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How Do Chiropractic Adjustments Help My Pet?

Sam, a 12-year-old miniature Dashchund, was presented for chiropractic treatment after being diagnosed with intervertebral disc disease in the cervical area. Despite several weeks of medication with an anti-inflammatory drug and a muscle relaxer, he was still experiencing severe episodes of muscle spasm and neck pain.

At the time of his first visit, Sam had visible asymmetry in the right and left shoulders and severe rigidity in the muscles in his neck. There were several areas along his spine where normal flexibility was moderately decreased. After a course of adjustments, Sam was no longer painful and had resumed normal activity.

Cynna, a five year old Welsh Springer Spaniel, became lame on the left front leg after several hours of vigorous exercise. The lameness disappeared with rest, only to recur every time she exercised for a prolonged period. Chiropractic examination revealed the radial head malarticulation, which was corrected. Gait analysis after the adjustment was normal and the lameness has never recurred, even during prolonged periods of heavy exercise.

Chiropractic, an established health care system for humans, offers our animal companions the same benefits of increased flexibility, enhanced quality of life, and improved health status. In addition, chiropractic provides treatment alternatives for a variety of conditions now commonly treated with drugs and surgery. This article discusses chiropractic theory, describes a typical chiropractic session, lists conditions which frequently respond to chiropractic care, outlines behaviors that may indicate that your animal needs an adjustment, and provides information on how to locate a certified animal chiropractor.

Chiropractic medicine deals with the relationship between the spinal column and the nervous system and the crucial role of this relationship to the maintenance of overall health. The canine spine consists of moveable bones called vertebrae. There are seven cervical (neck), thirteen thoracic (upper ad mid back), seven lumbar (loin), three fused sacral, and six to twenty-three coccygeal vertebrae. Beginning with the second cervical vertebra, small cartilaginous discs are present in the intervertebral spaces. These discs provide cushioning between adjacent vertebrae as the animal moves. Each vertebra articulates with the adjacent vertebrae through one or more pairs of facet joints, which play a major role in spinal flexibility. Vertebrae of the spinal column assist in supporting the head and provide attachment points for the muscles responsible for locomotion. The basic movements of the vertebral column are extension (straightening of the spine); flexion (dorsal arching of the spine); lateral flexion (bowing to the right or left side); and rotation.

The vertebrae also protect the spinal cord, which runs through a canal in the center of the vertebrae, and the 36 pairs of spinal nerve roots, which exit the cord in the intervertebral spaces. These spinal nerve roots serve as the connecting structure between the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nerves. Nerve impulses travel from the brain down the spinal cord and out the spinal nerves to all parts of the body. Similarly, nerve impulses from various body components travel to the brain via the peripheral nerves and the spinal cord. The nervous system is responsible for initiating and coordinating movement and for integrating all the physiologic activities of the body. Adapting to temperature changes, digesting a meal, responding to a stressful situation, running, and obeying a command are examples of activities mediated by the nervous system.

There are more than 100 joints in the canine spine between the base of the skull and the tail. Each of these joints has a normal range of motion. (see figure below) Maintenance of this range of motion is essential for balanced biomechanical functioning of the body. When a joint can no longer move through its full range of motion, spinal flexibility and mobility are adversely affected.


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Veterinary Chiropractic Terminology

The American Chiropractic Association Council on Technique defined subluxation as “a motion segment in which alignment, movement integrity, and/or physiological function are altered, although contact between joint surfaces remains intact.” A motion segment is the basic functional unit of the spine and consists of “two adjacent articulating surfaces and the connecting tissues binding them to each other.” The motion segment includes two vertebrae, the intervertebral disc, nerves, arteries, and soft tissue structures (muscles, ligaments, tendons) which participate in movement. This chiropractic definition of subluxation is much more inclusive than the traditional veterinary definition of a subluxation as an incomplete luxation (dislocation). A fixation occurs when a joint has become immobilized in any position that may occur at rest or during normal movement. Adjustments are used to correct fixations and subluxations. An adjustment involves the application of a controlled, rapid thrust of precise direction and depth delivered to a specific contact point.

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Veterinary Chiropractic Philosophy

Chiropractic philosophy concerning the relationship of the spinal column to the spinal cord and nervous system is extremely complex. While a detailed explanation of this material is beyond the scope of this article, a high-level overview is presented below.

Chiropractic philosophy emphasizes that spinal health plays a key role in overall health because all of the body’s systems are interrelated through the nervous system. A free flow of nerve impulses from the brain and spinal cord through the spinal and peripheral nerves to every cell in the body is necessary to achieve the balance and harmony in body processes called homeostasis. Malarticulations in the spinal column can lead to interference with the normal flow of nerve impulses to organs and other body tissues. Although many spinal misalignments are spontaneously corrected through normal spinal movements, some persist, leading to impaired transmission of nerve impulses. Because all tissues and organs in the body are controlled by nerves from the brain and spinal cord, when a malarticulation exists, symptoms can develop in other parts of the body (e.g., changes in digestion or bowel function). The area of the spine in which the malarticulation occurs determines where these symptoms may develop. For example, malarticulations in the upper thoracic spine can be associated with gall bladder malfunction and other digestive upsets. Once the malarticulation is corrected, the symptoms typically subside.

