Back Pain

How chiropractors can make your back worse

Samantha Slaven was just following the advice of her pilates instructor when she walked into a chiropractor’s office. The instructor noticed that Slaven’s back appeared misaligned and thought she could use an “adjustment.”

Three months later, the 46-year-old found herself in excruciating pain, and going to the hospital for an emergency cortisone shot in her neck, dangerously close to her spinal chord. The chiropractor had exacerbated an underlying condition of an undiagnosed degenerative disc disease.

“I could have been completely paralyzed,” says Slaven, who owns a p.r. firm in Los Angeles and now sees a sports therapist if she feels pain.

“I will never go to a chiropractor again,” she says.

Chiropractors — who treat neuromuscular disorders through manual adjustment or manipulation of the spine — are controversial. Some patients praise them for alleviating pain without addictive medication or expensive surgery; others call them quacks. In October, an autopsy report revealed that Playboy model Katie May died in February after a chiropractor adjusted her back, leaving the 34-year-old with a torn artery that stopped blood flow to her brain. May’s estate is asking for a seven-figure settlement from the medical professional, citing negligence.

“There are a lot of negative stereotypes associated with chiropractors,” says Noel Lozares, a physical therapist based in Brooklyn. “I’ve had chiropractor colleagues who have worked on me who are good and judicious. But, unfortunately, there are those who are cavalier.”

According to the American Chiropractic Association, “doctors of chiropractic” (DCs) must complete a four-year program with more than 4,620 hours of classroom, laboratory and clinical internship experience, though many don’t require a bachelor’s degree to enroll. Education and clinical work focuses on anatomy, as opposed to physiology, which is the focus of medical doctors. Still, DCs must learn how to do blood and lab work, neurological testing, and diagnostic imaging — which is why a patient can see a chiropractor without a medical referral, unlike a physical therapist, who does not necessarily have a background in these skills.

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