[originally published in KCN, October 1997]

Subluxation (Sub•lux•a•tion).  It’s what we chiropractors treat.  We have been trained to detect them and are the most qualified at treating them.  So just what is a subluxation — besides just another $25 word that we doctors came up with?

Well if we examine the Greek roots, a luxation is a “dislocation of a joint” and sub means “less than.”  So what we have is a condition that is “less than a dislocation.”  Well, it would be nice if the definition were that easy; unfortunately it’s not.  A subluxation is much more complex.  So much so, that chiropractors have a hard time agreeing on its exact definition. With over 100 synonyms for the term (ranging from Orthospondylodysarthritics to Spinal boo boo), chiropractors have tweaked the definition many times over the past 102 years.  Chances are, if you ask ten different chiropractors to define a subluxation, you’ll get ten slightly different, but similar, definitions.  A consensus definition developed by the Consortium for Chiropractic Research, defined subluxation as follows:

Subluxation – a motion segment in which alignment, movement integrity, and/or physiologic function are altered, although contact between the joint surfaces remains intact.

Okay, now that the word has been dealt with, what are the effects of a subluxation?  Well, this can best be explained by looking at the subluxation as a “complex” (ie. having more than one part) — chiropractors call it a Vertebral Subluxation Complex.  This is a relatively serious condition composed of 5 separate components, each of which I will describe.

Spinal Kinsesiopathology – Here we go with the big words again!  This is a fancy way of saying the bones of the spine have lost their normal motion and position (ie. they’re stuck).  It restricts your ability to turn and bend.  It sets in motion the other four components.

Neuropathophysiology – A very import component of the complex.  With improper spinal function, delicate spinal nerve tissue can be choked, stretched, or irritated.  The nervous system dysfunction that is created can result in symptoms (eg. numbness, burning, stabbing, aching, pins and needles, etc…) elsewhere in the body.

Myopathology – This component refers to the muscles that directly and indirectly support the spine.  I did a quick count and was surprised to find out that of the some 696 skeletal muscles in the body, nearly 500 support or have an indirect influence on the spine!  Spinal bones that have lost their normal function can cause any one of these muscles to weaken, atrophy, or become tight and go into spasm.  The resulting scar tissue changes muscle tone which further perpetuates the vertebral subluxation complex.

Histopathology – When spinal bones lose their normal function, irritation of the surrounding soft tissues results.  This irritation leads to a rise in temperature from an increase in blood and lymph supplies, ultimately resulting in swelling and inflammation.  Discs can bulge, herniate, tear, or degenerate.  Other soft tissues may suffer permanent damage.

Pathophysiology – With time, the body will attempt to stabilize malfunctioning spinal joints by forming bone spurs and other abnormal bony growths.  This process is also more commonly know as arthritis of the spine (osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease, and degenerative disc disease are other common names).  This “spinal decay,” scar tissue, and long-term nerve dysfunction can cause other systems of the body to malfunction.

subluxation-2So now that you have more of an understanding as to what the Vertebral Subluxation Complex is, you may be wondering what can cause a subluxation.   Well, the causes of subluxations are as varied as there are names for it.  Subluxations can result from any act in which stress is placed on the spine and nervous system.  Mechanical stress such as auto accidents, improper lifting, falls, poor posture, repetitive micro trauma, a difficult birth, and poor sleeping surfaces are common causes of subluxations.  Emotional stress can physically manifest itself in the spine as well (eg. deadlines, financial worries, and traffic jams).  Last, but not least, chemical stress to the body can have an adverse effect on the nervous system (eg. drugs, alcohol, tobacco, medications, environmental pollutants, and poor diet).

A Doctor of Chiropractic is specifically trained to detect, correct, and prevent vertebral subluxations.  Most people first learn that they have vertebral subluxations when they visit their local chiropractor while suffering from a bout of neck or low back pain.  The truth is,  pain is merely a symptom of an underlying problem, and it need not always be present  for a vertebral subluxation to exist.  The best way to determine if vertebral subluxations are affecting your spine and overall health is to get regular spinal checkups from your Doctor of Chiropractic.  Think of it as Chiropractic Dentistry!  For it is much easier to stay healthy through proper maintenance, than it is to continually dig yourself out of pain and sickness.

Do you have a subluxation?


Sources used for this article:
Cramer and Darby. Basic and Clinical Anatomy of the Spine, Spinal Cord, and ANS.  Mosby 1995.
Gatterman. Foundations of Chiropractic Subluxation.   Mosby 1995.
Subluxation and the Chiropractic Lifestyle.  Back Talk Systems, Inc., 1995.
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