Can a Chiropractor Make You a Better Runner?

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When it comes to running or sports-related injuries, sports medicine and orthopedic specialists are usually the go-to practitioners, particularly when an injury is caused by a traumatic event or is acute in nature. But what about chronic pain or discomfort that can be caused by overuse, stress, bad posture, or sitting for long periods, for example? These conditions often manifest themselves in neck and back pain but also can cause alignment issues that can negatively impact running form and gait. In some cases, a chiropractor can be a good alternative or can offer supplemental treatment to sports-medicine doctors’ or orthopedists’ protocols.

Chiropractors are health care professionals who “focus on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system and the effects of these disorders on general health,” according to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA).

Although in the past, chiropractors and their methods were often maligned and considered “quackery,” particularly by some in the mainstream medical field, many of the general population as well as numerous elite athletes have and continue to benefit from their non-invasive, non-medicinal procedures. Sports chiropractic is now a certified specialty.  In the United States, practitioners can earn a Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician (CCSP) designation or the designation of Diplomate both from the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians (DACBSP).

Many professional sports teams as well as large sporting events such as the Olympics employ or retain chiropractors.  All 32 NFL teams employ at least one chiropractor, and according to the Professional Football Chiropractic Society, they provide 30 to 50 treatments per week per team during the regular season.

The Running Motion and Its Potential Injuries

Because running involves a weight-bearing, repetitive motion, the potential for overuse injury is greater than for a traumatic injury. Some overuse injuries can be caused and exacerbated by external factors such as running in the same direction on the same route every day, always running in the same direction around a track, running on angled surfaces such as beaches or roads (which often are domed to encourage water drainage), not replacing training shoes often enough or not wearing the appropriate shoe for your foot type.

Some common overuse injuries in runners that may benefit from chiropractic therapies include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Iliotibial Band Sydrome (ITBS) is a repetitive overuse condition which can be caused by overtraining, improper footwear, changes in running surface, muscle imbalance, structural abnormalities (flat feet, high arches or leg-length discrepancies), and insufficient stretching.
  • Runner’s knee or patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is caused by abnormal stress to the knee joint leading to pain and dysfunction. PFPS is classified into three categories based on its cause: overuse, biomechanical (flat feet or high arches) or muscle dysfunction (muscle tightness or muscle weakness in the quadriceps or hip musculature).
  • Low back pain (LBP) is categorized as either acute (short-term) or chronic (lasting more than three months). Acute LBP is usually mechanical in nature with typical causes like trauma, arthritis and aging. The source of chronic LBP can be difficult to diagnose but, in some, the spine can become overly strained and compressed resulting in disc rupture or outward bulge that places pressure on one of the nerves rooted to the spinal cord.
  • Shin splints, either medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS) also called posterior shin splints, or anterior shin splints, is an overuse injury often triggered by a sudden change in activity level (doing too much too soon) and also associated with flat feet.
  • Plantar fasciitis which is an inflammatory condition of the plantar fascia of the foot often associated with flat feet or high arches and exacerbated by overtraining, improper footwear and unyielding surfaces.

 

Types of Chiropratic Treatment for Running Injuries

According to the ACA, at the initial appointment, a chiropractor begins by taking a physical history, including information about the onset, duration and symptoms of the injury or pain. Then, he or she will perform a basic examination that includes tests to assess your vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.), range of motion, muscle tone, muscle strength, posture and spinal and/or joint stability. Additional imaging or lab test such as x-rays, MRIs, CT or bone scans, and blood or urine analyses may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis.

At the conclusion of the appointment, unless additional tests are required to confirm the diagnosis, the doctor will provide you with the diagnosis, a treatment plan, the anticipated frequency and duration of the treatments and their risks and benefits. He or she may also provide information on home care, lifestyle modification, exercise instruction and nutritional advice.

Although there are more than 200 types of chiropractic techniques, some are more widely used than others. Diversified technique (an eclectic approach to spinal manipulation) and extremity manipulation and adjusting are the two most popular.

Some popular techniques for the treatment of running injuries include:

  • Active release technique (ART), which is a combination of massage and stretching
  • Graston Technique which treats disorders of the skeletal muscles and connective tissue using instruments designed to rub muscles and detect and resolve adhesions
  • Functional dry-needling, which is the insertion of non-medicated thin needles into muscles or connective tissue
  • Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) which uses electric impulses to stimulate muscle contractions to promote recovery

It is important to note that not every chiropractor uses exactly the same techniques and treatment will vary depending on the chiropractor you choose and the techniques and methods he or she uses. Researching local chiropractors and the methods they use is a good first step in determining whether chiropractic care is right for you.

Can I stay injury-free through chiropracty?

Given that many athletes use chiropracty to recover from injury, it begs the question “Will chiropractic maintenance care keep me injury-free?”

Two 2011 studies, one published in January in the journal Spine and the other in April in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggest that chiropractic maintenance care is beneficial for those who suffer from chronic low back pain. The latter study also concluded that the incidence of injury recurrence was lowest in those who had continued chiropractic maintenance care versus those who underwent physical therapy, medical management or no treatment at all.

One might extrapolate from those conclusions that if chiropractic maintenance care is beneficial for low back pain, it also might be beneficial for other types of injuries. Depending on the outcome of your visit to the chiropractor, that may be a topic for a future discussion.

Sources

  1. ACAtoday.org, American Chiropractic Association , Website,
  2. ACBSP.com, American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, Website,
  3. FICS-sport.org, The International Federation of Sports Chiropractic , Website,
  4. Profootballchiros.com, Professional Football Chiropractic Society, Website,
  5. American Council on Exercise, American Council on Exercise Personal Trainer Manual, 5th ed., Publication,
  6. ChiroACCESS.com, Medical Research Supports Chiropractic Maintenance Care, Online Publication, Apr 09, 2011
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