Many patients suffering from neck and back pain seek chiropractic treatment intending to improve their discomfort. And while chiropractic care has excellent results in treating many types of pain, sometimes patients may feel less than optimal after getting chiropractic adjustments.
They might experience what’s also known as “detox symptoms” such as dizziness, nausea, fatigue, headaches, mild flu-like symptoms, or muscle soreness. Feeling soreness after chiropractic treatment is perfectly normal. It is the body's way of adjusting to its new position.
But what about the patients experiencing severe pain after a chiropractic adjustment? Is that normal too? Experiencing pain after a chiropractic adjustment is normal — as long as it’s not severe.
During chiropractic treatment, the vertebrae are moved slightly to adjust the spine into a healthy physiologic position. This realignment affects not only the spine, but also the joints, muscles, and nerves around it.
The discomfort usually lasts around 24-48 hours, and the best way to manage it is to apply ice alternating every 20 mins with moist heat to the area. Don't hesitate to talk to your chiropractor about your symptoms. They can indicate the best ways to deal with post-treatment discomfort.
The ache level depends on the initial cause of the neck or back pain, but it should be within bearable limits. If you feel severe pain after a chiropractic adjustment that doesn't respond to ice, heat, or anti-inflammatory medicine — and lasts longer than 48 hours — you should see your chiropractor.
To better understand why your body might respond so intensely to chiropractic treatment, let's go through the main reasons for post-chiropractic adjustment discomfort.
1. Your spine was misaligned and is adjusting to the new, correct position
Misalignments, aka subluxations, are extremely common, precisely because they often do not cause pain for a very long time. The problem is that while your body becomes used to its incorrect spinal posture due to muscle memory, you end up experiencing long-term effects. Unless trauma occurs, misalignments often do not occur overnight.
During chiropractic treatment, the vertebrae get adjusted to a correct position, which in time will improve your health by assuring the proper position for your nerves and blood vessels. However, you are likely to experience pain in the first 24-48 hours after treatment because of the change caused to your vertebrae.
As long as the pain is not severe, rest assured that your chiropractic adjustment will not cause any serious damage.
2. Previously under-stimulated muscles are now stimulated
When the vertebrae are improperly aligned, they affect which muscles are active — and which are not. Following chiropractic treatment, the realignment of the vertebrae also impacts which muscles are stimulated during movement.
When your spine's position is correct, you use the appropriate muscles. If this hasn't been the case for a long time, the new alignment will likely bring some changes. Post-chiropractic discomfort is similar to post-workout muscle pain and will subside in 24-48 hours.
3. The nerves are adjusting to the new position
Aside from the muscles surrounding the vertebrae, the nerves also need to adjust. While the pressure on the nerves caused by misaligned vertebrae might have caused pain before the treatment and this is now relieved, the nerves still have to get used to the new space. This is why post-adjustment symptoms, such as dizziness and headache may occur. With nerves now being able to flow freely without any interference, your brain develops a sort of “sensory overload” that is similar to a road opening up after a traffic jam. If these symptoms do occur, they should be mild and not last long.
In some cases, as mentioned above, you might feel worse before you feel better. But only for a short period of time. Just like wearing braces might sometimes be painful because the teeth are adjusting to their new and correct position, so are your vertebrae. Healing is a process and does not always occur overnight. So, in the long run, chiropractic care will relieve your pain, even though you might experience discomfort in the initial stages of the treatment.