Answers to Questions about Chiropractic:
Can an Accident Cause a Spinal Curvature?

Samuel Homola, D.C.

Question

I am 41 years old. Several years ago I had a severe car accident. I was fine at the time, but 3 years later I ended up with two herniated disks. I went to a sports doctor who gave me a cortisone epidural that gave me immediate relief. It has been 5 years now, and I am beginning to have other problems. I went to a chiropractor for the first time yesterday. After 14 x-rays—bending and twisting-- he concluded that my neck was out of line. He also showed me the x-rays of my lower back; it is curved to the right quite drastically. I am skeptical about getting my spine manipulated, but the thought of surgery scares me. I have a lot of pain in my lower back and my neck is stiff and full of knots all the time. Any suggestions?

Answer

If you had no symptoms immediately following your auto accident three years ago, and you got along fine for three years, it seems unlikely that the accident herniated two of your discs. If the symptoms disappeared after only one epidural injection of cortisone, the diagnosis of disc herniation might be questionable.

The appearance of neck and lower back symptoms five years after the accident would warrant an orthopedic examination for a new, definitive diagnosis. You could have disc degeneration or some other problem that could benefit from physical treatment methods. You should not rely upon a diagnosis that describes a "neck out of line" and a "lumbar curvature." Many chiropractors use these words to sell unnecessary treatment. If you seek another opinion, borrow your x-rays so that you can avoid unnecessary radiation.

Gentle spinal manipulation, physical therapy, or massage might be helpful in relieving symptoms, but treatment should be "as-needed" for pain relief and not to "straighten your spine."

Just because you have neck and back pain does not mean that you might eventually need surgery. A lumbar curvature does not always cause trouble and is never a reason for having surgery. You should disregard the scare tactics of chiropractors who tell you that the curvature will get progressively worse if you don't have regular spinal adjustments. Such curvatures cannot be corrected with manipulation and rarely increase after age 16. You would have to have signs of spinal instability or nerve damage before any orthopedist or neurosurgeon would consider operating on your neck or back.

Continue with manipulation, phyiscal therapy, or massage treatment only when and if it relieves your symptoms—only after an evaluation by an orthopedist—and with a pracitioner who does not use scare tactics.

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Dr. Homola is a second-generation chiropractor who has dedicated himself to defining the proper limits on chiropractic and to educating consumers and professionals about the field. His 1963 book Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism supported the appropriate use of spinal manipulation but renounced chiropractic dogma. His 1999 book Inside Chiropractic: A Patient's Guide provides an incisive look at chiropractic's history, benefits, and shortcomings. Now retired after 43 years of practice, he lives in Panama City, Florida.

This page was posted on April 16, 2002.