Chiropractic is a noun referring to the treatment in which a trained person, called a chiropractor, finds and corrects subluxations in the patient’s body. The purpose of chiropractic is to correct the alignment of the skeleton and restore normal range of motion to the joints, thereby improving musculoskeletal and neurological function.
What is a subluxation and why is it a problem?
A subluxation is the slight malposition of a bone relative to the bones with which it articulates (the bones it is connected to via joints). Subluxations are most common within the spinal column, but the jaw, ribs, sternum, and bones of the extremities can subluxate as well. When a bone is subluxated it is stuck in a position which is out of alignment with the other bones. Since it is fixated in this abnormal position, it cannot return to its normal position on its own. This is a problem because the joints in which this bone participates will not be able to move properly, reducing range of motion. Furthermore, subluxations cause pain through the build-up of fluid in the affected joints and the strain and fatigue of the surrounding muscles. Other joints will hyperflex in order to compensate, and the animal will both unconsciously and consciously stand and walk differently, which will cause further subluxations. But the musculoskeletal pain and mechanical effects of a subluxation aren’t the biggest problem; subluxations of spinal vertebrae put pressure on the nerves which enter and exit the spinal cord through gaps between the vertebrae. This interferes with the sensory information the brain can receive from the body as well as the motor information the brain sends to the organs and muscles to make them function. When the nervous system can’t communicate with the body, neurological signs develop which can range from weakness in the hind legs to paralysis, and may include poor organ function, metabolic disease, or even a weakened immune system. Some common symptoms caused by subluxations include stiffness, poor range of motion, uneven or shortened strides, not sitting squarely, pain, asymmetry, limping or difficulty walking, loss of muscle mass, difficulty using stairs, hind limb weakness, and difficulty jumping/climbing on or off the couch or bed.
What causes subluxations?
All vertebrate animals develop subluxations, and therefore can benefit from chiropractic, due to ordinary things they experience in their lives. Because Dr. Gardner only treats dogs and cats, the information below pertains to these species.
The causes of subluxations are grouped into three categories: trauma, stressors, and toxins.
- Trauma: Unless delivered by C-section, every dog and cat has experienced major physical trauma during its birth. Some pets may have endured other major traumas such as being hit by a car, physical abuse, or getting into a fight with another animal. Working dogs and dogs that train for athletic competitions put physical stress on their bodies through vigorous exercise and the specific activities they perform. But for the average dog and cat, the majority of the physical trauma they experience is minor repetitive or chronic strain to the muscles and joints. These are some common examples:
- Muscle strain, muscle fatigue, and joint stress from abnormal stance/posture and gait due to long toenails.
- Abnormal stance/posture and gait due to compensation for past injuries or arthritis.
- Jumping from a high bed or couch.
- Abnormal motion of the temporo-mandibular joint (which connects the jaw bone to the skull) due to poor dental health.
- Pulling on the leash.
- Stressors: Dogs and cats experience mental and emotional stress too. Some common examples are changes in routine, household disruptions (guests, new pets, new baby, moving, loss of a family member), fearful situations (thunderstorms, car rides), and separation anxiety.
- Toxins: This doesn’t just include exposure to toxic substances, but also refers to the build-up of cellular waste products that are not being efficiently excreted. Some dogs and cats may have unhealthy levels of wastes in their body due to liver, kidney, or metabolic diseases. However, the most common cause of cellular waste build-up is poor nutrition. When the body isn’t getting the right balance of nutrients, cells can’t function properly. Other everyday sources of toxin exposure include:
- Unfiltered drinking water, which contains traces of heavy metals, chemicals, and drugs.
- Medications. Many drugs, including those commonly prescribed for senior dogs with arthritis pain, contribute to subluxations due to their effects on muscles and nerves.
- Poor air quality/air pollution.
How are subluxations detected and corrected?
A chiropractor examines the patient by checking range of motion and palpating anatomical structures. Finding the subluxations is what takes the most time, skill, and experience. Once a subluxation is found, the chiropractor uses their hands to perform an adjustment. The adjustment is a quick thrust delivered to a specific part of the bone along a specific angle. Most adjustments are not painful, but the patient feels discomfort for a split-second, followed by relief. The chiropractor is not causing pain, but during the exam painful areas will be found. Following the chiropractic treatment the patient may experience some soreness and tiredness for a few days while the tissues which were fatigued by the subluxations start to recover. In order to aid the healing process, the chiropractor may use a therapeutic laser to reduce inflammation, as well as give instructions for applying ice to specific areas. Chiropractors do not recommend pain medications for muscle soreness caused by subluxations because such drugs reduce the amount of time that the patient will “hold” its adjustments, which means the subluxations will return quicker.
How often do dogs and cats need a chiropractic examination?
Chiropractic is not a one-time fix. After a chiropractic treatment subluxations will develop again in the future because it is impossible to eliminate all of the causes of subluxations from the patient’s life. However, the chiropractor will provide recommendations on preventing subluxations, so that the interval between chiropractic visits can be as long as is appropriate for the particular patient. For example, the recommendations for a dog may include using a properly fitted harness, managing stressful situations, and changing the diet.
Ideally chiropractic care is obtained on a routine basis throughout the animal’s life, starting shortly after birth, to find and correct subluxations before they become severe and cause significant pain, musculoskeletal, and/or neurological symptoms. Routine chiropractic care keeps the joints moving correctly and reduces the development of osteoarthritis as pets age. Here are some guidelines for the frequency of chiropractic examinations/treatments:
- Young, healthy adult dogs and cats with few risk factors for subluxation could have a chiropractic wellness check as infrequently as every six months.
- Working dogs and dogs that train for athletic events should be examined on a more regular basis than family pets. They develop subluxations more readily due to the physical strain they put on their bodies. In addition, regular chiropractic care is important in these dogs to prevent injuries and maintain peak performance.
- Senior pets and those with significant risk factors for subluxation don’t “hold their adjustments” as well, so they may develop subluxations again within weeks after a chiropractic treatment. These pets may need to be adjusted as often as once or twice a month.
Dogs and cats which have musculoskeletal pain, gait abnormalities, muscle weakness, mobility issues, and/or neurological symptoms prior to seeking chiropractic care generally have many subluxations which have been present for a long time. In such cases, it is best for the animal chiropractor to only correct a few subluxations at a time over a series of three initial appointments approximately one week apart. Improvements may not be seen until after the third session. At that time the animal chiropractor will be able to assess how well the patient is holding the adjustments, what interval is appropriate for routine chiropractic treatments for that specific patient, and if any other therapies or exercises will aid in the patient’s recovery.