Most of us have been going to the doctor or dentist since we were young. As a result, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen when we walk through the door of a physician’s or dentist’s office.
But many people don’t go to a chiropractor until they develop back pain or experience an injury later in life. Your first visit to a chiropractor can be nerve-wracking, simply because you don’t know what to expect.
To help you feel prepared and comfortable from the moment you step foot in your chiropractor’s office, we put together this guide detailing everything you need to know about your first chiropractic visit.
Of course, not every chiropractor or physical therapist will necessarily do everything the same as the next. But in general, you’ll start your chiropractic experience by going through a standard intake process.
This is more or less the same as the intake process at any other medical appointment. You’ll be given a questionnaire to fill out, which will ask questions about your health history. Your chiropractor will likely want to know about other treatments you are undergoing and any illnesses or conditions that might be affecting your well-being.
Even though chiropractors deal mostly with the spine, it’s important that your chiropractor has a good sense of your overall health. If you think it might be helpful, bring a list with the names of the medications you currently take and any conditions you’ve been diagnosed with.
During intake, you’ll explain the symptoms that brought you to the chiropractor’s office. You might be asked to indicate on a diagram of the human body where you’re experiencing pain or discomfort. You’ll be prompted to describe the nature of your symptoms (is it a sudden searing pain or a constant dull ache?), when you first noticed the problem, and what activities or circumstances cause the pain to worsen.
The intake forms are typically completed at the beginning of your first visit to the office. However, some practitioners may call you on the phone for an initial consultation before you come to the clinic in person. Others may ask you to submit an overview of your medical history online before you arrive for your appointment.
All of this preliminary information is designed to help the chiropractor understand what’s going on in your body and begin to isolate the underlying cause of your pain.
After the intake form, you’ll undergo a physical exam. This will often start with a generalized exam that’s more or less the same as visiting a general practitioner. The chiropractor, physical rehabilitation therapist, or assistant will take your blood pressure, test your reflexes, listen to your respiration, and measure your pulse.
Following these basic assessments, the exam will move on to your specific chiropractic and orthopedic concerns. This specialized portion of the exam might include range of motion tests, tests of muscular strength, and posture analysis. If the chiropractor believes it is warranted based on your symptoms, this initial exam may include an X-ray of your back or neck.
All of these tests are very common during an initial visit to a chiropractor. In rarer cases, the chiropractor may recommend an MRI scan or other laboratory tests to identify issues that will be relevant to your chiropractic treatment. These tests may happen on-site at the chiropractic clinic, or the chiropractor may refer you to another facility.
The information gathered during this stage will help your chiropractor come up with a personalized treatment plan.
The goal of any chiropractor or physical therapist is to provide relief from pain and discomfort quickly and responsibly. This means creating a treatment plan that requires the minimum number of visits and using techniques that are as minimally invasive as possible while still being effective.
The techniques for treating a chiropractic concern vary widely based on the circumstances and health goals of each individual patient. For example, someone who is seeking chiropractic treatment for persistent migraines might have the goal of sleeping through the night without waking up from pain.
Another patient may have the goal of strengthening their back muscles to avoid another injury like the one that brought them into the chiropractor’s office in the first place. Still another patient may consider their treatment successful once they are able to regain their full range of motion and return to hiking, swimming, rock climbing, or another physical activity that they enjoy.
Because creating a treatment plan is a very personalized process, it’s important that you have a chiropractor that makes you feel at ease. This is key as you work with your chiropractor to discuss your health goals and your progress throughout the course of treatment.
There are a number of methods and techniques that a chiropractor might include in your treatment plan. Here are some of the most common.
This is the form of treatment most frequently provided by chiropractors. According to Spine-health, there are more than 100 different types of adjustment techniques that your chiropractor may use.
These techniques fall into two broad categories. The first one is spinal manipulation, also known as a high-velocity, low-amplitude (HVLA) thrust. This is what most people think of as a chiropractic adjustment: The chiropractor will have the patient position their body in a particular way, and then apply sudden force to a joint or vertebra. Adjustments often result in an audible “pop” as tension is released on the joint.
The other category is spinal mobilization, sometimes known as a low-force chiropractic technique. For some patients, the HVLA treatment method may exacerbate the patient’s injury or underlying condition. If spinal manipulation is painful or ineffective, the chiropractor may opt for this gentler method. Spinal mobilization relies on slow movement and low amounts of pressure to restore or enhance the mobility of joints.
Electrotherapy is the process of applying gentle electrical stimulation to specific areas of the body. This treatment has been shown to improve circulation, repair damaged tissue, and even promote bone growth.
A chiropractor may recommend electrotherapy if standard chiropractic adjustments are not proving effective in reducing the patient’s pain. In addition to chronic back pain, it is sometimes used to treat fibromyalgia, diabetic nerve pain, and migraine headaches.
