According to the General Chiropractic Council (GCC), chiropractic is "a health profession concerned with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, and the effects of these disorders on the function of the nervous system and general health".
Chiropractors (practitioners of chiropractic) use their hands to treat disorders of the bones, muscles and joints. Treatments that involve using the hands in this way are called "manual therapies".
Chiropractors use a range of techniques, with an emphasis on manipulation of the spine. They may also offer advice on diet, exercise and lifestyle, and rehabilitation programmes that involve exercises to do in your own time. Some chiropractors may also offer other alternative treatments, such as acupuncture.
Learn more about how chiropractic is performed.
Chiropractic is part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), meaning that it is different from treatments that are part of conventional western medicine.
Some uses of chiropractic treatments are based on ideas and an "evidence base" not recognised by the majority of independent scientists.
Many chiropractors only treat conditions related to the spine, such as lower back or neck pain.
Some chiropractors, however, claim to treat a wider range of conditions, including asthma, infant colic, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and many others.
The GCC says that the care provided by chiropractors should be "informed by the best available evidence, the preferences of the patient and the expertise of practitioners".
See conditions commonly treated by chiropractors for more information.
Chiropractic and the NHS
Use of chiropractic in the NHS is limited. Your GP or practice nurse can tell you more about the availability of NHS chiropractic in your area.
Currently, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends manual therapy that might include spinal manipulation (as practised by chiropractors) as a treatment option for persistent lower back pain.
Most people who use a chiropractor pay for private treatment. The cost of chiropractic varies and depends on the length of a particular chiropractic session. On average, a session will cost around £30-45.
Read more about seeing a chiropractor on the NHS.
Does it work?
Chiropractic is a healthcare profession and not a single treatment. Evidence about chiropractic generally refers to one or more of the treatments that chiropractors offer.
There is good evidence that manual therapy which may include spinal manipulation – as practised by chiropractors – can be an effective treatment for persistent lower back pain. Conventional treatments for persistent lower back pain include painkillers, exercise and physiotherapy.
There is some, mostly poor-quality, evidence that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for some other musculoskeletal conditions involving the bones, joints and soft tissue. The evidence on manual therapy, including spinal manipulation, is not strong enough in these cases to form the basis of a recommendation to use the treatment.
There is no evidence that treatments offered by chiropractors are effective for other conditions.
There is also no scientific evidence to support the idea that most illness is caused by misalignment of the spine.
For more information, read our page on evidence for chiropractic's effectiveness.
History of chiropractic
Chiropractic was founded as a health profession in the US in 1895 by a Canadian called Daniel David Palmer, who had no conventional medical training.
Palmer argued that most human disease is caused by misalignments of the spine that apply pressure on surrounding nerves. He called these misalignments "subluxations" (a term also used in conventional medicine, where it has a different meaning) and believed that they blocked the flow of a natural energy, or "life force", through the body. Correcting these subluxations, he argued, could restore the proper flow of energy, and so restore health. Thus, he saw chiropractic spinal manipulation as a treatment for 95% of all health conditions.
Since its early days, chiropractic has fought for acceptance as a legitimate health profession. In the early 20th century, Palmer came close to declaring chiropractic a religion, at least partly because of difficulties in obtaining legal rights to practise in the US.
More recently, elements within the profession have sought to place chiropractic on a more scientific footing through research to establish an evidence base for its principles and practice.
Today, Palmer's ideas do not always form the basis on which chiropractors practise, but this varies widely between individual chiropractors. The GCC says the idea that subluxations are responsible for illness "is not supported by any clinical research evidence" and that this idea should be taught as a historical concept and not a current theoretical model.
Chiropractors, says the GCC, are "concerned with the framework of the muscles and bones that support the body (the musculoskeletal system)" and with treating health conditions by helping the musculoskeletal system to work properly.
Nonetheless, some UK chiropractors continue to claim that they can improve a range of health conditions by correcting subluxations.
All about complementary and alternative medicine, including how to choose a practitioner
Page last reviewed: 20/08/2014
Next review due: 20/08/2016