While chiropractic treatment for joint and muscle problems is still barely recognized by mainstream medicine, despite a veritable mountain of evidence that it is effective, medical providers soundly reject the idea that manipulation might help problems outside the spine. Of course, the idea of spinal manipulation improving the health of the whole body, including the internal organs, is nothing new to the chiropractic or osteopathic professions. We have been seeing patients recover from all sorts of conditions when the spine is corrected — it has become second nature to us.

The spine is an integral, key structure in the body. In fact, it is one of the first recognizable structures in the developing embryo, and the nerves that branch out from it help the embryo develop properly. This core structure also controls and coordinates all the bodily functions in the adult, including digestion, breathing, heart rate, even hormone balance.

Once again the two health care styles — medical and wellness — take such different views because of the differences in the way we look at health and disease. To a medical provider, there is no way working on a spine would have any effect on a disease in, say, the stomach. If you have an ulcer, you have an ulcer, and the condition will likely not resolve until the ulcer is treated.

But from a wellness viewpoint, it makes perfect sense that correcting problems in one part of the body will help improve the health in other parts. This is especially true of the spine, since spinal nerves go to every major organ in the body. If there is an alignment problem in the area of the spine that supplies nerve flow to the stomach, the nerves can become irritated, and will not send proper messages to the organ. This is sometimes called “spillover.” If the stomach is not getting its proper nerve supply, it could interfere with its function, lower its resistance, and make it more susceptible to problems such as ulcers. If a chiropractor realigns the spine, it stands to reason that the nerve flow would be normalized. Better nerve flow to the stomach could then improve its healing capacity, helping it to recover from disease.

Chiropractors often make the point that treatments are not specific for any diseases, but many conditions resolve when the spine is treated.

A frequent example of this type of healing can be seen with migraine patients. My patients are typically told by their medical providers that there is no way chiropractic care can help migraines, that this type of headache occurs entirely within the skull, and the spine is not involved. This, however, is an oversimplified view of the condition. Migraines are due to overexpansion of the blood vessels in the brain, but those blood vessels have a nerve supply that controls their size, some of which comes from the neck. Correcting problems in the joints and muscles of the neck can normalize nerve flow to the blood vessels, which explains the results.

So what does the research say about chiropractic’s effects on internal problems? A study was published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics in which surveys were given to more than 5,600 patients who had completed a course of chiropractic care. The patients were asked if they noticed improvement in their health outside of the spine. The study showed that up to 27 percent of the patients indicated that they had noticed such improvement, in areas such as easier breathing, better circulation and improved digestion.

Another interesting study, also published in the JMPT, was done on infantile colic. Babies with colic were either given the standard medication or a course of chiropractic treatment. The parents were asked to monitor the hours of crying over the course of the study. Parents noted more improvement — less crying — in the group of infants that went to the chiropractor, than in those who got the drugs. In fact, the children that saw chiropractors saw over twice as much improvement over those who got the drug.

I was taught that side effects are common in medicine. In fact, Eli Lilly, who founded Lilly Drug Company, is known for saying, “There is no such thing as a drug without a side effect.” An article in the Journal of the American Medical Assoc iation estimates that side effects of prescription drugs are the fifth leading cause of death in the United States.

But with wellness treatment, it is normal for a different type of “side effect” to appear — namely, that health problems that the patient was not even being treated for will improve. Treat someone for back pain, and their heartburn improves? Or treat neck pain, and headaches resolve? Now those are the types of side effects I can handle.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.