As a chiropractor I encounter various preconceptions about what we do. These range from “putting bones back in place” to “fixing people’s backs”. These perceptions exist because of the inevitably different ways chiropractors communicate what they do and because our understanding shifts as we make more scientific progress. The latest research conducted by Heidi Haavik, in New Zealand, over the last 15 years has given us new insight into exactly what chiropractic does…and much of this may come as a surprise. Her research suggests that chiropractic improves brain function. This happens in a variety of ways:
Our brain has an internal map of where our body is in time and space. Imagine all the different muscles of the spine feeding back information to the brain. When we have a healthy spine the muscles attached to the vertebrae send information to the brain as they stretch when we move. This tells the brain the precise location of each vertebra. If any of these parts of the spine stop moving then the muscles stop telling the brain what’s going on. When the brain loses this information it goes back to the moment when it last received input and assumes that this is where the vertebra still is.
This typifies the brain’s immense capacity for adaptation which is commonly referred to as plasticity. In this case it may not be such a good thing. When the brain gradually loses its accurate picture of what is going on in the body there is a greater likelihood that our body will express symptoms. In other words our brain can learn to function poorly (what we call maladaptive plastic changes), just as it can help us to learn how to ride a bike. It is not just pain that we may experience – these maladaptive changes may result in poor co-ordination (e.g. we may bump into objects more often, or our performance may drop off in sport and exercise).
What a chiropractic adjustment does is improve the communication pathways between our brain and our body. It ‘resets’ or breaks the cycle of negative messages coming from our body.
When we lose range of motion in our joints it typically happens gradually so initially we don’t notice it. We may only become aware for example when we can no longer turn our head to look over our shoulder when we are driving or we simply put it down to getting older.
A chiropractic adjustment can help restore normal motion to areas of our spine that are no longer functioning at their optimal level.
Most patients visit us when they are in pain; it’s a great motivator for us to seek change. Pain is a late showing in any form of poor health. We may think that our back pain was caused when we bent over to pick up the shopping but common sense would make us wonder why it happened on this specific occasion and not another. The reason is that we have gradual maladaptive plastic changes in our brain over time as a consequence of our poor lifestyle choices. Thus when we lift our shopping this may simply be the final straw that “breaks the camel’s back”.
Research has shown that when we are in pain (especially if it has become chronic) then the body’s capacity to protect itself is reduced. So if we have chronic low back pain, for example, we may have ongoing inhibition of our core tummy muscles which means we are more likely to injure our low back.
Chiropractic reduces the maladaptive plastic changes that have built up and reduces our pain. Many of our patients enjoy maintenance care because it reduces the build up of poor function caused by poor lifestyle.
Many elite athletes these days use chiropractors because they appreciate that any improvement in function can give them the edge over their competitors.
Our brain creates our own “inner reality” through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, proprioception (sense of body position) and smell. This input is blended together by the brain to create a picture of what is happening in our body and the environment (multisensory integration). The more smoothly this integration occurs the better our body works.
For more information on Heidi Haavik’s research see http://heidihaavik.com/.