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Please note: this section is deliberately wordy. Proceed with an active brain!
What is Chiropractic?
“Chiropractic is a system of optimizing human performance and potential by restoring or enhancing the body’s function.”
Chiropractors influence the function of the brain and nervous system by helping your body to achieve optimal movement. Chiropractic Care may help to relieve headaches, back and neck pain, dizziness, colic, unsettled babies, reflux, and help with learning and behavioural difficulties (including ADHD and ASD- if related to cerebellar/ pre-frontal cortex processing).
Optimal movement allows for much more accurate sensory input into the brain, which helps to improve the output from the brain. They utilise many different modalities to improve your body’s function*. One of the main ways we help people in improving joint movement and the brain-body connection is through the Chiropractic Adjustment.
Chiropractors adjust dysfunctional joints/ segments in your spine, pelvis, extremities and skull. ‘Originally, many people thought that dysfunctional spinal segments were ‘out of place’, or misaligned, and that this put pressure on the nerves exiting the spine. We now know that this theory is not really the best way to describe the results of a dysfunctional joint.
We have come to understand that we don’t really put bones back in place when we adjust the spine. A dysfunctional joint in the spine or extremities is not so much the condition of a bone being out of place; it is more that a bone is functioning or moving in a less than ideal way – in a manner that is not ‘normal’ for the body (24)‘. So, Chiropractors work with neuro-biomechanical restrictions that contribute to changes in brain function, and can ultimately contribute to other functional changes in the body.
To start to understand some of the facets of Chiropractic Care, let’s start with an introduction to the basics of brain and body function, and how they communicate.
Your Body’s Physical Structure:
The body is made of multiple layers of tissues, providing a fully physically connected body structure, inside- out and top to toe. Your body’s physical structure and nervous system rely on each other for optimal function; affecting one will always affect the other.
People are often surprised that Chiropractors examine their upper back when their complaint is in their lower back for example. When you get your system working better as a whole, the overall outcome is much better.
Physical Structures include:
> Bones > Ligaments > Nerves
> Muscles > Fascia- the connective tissue covering muscles and organs
> Dura- a membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord, that attaches to skull, neck and tail-bone.
The physical structures provide sensory information to the brain, including the information about the body’s position in space and tension it is under, as well as information about pain and tissue damage.
Improper biomechanics or joint mechanics/ body movement can negatively impact the body’s nervous system reception affecting the body sense of position (proprioception*) (7), which may impact on motion, balance, muscle tone, coordination, and other sensory perceptions.
It is important to make sure all of these physical structures both CAN and DO move through your optimal ranges of movement helps to allow for optimal proprioception and sensorimotor integration.
(Position- Sense Information) The ability of your muscles and joints to accurately tell their position in space to the brain, AND for the brain to accurately put this information together- from all over the body.
- Essential in balance and movement.
Chiropractic adjustments improve joint-position sense and postural stability (1).
The ability of the brain to accurately integrate sensory input (eye-spine-balance and position-sense information from the body), and convert this information to accurate movement of the body.
- Accurate movement and strength
- Injury prevention
This is one of the key neurological foundations of Chiropractic Adjustments. (20)
The Nervous System structures include:
The brain stem is the ‘switchboard’ between the body-brain-cerebellum. It is the earliest active part of the brain, being responsible for automatic functions and the flow of information between the cerebrum (thinking brain) and the cerebellum.
A well-functioning brainstem is necessary for:
- Good Posture
- Clear mental function
- Healthy Development, and more.
This part of the brain is in the cerebrum (the big brain, or thinking part of the brain). The prefrontal cortex is responsible for:
- Movement planning
- Decision making
- Working memory, and more
Chiropractic adjustments impact on the function of the prefrontal cortex (15).
This makes sure the brain’s instructions match the body’s actions. When these don’t match, it can set off a stress response in the body.
Good function is required for:
- Balance and Co-ordination
- Muscle control/ fine motor control
- Essential to learning, including language/ speech abilities, working memory, planning, visual-spatial awareness etc (22)
Chiropractic adjustments impact on the function of the cerebellum (2,16).
NB: The cerebellum also connects to the limbic system- important for memory, emotional responses including stress, and recall of learned patterns.
