Answers to Questions about Chiropractic:
Was My Back Permanently Injured By a
Chiropractor Who Popped My Spine?

Samuel Homola, D.C.

Question

I have seen a number of chiropractors over the past ten years, usually only once or twice when I have a specific problem. Now 37 years old, I wound up in a chiropractor's office for a fertility problem. Someone had told me about a chiropractor who specializes in this field. Anyway, on Friday morning, he put me in a full twist while I was lying on my side and tried to crack my left lower back. It didn't "pop." He tried again. It didn't pop. Then, with all 400 pounds of him on my 100 pounds, he tried again. Surprise, surprise, my back popped. He said, "There, I got it!"

Throughout the day, my right side started to hurt and feel out of whack. The next morning, I woke up with a bad mid-back pain, as if I had been hit in the back with a baseball bat. That night, I started having a weird pinched nerve feeling down my right leg, accompanied by a pronounced feeling of weakness, but I slept okay. I felt less pain the next morning but the muscles all along my back felt totally seized up. That night, I was in pain again, now including my lower back, my right hip, and my neck along with my mid back. I had to cancel all my plans for the next two days, Saturday and Sunday. Last night, Sunday, I had to sleep with a hot water bottle, which did not help. Today, I am still seized up and in pain.

Did the chiropractor do permanent damage to me? What could he have done? How do I deal with this? Should I go back and get him to fix this? I am scared of him. Should I get another chiropractor to help? Or should I go to an orthopedist and have x-rays done? I want to know what the chiropractor could have done to me, how long the pain will last, and what I should do to fix it. I am really, really nervous about this.

Answer

Nothing chiropractor can do can increase fertility. A chiropractor who claims to specialize in this field should be given zero credibility. The treatment you describe —manipulating the lumbar spine—would be effective only for treating some types of low-back pain. If used for decreased fertility, such treatment would be fraudulent.

Spinal manipulation used for any reason should not be repeated if a painful reaction occurs. Chiropractors who claim to be correcting "subluxations" may strive to "pop" the spine. In most cases, the pop is meaningless. The sound is produced when gasses are pulled in to fill the space created by separation of joint surfaces. Perfectly normal joints can be made to pop. While the popping sound is usually harmless, injury can occur when a chiropractor feels compelled to use as much force as necessary to produce the coveted popping sound.

Unfortunately, many chiropractic patients have been told that the pop produced by a spinal adjustment means that a vertebral subluxation has been corrected. Such misinformed patients may insist on having their spine popped every time they see a chiropractor, encouraging the chiropractor to repeat the adjustment with a greater amount of force, risking failure for the doctor and injury to the patient. Chiropractors who measure "spinal correction" by the amount of popping they hear tend to use as much force as necessary to produce a pop.

Since you have back pain produced by excessively forceful and unnecessary manipulation designed to pop the spine, it is certainly possible that injury has occurred. Rather than seeing another chiropractor and risking further injury, you should see an orthopedist who can evaluate your symptoms and keep you under observation for a possible disc injury. Hopefully, only strain has occurred and your symptoms will subside with time.

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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 article was posted on February 21, 2008.