Veterinary Chiropractic

A Vet's view of animal Chiropractic

An Article reproduced by kind permission of the author Alan Slater MRCVS

Chiropractic is a strange word to most of you I'm sure, as it was to me until 18 years ago when I prolapsed (slipped) 3 spinal discs - only partially I am glad to say. My doctor, to my eternal gratitude, sent me to a Chiropractor. I'm not pretending that the recovery was instant, nor will I ever have the same strength in my back. However, most of the time I lead a normal life and it rarely curtails my lifestyle. It opened my eyes to unknown territories, i.e. non-conventional therapies. 

Some years later, I met another Chiropractor who actually treated animals with a similar technique and I was fascinated. The animals she was treating were not, in the main, suffering from the drastic disc problems that I had assumed they would be, but from a new entity (to me anyway) of subluxation. As a vet, I had been taught that the spine, whilst flexible, is a rigid structure incapable of manipulation. However, I had also been taught to observe and I could see a difference between before and after treatment.

One of the first examples I remember was of a horse with a straight back. As you may know a horse's back should dip where the saddle sits (the dip comes first, the saddle doesn't cause it). After a treatment the back instantly reverted to normal whereupon the horse gave a great sigh and relaxed, much to my amazement!  So what is this magic therapy? Well, first of all, it is not magic even though the results may appear so on occasion.

It originated in the United States of America with D.D. Palmer, the Father of Chiropractic, and a colourful and outspoken man. Previously a grocer and magnetic healer he treated one Harvey Lillard restoring his hearing: the very first Chiropractic patient. This was the start of something big, as they say. The story, especially at the start, is very extraordinary and strange but I will only say that despite a lot of persecution with various penalties including criminal proceedings up to and including imprisonment, Chiropractic has gone from strength to strength world-wide. In Britain for example there are several schools. 

One of the most important people in Britain with respect to animal treatment was John McTimoney. He trained in the D.D. Palmer tradition but felt he could develop it further - hence the McTimoney technique. He then decided that this more gentle technique could be used on animals. There are now, in Britain, two Chiropractic schools that train animal Chiropractors, the McTimoney Chiropractic College and the Oxford College of Chiropractic (with the McTimoney-Corley technique).

Recently, Chiropractic has attained legal status meaning only such graduates will be allowed to treat animals as Chiropractors. They are also required, again by law, only to work with the agreement of the veterinary surgeon involved: a double protection for the animal concerned. This may be a two edged sword as conventional anatomy considers that the spine is not adjustable. However, many vets are becoming more pragmatic and open to new ideas. Clients generally already are, although many still believe in what their own vet tells them to the exclusion of everything else.

Most vets would agree that no-one is an expert in everything. This article is not for the person who has fixed ideas. I used to think like that until reality got in the way. This article is for people who are interested in the welfare of their animals whether it fits their view of the world or not. Chiropractic is one of many therapies both conventional and 'alternative' that may help in a certain condition. That is, no one therapy is a cure-all, more's the pity, but I keep looking.

Chiropractic has several points of philosophy: The body has an innate or inbuilt ability to heal itself. This is a core belief in a lot of therapies, not just Chiropractic. Homoeopathy, for example, considers that a vital force is the essential energy of the body. The nervous system controls the whole body, with nerve control of practically every cell of the body. The other major control system, the hormone system, is itself under nervous control. Subluxations can interfere with the ability of the nervous system to function to the best of its ability both in control and in counteracting disease. Chiropractic is therefore a means of reducing these subluxations to improve the functioning of the whole body.

Belief in the theory is not compulsory for the owner, after all the dog doesn't believe in it - at least I don't think it does! So what is a subluxation? Imagine a simple joint between two bones. If the joint is dislocated, then the joint is non-functional, often painful, and usually requires some kind of urgent treatment. With a subluxation, the joint surfaces are almost but not quite in the right position. The joint still functions but not as well and may even be painful. However, more importantly from a Chiropractic point of view, there may be an impingement on nerve pathways in the area. This can best be visualised in the spine.

Between each pair of vertebrae run a pair of spinal nerves through a fairly small 'gap' in the muscles, ligaments, tendons and other soft tissue in the area. These nerve pathways are carrying information to the brain and commands from the brain to the complete body. These joint movements are very small and either may not be discernible on an X-ray; or may be considered to be within normal limits. However, the Chiropractor is trained to palpate for these differences. If the vertebrae themselves move causing a subluxation then the nerve may be impinged and therefore not be able to function so well. This is often known colloquially as a 'trapped nerve' and anyone who has suffered this way will know that it can also be very painful, although not always. Often a horse's back is affected by the rider so I like to do both at the same session.

Please note, I am not talking about disc damage. This can in some cases be treated by Chiropractic, if there is not a total prolapse. The centre of an intervertebral disc is softer than the hard fibrous body. If this pulpy nucleus is forced through this body then the disc may bulge at the edge. Such a bulge may press against the spinal nerves or even the spinal cord. If the nuclear material does however protrude outside the disc then Chiropractic probably won't help. Disc lesions tend to occur more commonly, although not exclusively, in long backed dogs such as Dachshunds.

So who gets these subluxations and why? The short answer is everybody because they are alive but this, whilst true, is not very helpful. My own back problems occurred as I laid the table, i.e. almost any incorrect movement especially with twisting or bending. Just think how many times a day we do silly things. Each of these times could and can cause one or more subluxations, but not necessarily any obvious signs at the time. Some have been there for a long time, possibly from birth. Once there, they can manifest themselves in a number of ways. The most obvious include lameness, change in gait, unwillingness to do a certain action e.g. go upstairs or jump into the car. Other problems may affect other systems of the body, which can be more difficult to relate to subluxations. It is also possible for the body to resolve most of these subluxations but not all.That is the problem!

What is a Chiropractor going to do about it? The McTimoney Chiropractic treatment is a relatively gentle technique. This is because it is a 'high velocity, low altitude' action, i.e. although the hand(s) move fast, there is very little 'blow'. It works because the action is faster than the muscle's ability to react so no effort is required to overcome the muscle's unwillingness to move. Also the action is directly over the joint being adjusted so there is little dissipation of energy into other tissues. Almost every joint in the body is treated in the same way, although various techniques are used depending on the accessibility of the individual joint. Although usually little or no pain is involved during the treatment, the next day can be a different story.

To give a crude example the spine has natural curves from 'front to back' but not from side to side. If the spine has a curve to one side, then the muscles on the inside of the curve will have shortened and on the outside they will have lengthened. With the subluxations corrected the spine will tend to straighten, how much depending on how long it has been in an incorrect position as well as other factors. The short muscles will 'complain' at being worked harder whilst the long muscles may have some build-up of toxins which are released by the treatment. The former may cause stiffness and soreness and the latter a muzzy head.  Many things cause subluxations.

I feel a lot of trials working may be too much for dogs but they are so willing to please that they do it anyway. Twisting between poles, jumping, etc. also put quite a strain on the back. Similarly with 'man work' the dog may get carried away and can really put a great deal of effort into its work. In my opinion, care should be taken in getting the dog as fit as possible before work. Fitness includes suppleness as well as strength. I also think dogs should be checked regularly to avoid cumulative problems (I would say that wouldn't I!). There may also be grounds for discussing the present standards of equipment and whether they need to be altered to cause less strenuous contortions.

Article reproduced by kind permission - Alan Slater MRCVS