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How new research is advancing the field of chiropractic medicine

by Jun 7, 2023

Home » NUHS Blog » How new research is advancing the field of chiropractic medicine

In 2017, the American College of Physicians updated its guidelines for low back pain citing research that found spinal manipulative therapy was associated with significant benefits in both pain and function with minimal side effects.  

Those guiding principles are just one example of how research has advanced the field of chiropractic medicine.  

The guidelines are really a very important part of the story now. The results of clinical trials over the last 30 years have led to the establishment of these practice guidelines, which recommend spinal manipulation as a first line of care for low back and neck pain. 

The National Institutes of Health has since begun to prioritize research into chiropractic medicine. NUHS, for example, received about $1.5 million through the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) for research specifically to study mechanism of action of spinal manipulation therapy. Others have received funding, as well. 

This research has helped show the powerful healing benefits of chiropractic medicine. Here are just a few of the latest studies and ongoing research efforts supporting chiropractic medicine. 

One of the largest studies of its kind shows chiropractic care combined with common medical care provides greater pain relief than medical care alone

In 2018, researchers completed one of the largest comparative effectiveness trials between usual medical care and chiropractic care ever conducted.  

The study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) featured 750 active-duty members of the military. According to the study, chiropractic care is already integrated into more than half of military treatment facilities across the United States. 

The results showed that chiropractic care combined with typical medical care for low back pain provides better pain relief and a greater reduction in disability than medical care alone. The trial also demonstrated a low risk of harm, while leading to high patient satisfaction and perceived improvement in active-duty military personnel. 

Early research shows changes in brain neural networks may explain pain reducing effects of spinal manipulation

While spinal manipulation has been shown to improve chronic lower back pain, the central mechanism behind it is not yet fully understood.  

Research conducted by NUHS alum Matthew Kowalski, DC, Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, in collaboration with Osher Research Affiliate Dr. Vitaly Napdow, is beginning to shed light on how changes in brain neural networks may explain the pain reducing effects of chiropractic spinal manipulation. 

The 2021 study published in the Journal of Pain shows that manual therapy both reduces clinical low back pain and modulates brain activity important for the processing of pain.  

“This modulation was shown by increased functional brain connectivity between the salience network and brain regions involved in cognitive, affective, and sensorimotor processing of pain,” the study stated. 

Research supports that chiropractic treatments may reduce the frequency of migraine headaches

Outside of relief for low back pain, research in the last few years continues to show that chiropractic medicine may reduce the frequency of migraine headaches, too. 

A 2019 systematic review evaluated several small studies that suggested spinal manipulation may be an effective treatment for reducing migraine pain and disability. 

Published in 2019 in the Journal of Headache and Face Pain, the review found that spinal manipulation may be an effective therapeutic technique to reduce migraine days, including the level of pain and intensity.  

Studies show that chiropractic patients are significantly less likely to use opioids 

Since the onset of the opioid epidemic, major leadership organizations identified chiropractic medicine and other alternative medicine techniques as a possible solution. Research continues to support that decision. 

In 2019, researchers examined if initial provider treatment is associated with early and long-term opioid use. The researchers used a national sample of patients with new-onset low back pain and claims made from patient visits, pharmacy claims and procedures. 

The study published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) Open found that patients who saw a chiropractor as their initial provider for low back pain had 90% decreased odds of both early and long-term opioid use. According to the study, incentivizing use of conservative therapists may be a strategy to reduce risks of early and long-term opioid use.  

First chiropractic research fellowship at Harvard’s Osher Center will add to ongoing research

More chiropractic research is on the horizon along with new potential opportunities for students interested in research.  

In 2021, Matthew Kowalski, DC, ‘90, researcher and Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School helped establish the first chiropractic research fellowship at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In the future, Dr. Kowalski plans to develop a research group out of Harvard and other chiropractic universities. 

Stay up to date with the latest chiropractic research with Chiropractic Science podcast

If you want to hear more about the latest research in chiropractic medicine, try this popular podcast hosted by NUHS alum Dean Smith, DC, PhD, ‘97, Clinical Professor at Miami University at Ohio. Dr. Smith interviews many of today’s high impact researchers in the field. The interviews include a summary of the researchers’ work, their story of how they became involved in research related to the field of chiropractic and their journey to becoming successful researchers.  

I would strongly recommend these podcasts to anyone considering a career in research related to chiropractic medicine. 

Research has the power to shape the chiropractic profession for many years to come. In addition to finding solutions to ongoing problems like the opioid epidemic, research is also allowing for the integration of chiropractic medicine into more health care centers and hospitals. 

If you’re interested in getting involved in research, several avenues of training exist, and individuals with advanced research degrees (e.g., PhD) currently hold faculty positions throughout the world in traditional, research-intensive universities as well as complimentary and integrative health institutions. 

Chiropractic researchers are working in many fields, including public health, clinical trials, and mechanisms of action.

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About the Author

Dr. Gregory Cramer

Dr. Gregory Cramer

Gregory D. Cramer, DC, Ph.D., is the Dean of Research at National University of Health Sciences. He graduated from National in 1979. After receiving his Ph.D., he began teaching anatomy and conducting research at the University. Dr. Cramer has worked on over 25 externally funded, and over 10 NIH-funded projects. In 2005, he was honored by the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) with its Researcher of the Year Award. He has published over 200 abstracts, papers, and book chapters, and is co-author of Basic and Clinical Anatomy of the Spine, Spinal Cord, and ANS.

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