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How to Find a Chiropractor Who Won’t Mess You Up

Get your back cracked in the least-sketchy way possible.

by Cassie Shortsleeve
Dec 2 2016, 8:23pm

We're in pain. Back pain, particularly. It's the leading cause of disability worldwide, one of the most common reasons we miss work, and an all-too-popular cause for doctor's office visits. No one knows this better than chiropractors—the healthcare professionals who specialize in musculoskeletal and nervous system disorders. You might know them as the docs who crack (or manipulate) backs. The bread and butter of their work: Adjusting the spine, moving bones or joints, or creating suction inside herniated discs to relieve neck and back pain. "We treat pain without drugs and without making holes in people. That makes us very popular," says Robert Hayden, a Georgia-based chiropractor and a past president of the Georgia Chiropractic Association. 

In fact, more than 33 million Americans have visited a chiropractor in the past year; two-thirds of whom say doing so alleviated their neck and back woes. But scary headlines—like Playboy model Katie May dying from a stroke that was pinned to a neck manipulation at the chiropractor's office—can lead us to think twice about the practice. After all, while suffering a stroke after spinal manipulation is rare, research shows the risk exists. The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association even acknowledge the link, though they note it's hard to say whether or not it's a cause-and-effect relationship. Hayden argues the other side: that a hands-on, med-free, no-surgery-needed approach makes chiropractic care safer than more invasive options for pain.

Ultimately, no matter where you go or what you do, it's impossible to absolutely guarantee safety. But being an informed patient can steer you toward the right chiropractor and a better appointment. Here's a cheat sheet.

Look for a Particular Set of Skills
Just as you don't go to an ear, nose, and throat doctor for skin problems, you don't want to choose just any old chiropractor, says Scott Bautch, owner and CEO of Wisconsin-based Allied Health Chiropractic Centers. Chiropractors have specialties, called diplomates. For example, if your back is killing you thanks to a desk job, you might consider seeing someone with a diplomate in chiropractic occupational health and applied ergonomics, who specializes in workplace injuries. All chiropractors use different techniques—of which there are more than 150, says Hayden. Know you're interested in something like spinal decompression, which involves stretching the spine? Call the doctor in question to see if he or she specializes in that, he suggests.

Put Google to Work
While it's not a foolproof method of finding out if a doctor of chiropractic (DC) has run into any trouble (since you never know what goes unreported), you can look up the licensure board for chiropractors in every state. For instance, here's New York's. This will tell you if a given doctor of any expertise has had action taken against their license by the board, says Hayden. You should also scour their website for indicators of what they specialize in—that'll give you an idea of what you're in for once you make an appointment. The site can also give you insight into what types of insurance your doctor takes, too—important information in steering your decision.

Narrow the Playing Field
Don't be charmed by fancy credentials alone. "One of the most important aspects of your relationship with any medical provider is how well you communicate with them," says Hayden. Is he booking seven years out? Does he cut you off before you start talking? Those are strong signs to reconsider. Bautch also suggests winnowing your list by asking if they'll do a consultation. (Sometimes, these are free.) If they agree, it's a good sign: You want a doc who makes time to talk. Have basic questions ready: 'Have you ever treated someone with this issue?', 'What are you thinking in terms of treatment?', and 'Here's what I understand about chiropractic treatments. Is any of that wrong?' There's often a mismatch between expectations and reality, Bautch says.

Find a Team Player
"You want someone who thinks so much of their profession that they're willing to support it by being a part of state or national associations," says Hayden. People who are very involved in the advancement of their profession also tend to be up to date on continuing education, he notes. The more in-the-know your doc is, the better your care. You can find members of the American Chiropractic Association here and doctors linked with the International Chiropractors Association here. That's also a sign he's well-connected, which could be key: Hayden says that if a patient isn't at least 50 percent better after a month of treatment, he considers referring them to another doc who can co-manage the symptoms. When a new healthcare provider moves to his town, Hayden tries to meet them, then asks himself, 'Is this someone I feel comfortable sending patients to?' A doctor who has a network of other medical professionals not only proves valuable to you, it's a sign of someone who respects their limits.