Massage therapy can be an ideal form of treatment for patients who are experiencing chronic muscle tension and back pain. This is known as one of the safest forms of therapy, as it carries very little risk even for patients who are not able to undergo other types of chiropractic treatment.
Studies indicate that massage therapy is effective in improving blood circulation and leading to increased levels of endorphins. This type of treatment is utilized to relax tense muscles, improving range of motion and reducing the effects of insomnia.
Daniel C. Cherkin, Ph.D., is the senior scientific investigator with the Center for Health Studies at Group Health Cooperative in Seattle. Cherkin has explained that massage therapy “does help a significant chunk of people who have not benefited from other treatments.”
For many types of injuries, the controlled application of heat or cold can be useful in managing pain and promoting rapid recovery.
Immediately after an injury occurs, a chiropractor will likely recommend using ice to mitigate swelling at the site of the injury. “Cold treatment can speed recovery,” notes Dr. Nayan Patel, a spine specialist at the Texas Back Institute. “For example, ice can cause a restriction of blood flow to an injury that can prevent swelling and potentially inflammation.”
For older injuries or chronic pain, a chiropractor might first numb the affected area with an ice pack, and then apply heat in the form of a heat wrap, hot water bottle, or heating pad. This alternating application of cold and heat can be used to dilate blood vessels, increase circulation, and decrease healing time.
While ice has been used for generations as an anti-inflammatory treatment, a new method called Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) takes cold therapy to the next level. In a WBC treatment, patients are exposed to temperatures as low as -256 degrees Fahrenheit for between one and three minutes. Preliminary research indicates that WBC can be effective in treating autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, including those that cause chronic back pain.
Treatment plans vary widely. Depending on your condition or your injury, you might need to see a chiropractor only a few times a year, or you may need to come in several times a week until you see improvement. Some patients may need to come in for a simple adjustment whenever their symptoms reappear with no set time schedule for follow-ups.
For patients with a recent injury, a chiropractor or physical therapist will often recommend coming in two or three times a week. These frequent visits might continue for a month or more. Over time, as the injury heals, the chiropractor might recommend gradually tapering off the number of visits down to once each week or once every other week until the patient can be released from chiropractic care.
One of the most important things that a chiropractor can do is provide you with suggestions on how to improve your health and speed your recovery while you’re away from the clinic. A good chiropractor will teach you simple stretches and exercises that can greatly improve your strength and range of motion after an injury. In some cases, a chiropractor will also recommend nutritional or lifestyle changes that can help bolster your chiropractic health.
Although it can be easy to ignore your chiropractor’s advice, this “homework” between office visits is key to managing pain and facilitating a speedy, complication-free recovery.
Not all chiropractors will do things the same way. In fact, there are a wide variety of philosophies and areas of expertise within chiropractic care. Even if you’ve had chiropractic treatments or physical therapy before, it’s always a good idea to ask plenty of questions when you first start seeing a new practitioner.
Don’t hesitate to clarify any concerns about your condition or your treatment plan. A good chiropractor will be happy to answer any questions you might have. The better you understand your treatment, the more capable you’ll be as an advocate of your own health.
Unfortunately, chiropractic treatment isn’t always a totally painless process. In some cases, chiropractic adjustments and other manual therapies might cause a certain level of discomfort during or after treatment. It’s important to know this going in so that you aren’t unpleasantly surprised during your first appointment.
That being said, your chiropractor will respect your pain tolerance and comfort level. Be sure to keep the lines of communication open with your chiropractor as you begin your treatment. Knowing that you and your chiropractor are on the same page can help you feel more comfortable and relaxed. In turn, staying relaxed during your visit means that any adjustments or treatments are less likely to cause pain.
Although every individual is different, experts recommend the following rule of thumb: Patients with a non-complex musculoskeletal condition should typically feel a 40% to 80% reduction in pain within one to four weeks of starting a chiropractic treatment program.
Be cautious of chiropractors who recommend a long-term treatment plan after just one or two sessions. If you don’t experience a noticeable improvement in your condition within a month of beginning your treatment, it’s worth considering a different form of care or finding a new chiropractor.
If you’re seeking a trusted, experienced chiropractor in Alaska, we’re here to help. Better Health Chiropractic has offices in Wasilla, Anchorage, and Juneau. For more than 20 years, we’ve been helping our patients manage their pain and live life to the fullest. Contact us today to set up your first appointment.
Dr. Brent Wells has been a trusted chiropractor since moving his family from Oregon to Alaska back in 1998 and founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab – B.S. from Univ. of Nevada, Doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College, volunteer for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Foundation, and member of the American Chiropractic Association. As a chiropractor his focus is on family, including his 3 children and wife of 20+ years, his clinics, and ongoing education.