If you have persistent neck or back pain, you might be considering chiropractic manipulation—“realigning” the spine by pressing on its joints—a therapy often touted to relieve such chronic discomfort. Chiropractic care is one of the most popular forms of complementary medicine. In 2012, one in 12 U.S. adults visited the chiropractor, according to an analysis of federal survey data published in January. And each year chiropractors (along with some osteopathic physicians and physical therapists) perform several million adjustments. 

Does It Work?

The founder of modern chiropractic care, a 19th-century Iowan, believed that chiropractic manipulation could cure all manner of maladies. And some chiropractors still offer services for conditions such as asthma and high blood pressure, even though there’s no strong evidence that chiropractic treatment helps for those. But most chiropractors focus on skeletal and muscular problems—especially low back, neck, and shoulder pain, and related headaches.

And some studies suggest that spinal manipulations (“adjustments”) can help diminish such pain. A 2011 review of 26 studies found that for chronic low back pain, manipulation reduced pain in the short term at least as much as exercise and even pain relievers. Chiropractic care also improved participants’ short-term physical functions, such as their ability to climb stairs or bend over.

“The bad news is that for chronic, persistent back pain, even the best therapies result in only mild to moderate relief,” says Roger Chou, M.D., a professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University who studies back pain. “The key is finding the treatment that works for you and seeing a therapist who cares about function—not just pain relief—and who will help you get back to the activities that matter most in your life.”

When it comes to neck pain, a study of 181 people published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that getting regular chiropractic care (about once per week for 12 weeks) could lessen discomfort better than acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Some research also suggests that chiropractic manipulation might work as well as medication for migraine headaches.

“For chronic backache or neck pain that is not accompanied by symptoms requiring medical attention—such as urinary or intestinal problems or weakness, numbness, or tingling in an arm or leg—considering chiropractic manipulation seems reasonable,” says Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser, Marvin M. Lipman, M.D. But it isn’t risk-free. “It can cause temporary headaches and, rarely, serious problems such as worsening the pain of a slipped disk,” he notes. 

What to Know If You Go

  • All states require chiropractors to earn a four-year doctor of chiropractic (D.C.) degree from a program accredited by the Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE). Chiropractors are also required to pass an exam administered by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners to get licensed.
  • Treatments are often covered by insurance, including Medicare Part B, which pays 80 percent of the cost after your deductible. 

Copyright © 2005-2016 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.