provide the care you need. 

  • Do you perform x-rays? Before initiating standard chiropractic treatment, it's important to confirm that you don't have some other condition that could be causing your discomfort — and might even require a different kind of treatment entirely.
  • How much will insurance cover? Since the cost of treatment is likely to be a point of concern, it's best to get this out of the way. Once you know what your treatment might cost you, you can begin budgeting around it in the way that's best for you. 
  • What is your treatment philosophy? As stated, different chiropractors approach this matter in different ways. The important thing to learn is whether the chiropractor you're seeing takes an approach that's based on scientific evidence and is willing to provide that evidence on request.
  • How long will treatment last? Will you be seeing this person for the next year or just a few weeks? How many times per week? You have your own schedule to keep after all, so this is an important issue to clarify.

Remember that it's important to find a provider who is qualified, licensed, and makes you feel comfortable with the quality and manner of care they can provide. Asking questions and doing research are the first steps to finding a high-quality chiropractor.