Tuning up the brain

New studies in neuroscience suggest chiropractic care affects much more than back and neck pain. Celeste McGovern investigates an emerging body of evidence that spinal manipulation also improves your brain

Imagine a convention that mixes cutting-edge natural health seminars with a surfer dude’s attitude, a revivalist’s enthusiasm and a good measure of live rock-‘n-roll. That’s the California Jam, which took place in Costa Mesa in January. Billed as “the biggest health, wellness and chiropractic event on the planet”, it’s an annual meeting of thousands of unapologetically alternative practitioners who mill about three floors of exhibitions, sampling detox juices, protein snacks, ‘bulletproof’ coffee and vitamins.

There’s a buzz about urine tests for metabolites; people are talking cellular detoxification and energy-balancing therapies, and they’re trading spinal adjustments on a row of tables. Inside the auditorium, a roster of headliner speakers takes the stage for two days, but one of the biggest ticket draws this year was a relatively unknown figure: neurophysiologist and chiropractor Heidi Haavik, who is pioneering a whole new field of research into what happens to a person’s brain when a chiropractor adjusts their spine.

“There is so much more to chiropractic care than back and neck pain, and headaches,” enthuses Haavik, who studied neuroscience after graduating from the New Zealand College of Chiropractic and is now focusing on research.

Up to now, there’s been a gulf between the available published research and the practice. A handful of studies have shown that chiropractic works only modestly—yet substantially better than drugs—at nipping neck and back pain,1 and may help with migraine,  and even mysteriously lower blood pressure3 which, for 40 years, has been linked to joint dysfunction in the neck.

But the research is hardly enough to support its position as the most popular alternative medical treatment for more than a century, used by 30 million people in the US alone each year.

“Haavik’s research may finally explain scientifically the amazing results chiropractors have in clinical practice,” says Ross McDonald, a practising chiropractor and President of the Scottish Chiropractic Association.

The neuroscience studies explore the underlying mechanism of those results—how the spine and central nervous system (CNS) are interconnected and ‘talk’ to each other, and how dysfunction in the spine can affect health and well-being.

One of Haavik’s studies, published this year in the journal Brain Sciences, looked at the effect of chiropractic adjustments in 28 patients with “subclinical” pain—those with a history of intermittent back or neck ache or stiffness for which they were never treated—but who were in pain the day of the experiment. On examination, all had tender spots and restricted joint movement in their spines….

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