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Chiropractic medicine is the use of spinal manipulation to improve health. Like other complementary therapies, chiropractic medicine is designed to work at the appropriate level of the healing process and to work with the normal inborn homeostasis (the ability of the body to remain “normal and healthy”), rather than simply treating symptoms. Spinal manipulation is an old therapy, almost as old as acupuncture. The Chinese used acupuncture from about 2700 BC, while Hippocrates used spinal manipulation because he felt that alignment problems with the spine were the cause of many diseases. While chiropractic care has been used in human medicine for many years, only recently has this discipline been applied to animals. While few controlled studies have shown benefits of chiropractic therapy, a number of anecdotal reports have demonstrated positive benefits.

Chiropractic care focuses on the interactions between neurologic mechanisms (the nervous system) and the biomechanics of the vertebrae. In chiropractic theory, disease arises as a result of spinal misalignment that negatively influences the nervous system. Since all body systems are regulated by the nervous system, anything that interferes with nervous impulses to organs (including spinal misalignment) could impact the proper functioning of those organs and body systems. Chiropractic therapy seeks to realign the spine by a variety of manipulative techniques.

Spinal misalignments are called subluxations by chiropractors (this is not to be confused with the term subluxation, meaning partial dislocation, as used by conventional doctors). A subluxation is technically defined as a, “disrelationship of a vertebral segment in association with contiguous (surrounding) vertebrae, resulting in a disturbance of normal biomechanical and neurological function.”

Chiropractic Theories
Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain how chiropractic subluxations cause disease. They include:
  • Facilitation. The subluxation produces a lower threshold for nerve firing in the spinal cord. Realigning the spine stops the nerve firing, relieving signs of disease.
  • Somatoautonomic Dysfunction. The abnormal responses of the autonomic nervous system result from altered nerve function that occurs as a result of subluxations. The abnormal autonomic nervous system may cause disease in tissues regulated by this branch of the nervous system, including the heart, digestive tract, and urogenital system.
  • Nerve Compression. The vertebral subluxations cause pressure on spinal nerves, which alters the normal transmission in the nervous system. Chiropractors believe that the nerve compression leads to ischemia (reduced blood supply) and edema (swelling caused by a buildup of fluid) of the compressed nerves, which causes the dysfunction.
  • Compressive Myelopathy. The vertebral subluxations may compress or irritate the spinal cord, which can cause ischemia and/or edema leading to clinical signs.
  • Fixation. The diseased vertebrae are “fixed” within their normal biomechanical range of motion; the fixation involves local spinal muscles and nerve receptors.
  • Vertebrobasilar Arterial Insufficiency. The vertebral arteries are constricted due to the subluxations, which leads to ischemia of the spinal cord or structures of the head of the patient.
  • Axoplasmic Aberration. The intracellular movement of proteins, glycoproteins, or neurotransmitters in the nerve cells is altered as a result of subluxations. The altered axoplasmic transport may result in toxic buildup of proteins, contributing to disease.
  • Neurodystrophy. Nerve dysfunction is stressful to the body and its organs and this lowered tissue resistance can modify the immune system. This interaction between the nervous system and the immune system (such interaction has been demonstrated in connections between the immune system and the neuroendocrine system of the body) causes disease.

Regardless of which hypotheses may ultimately be proven to be the cause of disease resulting from spinal subluxations, chiropractic medicine seeks to “cure” the disease process by correcting these subluxations. Chiropractors correct subluxations by performing clinical examinations and radiographic (x-ray) exams to determine which vertebrae are misaligned. Once the location of the subluxation has been determined, the veterinary chiropractor performing the treatment will perform a spinal adjustment. The spinal adjustment, defined as a “specific physical action designed torestore the biomechanics of the vertebral column and indirectly influencene urologic function” is performed as needed to realign the subluxated vertebrae and allow neurologic reprogramming of muscle contractions and healing of damaged ligaments. Usually multiple adjustments are needed, as the body requires time to heal.

Because of the increase in popularity in many complementary treatment techniques such as chiropractic, a number of “animal therapists” have advertised chiropractic care (and massage and acupuncture/acupressure) as part of their “specialty.” Only veterinarian, or chiropractors using the technique under direct veterinary supervision, should perform chiropractic therapies on pets. Laymen should not be allowed to practice any of these medical techniques on pets.

Shawn Messonnier, DVM

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Shawn Messonnier DVM Past Supporting Member, Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians Author, the award-winning The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and Breast Choices for the Best Chances: Your Breasts, Your Life, and How YOU Can Win The Battle!

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