One thing I love about chiropractic is the effect it can have on the whole body, not just in regards to pain relief. Many of my patients notice changes in their health while under care in our office besides less pain. They tell me that they sleep better, move better, have more energy and do not get sick as often. But why is that? I wish I could say that we have unlocked some mystical energy source, but the answer really is not that exciting. The answer is all about science (specifically, anatomy and physiology).
The reason we see changes with things like acid reflux, constipation, and headaches is because the chiropractic adjustment has a dramatic effect on the nervous system. This phenomenon has been present since chiropractic was discovered in 1895. In the past thirty years or so, Doctors of Chiropractic have found a niche in society as “pain doctors.” However, any chiropractor worth his protoplasm knows that we are not pain doctors, we are NERVOUS SYSTEM doctors!
Every nerve impulse that gets carried from our brain down into the rest of the body must first pass through the spinal cord. From there, it travels through those thick spinal nerves, which further branch out to form nerves that traverse the entire body, innervating every cell, tissue, and organ of the body. For example, when someone complains of sciatica, they experience pain that originates in the lower back and shoots down the leg. The sciatic nerve is made up of branches of several lower lumbar spinal nerves. Irritation causes symptoms along that nerve, (down the leg), which usually starts as PAIN, but can eventually lead to NUMBNESS, TINGLING, and LOSS OF STRENGTH. The worst consequence of sciatica is Cauda Equina Syndrome, resulting in the loss of bowel and bladder control, which is a life threatening situation (which means you need an ER, not an adjustment). This is a textbook example that pain is not the only consequence of a “pinched nerve.” Thus, pain is not the only thing that changes in a chiropractor’s office when nerve irritation is relieved.
Of course, we chiropractors are routinely successful in relieving our patients’ pain and we are glad to do it, but this occurs because pain sensation is merely a function of the nervous system. The periphery is sending a message to the brain, saying "Something's wrong." Taking pressure off of nerves and relaxing muscles does indeed decrease pain, but it goes much further than that. What about the portion of that nerve that controls bodily functions BESIDES pain sensation? Imagine a spinal nerve as the wiring harness in an automobile. It may just look like a thick cord from a distance, but if you cut away the outer sheath, you'll find all sorts of different wires, all carrying messages to and from different parts of the car. One line is for the speedometer, one is for the tachometer, one is for the oh-so important butt warmer. You get the idea. Just like there are fibers of a nerve that transmit pain, there are also fibers of that same nerve that transmit information pertaining to the function of all the life processes that we don't need to think about. I'm talking about the AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM! Fasten your seat belts, kiddies.
This branch of our nervous system deals with controlling the involuntary actions of our body (digestion, breathing, blood flow, temperature regulation, metabolism, etc.). It consists of the Sympathetic Nervous System and Parasympathetic Nervous System. The sympathetic side is for “fight or flight” while the parasympathetic side helps us “rest and digest.” Like most things in life, it is all about BALANCE. Think of the sympathetics and parasympathetics on a see saw. If one side is high, the other is low. When your body perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action. This can happen with either physical or emotional stimuli. If you are walking around your home and you stub your toe, your body performs a number of tasks simultaneously (in addition to the muttering of guttural language). Your heart rate goes up, your eyes dilate, your breathing quickens, and your muscles engorge with blood. The same happens if you’re walking in the woods and see a bear. Why? Because whether the stimulus is physical or emotional, your nervous system detects a threat and it is helping you prepare to deal with that threat by helping you improve your ability to either fight that threat off or run away from it. Eventually, the threat is gone and your body recovers because things are back to normal. You go home and relax and your parasympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. Your blood pressure decreases, your breathing slows down, your digestive juices get ramped up, etc. Pretty cool, huh?
What if the threat never goes away? What if there is a constant, unrelenting assault on your nervous system? The sympathetic nervous system stays at a high level and the parasympathetic nervous system is inhibited, to the detriment of your health. One example of this is prolonged emotional stress, which has been proven to lead to multiple health concerns including increased risk of sickness, sleep disorders, fatigue, heart problems, and digestive problems, just to name a few.
"That's great, doc, but where the heck does Chiropractic come in?" Spinal misalignments, or subluxations, cause tightness in the muscles, poor posture, altered biomechanics, and irritation to the nerves, which causes your sympathetic nervous system to activate, because your body perceives a threat. Much like prolonged emotional stress, vertebral subluxations do not go away, until they are fixed. This causes a chronic imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. As you can imagine, this is not good.
Many of my patients who come in suffering from chronic musculoskeletal pain have also experienced the effects of autonomic nervous system imbalance. When we take the cause of that irritation away, not only does their pain decrease, but they often experience other changes in their health. Some of these changes are obvious, like better sleep, better digestion, improved cognitive function, and improved energy levels. A lot of times, they are able to ditch some of the meds they were taking that were merely covering up these symptoms of nervous system imbalance. Cool, huh?
I once had a patient tell me that when he gets adjusted, it feels like he “took a shower on the inside.” Your own internal hygiene notwithstanding, it stands to reason that any prolonged stress on our bodies can lead to autonomic imbalance, which without a doubt can have negative effects on our health. This is not to say that every single malady, symptom, and sickness can be fixed with chiropractic care (wouldn't that be nice?) Obviously, emotional stress, lack of sleep, food sensitivities (ahem...I'm looking at you, gluten), overtraining, and other factors can also lead to this problem. However, a healthy spine is a great place to start if you want your nervous system to work at peak efficiency.