Continuous information regarding the status and function of all parts of the body is received and acted upon by the brain. Through complex nerve reflex arcs, malfunctions of internal organs can lead to spinal malarticulations and the phenomenon of referred pain, in which painful stimuli arising in a visceral structure are perceived as occurring in a more exterior portion of the body. A common example of referred pain is the left shoulder and arm pain felt by some patients with coronary artery disease.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the link between the nervous and immune systems. Psychoneuroimmunology has established a definite relationship between immune competence and central nervous system functions. Some researchers in this area have concluded that the nervous system plays a key role in body defenses. Recent studies have demonstrated relationships between the hypothalamus, the nervous system, and immune response as well as a functional link between the thymus and the central nervous system. These findings are consistent with chiropractic’s neurodystrophic hypothesis which states that neural dysfunction stresses body structures, causing a lowered tissue resistance which can negatively affect the immune response.

The chemical reactions which occur within the cells of the body are possible only within a narrow range of pH, temperature, etc. These conditions plus the availability of metabolic fuel and the removal of metabolic wastes must be tightly regulated for the body to survive. The complex, integrated control system necessary to control the these processes and the interrelated organ systems of the body is provided by the endocrine and nervous systems. The endocrine glands which mediate the stress response also play a significant role in the body’s immunologic processes.

The principle of inate healing is central to chiropractic philosophy. Haldeman defines innate intelligence as “the intrinsic biological ability of a healthy organism to react physiologically to the changing conditions of the external and internal environment.” Innate intelligence controls the body’s homeostatic mechanisms (through the nervous system) and is the source of the body’s ability to heal itself when sick or injured. Chiropractic adjustments are aimed at removing nerve transmission interference which is preventing full expression of the body’s innate healing ability.

A longstanding subluxation or fixation frequently results in additional, compensatory spinal subluxations and fixations as the animal shifts its weight and balance to compensate for the original area of decreased mobility and flexibility. Joints in the limbs may secondarily be affected. Similarly, primary lamenesses and other limb problems may result in altered spinal flexibility. Permanent loss of mobility and other damage may occur if normal articulation and movement are not restored.

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Veterinary Chiropractic Examination and Treatment

Chiropractic examination usually includes a posture and gait analysis. Visual inspection of the animal may reveal asymmetries (between the right and left side) that indicate chiropractic problems. Palpation of the paraspinal muscles often reveals painful muscle spasm or swelling and the presence of hot or cold spots (due to altered circulation). Assessment of vertebral alignment and joint motion may begin at the sacrum (base of the spine) and move toward the skull or begin with the neck and move towards the sacrum. The position of each vertebra is assessed with respect to other vertebrae. The atlas (first cervical vertebra) is also assessed with respect to the occiput or back of the skull. Deviation from normal alignment can occur in a number of ways. Slight, relative shifts toward the animal’s head, tail, topline, ventral midline, right side or left side are all possible. Combinations of these shifts frequently occur. For example, a vertebra may shift laterally (toward the right or left) and posteriorly (toward the topline). The range of motion of the articular facets is determined by moving each of these joints. Fixations will be detected as decreases in expected mobility.

Assessment of deficiencies in alignment and mobility will indicate how the adjustment is to be made (the line of correction). The line of correction is designed to return a subluxated vertebra to normal position and a fixed joint to normal mobility. The depth at which the correction must be made and the specific point of contact are also indicated by the assessment. The adjustment may made with the hand or a small instrument called an activator. Rapid contact by the hand or activator provides the momentum necessary to correct a fixation or subluxation; great strength is not required.

After the spine has been adjusted, the extremities will be assessed in the same manner as the spine, checking for muscle tone, hot/cold spots, and joint mobility. Adjustments will be made as required. Physical therapy, such as ice packs and massage, may be recommended to reduce pain and swelling and to facilitate the healing process. An exercise program may be designed to return the animal to proper condition and minimize the likelihood of further problems.

Several factors determine the number of adjustments that will be required to correct a problem. The age and physical condition of the animal are important; young, healthy animals will generally require fewer adjustments than older animals or those with serious health problems. The length of time the problem has been present is also a factor; longstanding problems frequently require more adjustments to correct than a comparable acute problem. The severity of the problem is also a determinant; if permanent damage has occurred, a return to full mobility may not be possible and multiple adjustments may be necessary to achieve whatever flexibility is possible.