Eye-Spine-Balance System (Vestibular and Head-Righting Reflexes):
Coordinating the eyes, ears, brain and cerebellum, this system is important for neck and eye stabilization. Accurate eye and vestibular reflexes are essential for:
- Quality balance and movement
- Reading skills
- Preventing/ reducing neck pain
- Good upright posture
Chiropractic care helps these righting reflexes through specific exercises, and improved cerebellum function(2,16).
This 2-way chemical signaling system is how the gut and brain talk to each other. It is why stress can affect the gut (and gut bacteria) (18), and why gut health can affect brain function. (17,19) It is also why some Chiropractors will give you nutritional/ dietary advice.
So, what is the main point of all this information?
As well as reducing pain and helping you to feel physically better (1), Chiropractic Care has been shown to help:
- Prevent falls (1)
- Improve your brain’s joint-position sense (2,3,4,5,6)
- Improve Muscle strength (8,9,10,11)
- Co-ordination of your arms and legs (1,7)
- Pelvic floor control (12), and
- Mental rotation of objects! (13,14)
Very basically, it works like this:
a. The body’s sensory receptors send proprioceptive, visual, and vestibular information to the brain (the big brain and the cerebellum) via the brain stem.
b. The prefrontal cortex uses this information when programming your body’s next movement, and sends out appropriate instructions to the appropriate areas necessary to carry out the instruction.
c. The body’s sensory receptors send proprioceptive, visual, and vestibular information to the brain (the big brain and the cerebellum) via the brain stem- which gives the brain the ability to be able to compare the instruction sent out to the action actually achieved.
d. If the instruction and action are the same, then no worries, the body keeps on going- well done! If the instruction and action are mismatched, then the body creates a stress response, and is then frantically trying to both correct the mismatch, and also to work out where it went wrong. If this continues long-term, then you get a situation of chronic stress.
e. Chronic stress- such as poor movement/ gut function/ emotional stress- can raise your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), decreasing your immune function, and your ability to regulate inflammation appropriately (23). Chronic inflammation can lead to tissue tightening- contributing to a reduction in accurate proprioception. If this reduction in proprioception occurs over time, then you begin to get negative neuro-plastic changes in the brain- i.e. these maladaptive patterns become the norm.
Chiropractic intervenes when there is a mismatch in the communication. By improving the joint movement, an adjustment helps to improve the proprioceptive information into the brain, thus creating a more accurate internal map of yourself in the brain. This encourages better output- more accurate instructions to be carried out by the body equals more accurate and appropriate actions achieved by the body.
Why is it recommended to complete a schedule of Chiropractic Care?
This comes down to something called neuroplasticity. This is the brain’s ability to reorganize/ re-wire itself in response to stimulation it does or does NOT get. Neuroplasticity can be positive or negative (maladaptive).
The brain will only reinforce/ build on the neural pathways that are the most used.
Sitting in poor posture at work, at school, in the car etc creates negative neuroplasticity. Compound this action by doing it nearly every day for 20-30 years, and you have some pretty hard-wired negative neural pathways.
Completing a recommended course of Chiropractic Care and home care advice creates positive neuroplasticity. When you consider that sometimes, neural changes have been occurring over 20-30 years, it is not surprising that Chiropractors may recommend you to have an appointment 1-2 times per week for 8-12 weeks (1).
The expectation at progress assessments is to see improvement in the right direction, not necessarily a completely ‘fixed’ system.
Chiropractors will also recommend different home-care advice- exercises and maybe dietary changes. These recommendations are based on university training, clinical experience, and the yearly continued-education that is required of Chiropractors. Completing home-care advice can help to increase the rate at which long-term changes are achieved.
This article may end up giving you more questions than answers. If that is the case, ask your Chiropractor, or read 'The Reality Check' by Dr Heidi Haavik.
References available on request. Please get in touch via email :)
*Chiropractors are trained for 5 full-time years at university in subjects such as anatomy, neuro-anatomy, neurology, physiology, pathology, rheumatology, radiography, radiology, nutrition, physical rehabilitation and more, as well as in biomechanics and neuro-musculo-skeletal health. It is important to understand that chiropractic care doesn’t ‘treat’ or ‘cure’ conditions, but rather, by improving function, other changes naturally follow.
All photography provided by Wendy Bowie Photography