Answers to Questions about Chiropractic:
How Can I Resolve Conflicting Advice?

Samuel Homola, D.C.

Question

I've been doing quite a bit research on chiropractor related issues and came across your site. Recently, I was diagnosed by an orthopaedic surgeon as having a degenerative spine and slight scoliosis, a result from an auto accident about 20years ago. At 42 years old, I'm told I'm fairly young to have such a condition.

To relieve the agonizing pain, I've been taking a variety of anti-inflammatory medications and regularly exercise in a pool, as suggested by my doctor. I've also been looking into other forms of treatment for pain. But before I sought medical treatment, a neighbor of mine who is a chiropractor, insisted I see him asap. He offered to take my x-rays for free. Not a bad deal, I thought naively. I'll do anything to get rid of the pain so I could walk normally again.

After reviewing my x-rays, the chiropractor claimed he could alleviate all of my pain as well as put a natural "curve" back in my spine. When he attempted some sort of massaging of my lower back, he aggravated something which left me feeling worse. When I informed the chiropractor of my intention to seek the advice of an orthopaedic surgeon, he became visibly upset and argued he knew more about dealing my spine than a "surgeon." When I visited the orthopaedic surgeon, I told him of the chiropractor's claims. I was informed that it would be medically impossible to move someone's spine with the exception of an operation or some sort of trauma, i.e. an auto accident. He also stated as opinion that chiropractors are pretty much a placebo.

Seeing my neighbor-the-chiropractor again, I told him of my doctor's prognosis. The chiropractor stated that my surgeon was absolutely wrong and didn't know what he was talking about. The chiropractor stated that the procedure to straighten out the lumbar region of my spine is a common practice; he performs it often and has seen positive results. Since then, I've spoken to a number of medical doctors (in various specialties) and other practitioners about which opinion is correct. Strangely enough, not all agree with the opinion of my orthopaedic surgeon, which I find a little disconcerting.

My question is, who's right? I have an obvious opinion based on my experience and research. But is there an absolute answer to this? Am I missing something?

Thank you. I look forward to your comments. And, by the way, I have very little pain these days.

Answer

I don't know of any reason or way to change structural curves in the spine of anyone who has scoliosis with degenerative changes. Sometimes, the curves in the spine will be temporarily altered by muscle spasm triggered by pain or inflammation. Such functional changes in curves will return to "normal" when the pain subsides. Curves caused by structural scoliosis and degenerative changes are permanent, with or without pain. I certainly would not recommend treatment to "change the curves of the spine" when there is no pain.

I would recommend that you rely upon the opinion of an orthopedic specialist who specializes in the care of back pain. If you are not now having back pain, you should not worry about the curves (or lack of curves) in your spine. Manipulation can relieve pain in appropriately selected cases, but it cannot change a structural curve or prevent degenerative changes caused by arthritis or injury.

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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 August 13, 2004.