Most animals enjoy being adjusted. Frequently, animals who have been adjusted several times will indicate where they want an adjustment by shifting their bodies under the adjuster’s hands. Some will sigh as a subluxation is corrected. It is common for an animal to become increasingly relaxed as the adjustment progresses; often they are drowsy by the end of the session. Occasionally an animal will be slightly stiff the next day. Gait and posture are usually visibly improved after the first adjustment.

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Chiropractic Applicationsin Veterinary Medicine

A number of commonly occurring conditions, including arthritis and hip dysplasia, respond well to chiropractic care. Many lamenesses also can be treated successfully with chiropractic. Any time there is a loss of flexibility in any part of the skeleton, the remaining body components are subjected to compensatory stress as the animal shifts its balance to compensate. This is evident in the overmuscled fronts and stiff necks usually developed by dogs with longstanding clinical hip dysplasia, arthritis, and rear-end weaknesses. Chiropractic care for these animals improves their flexibility and reduces pain levels and the need for pain medication.

Chiropractic care can offer an alternative to the drugs and surgery now routinely prescribed for intervertebral disc disease (IVD). Acute disc problems are one of the few chiropractic emergencies and owners wishing this type of care are advised to seek help immediately after the problem is diagnosed. Chiropractic care for IVD is aimed at relieving pressure (by the disc) on the spinal cord, ameliorating pain, and restoring normal spinal flexibility. Depending on the severity of the occurrence, multiple visits per week may be required.

Other conditions which may respond to chiropractic care include torticollis (lateral neck deviation), radial nerve paralysis, and Wobbler syndrome. Wobbler syndrome cases respond if the underlying cause is a malarticulation of the cervical vertebrae. Cases due to a stenotic vertebral canal may benefit from chiropractic but it will be palliative only. Cases of radial nerve paralysis which respond to chiropractic are those originating from malarticulations. Chronic gastrointestinal problems frequently respond to chiropractic adjustment as do some lick granulomas. Animals who have suffered any kind of trauma invariably experience decreases in flexibility and mobility. This includes not only animals who have had a major traumatic event (e.g., been hit by a car) but also more minor events like falling on a slick surface or colliding with another dog during play. In all these instances, chiropractic care is needed to restore flexibility and minimize the occurrence of future spinal problems related to the trauma.

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Conclusions About the use of Veterinary Chiropractic 

Chiropractic care can improve our animal companions’ health and quality of life. All dogs, regardless of their age, can benefit from periodic chiropractic checkups. Regularly scheduled chiropractic adjustments can benefit animals with hip dysplasia, arthritis, spondylosis, and other orthopedic problems by maintaining flexibility and stability and by relieving pain. Joints in the spine and limbs of animals typically become less flexible with age, leading to stiffness and discomfort. Regular chiropractic care can help these animals to become more active and omfortable. Puppies also benefit from periodic chiropractic care to correct the fixations and subluxations caused by rowdy play with other animals, the inevitable slips and falls which occur as they develop coordination, and improper leash behavior. Early chiropractic care to maintain proper joint mobility can lessen the likelihood that puppy mishaps will lead to flexibility problems later in life. Anecdotal evidence suggests that puppies who receive regular adjustments are less likely to be diagnosed as dysplastic when compared to littermates who received no adjustments. Dachshunds, Lhasa Apsos, Corgis, and other breeds whose long, unsupported back predisposes them to musculoskeletal problems will benefit from a program of regular chiropractic adjustments. These breeds are at increased risk for IVD; maintenance of spinal flexibility can help decrease the probability that such animals will develop acute disc problems.

Agility and obedience dogs need regular chiropractic care to restore their flexibility and to achieve and maintain peak performance. Performance activities like jumping jumps, attention heeling, and leash corrections place additional stress on the competition dog’s spine and limbs, leading to loss of spinal and limb joint mobility. Most of these dogs will be asymptomatic except for subtle signs. Many behaviors (e.g., hesitation or reluctance to jump, failure to maintain attention while heeling) that are often ascribed to unwillingness to work can be caused by chiropractic problems. Conformation dogs who consistently refuse to stand square (stack) frequently have spinal flexibility problems which cause the stack position to be uncomfortable. Gait problems like crabbing, lack of rear drive, and inadequate reach can also be symptomatic of chiropractic problems.

Training in animal chiropractic is provided by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) to licensed veterinarians and chiropractors. The AVCA maintains a list of veterinarians and chiropractors who have passed their certification requirements. Those wishing to locate a practitioner in their area can contact the AVCA, P. O. Box 249, Port Byron, Illinois 61275 (phone 309-523-3995).

The American Veterinary Medical Association is currently reviewing its Guidelines on Alternate Therapies (including chiropractic). The current Guidelines state that a licensed veterinarian must diagnose, prescribe, and monitor chiropractic treatment of animals.

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Please note: The information provided here is intended to supplement the recommendations of your veterinarian. Do not disregard veterinary advice or delay treatment based on information on this site. Nothing can replace a complete history and physical examination performed by your veterinarian. -Dr. Jeff