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Courtesy of Tim Erickson

Dr. Tim Erickson adjusted his son Emmett less than five minutes after he was born.

Chiropractors crack necks, backs and ankles – increasingly among children

by Kristin Callahan
Mar 5, 2013


Courtesy of Tim Erickson

Emmett is adjusted approximately three times a week.


National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine


National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Kristin Callahan/MEDILL

Dr. Tim Erickson preforms a full adjustment on his son.

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Why Erickson became a chiropractor

“Most chiropractors say ‘chiropractic found us,’ not the other way around.”

Dr. Tim Erickson did not grow up with chiropractic. In fact, he knew little about it until he was a sophomore in high school and hurt his back playing football. The injury required him to see medical doctors as well as physical therapists.

The physicians gave him an assortment of drugs to take, including several pain relievers. In addition, Erickson was regularly seeing a physical therapist for traction and stretching treatments. According to Erickson, none of it worked. The sharp pain shooting down his back and into his leg was still there, causing him to walk with a limp and have difficulty running.

This proved to be a problem when Erickson started playing rugby in college. The pain increased to the point he thought it might make it impossible for him to walk. Disenchanted with the medical world, Erickson began exploring alternative options. However, when a friend suggested chiropractic, he was hesitant due to his lack of knowledge about the field.

“I didn’t know enough about it, but it beat being in tears, so I went.”

After an initial examination, the chiropractor took x-rays, something no one had done thus far. They determined Erickson had two compression fractures and spondylolisthesis; which is a condition where one of the bones of the vertebrae slips out of place onto the vertebra below it.

After his first adjustment, Erickson said he felt immediate relief for the first time in six years. The shooting pain and limp were almost completely gone.

“From that point on, I said I need to change kids’ lives. I just need to do this.”

Erickson hasn’t taken any medication in 15 years. He said if he had been seeing a chiropractor as a child, he wouldn’t have had the troubles he did.

American medical organizations preferred not to comment

American medical organizations are more reluctant than their Canadian counterparts to discuss chiropractic.

In 1976, a chiropractor filed a lawsuit against the American Medical Association claiming it had participated in an illegal conspiracy to destroy chiropractic. The suit also named many of the nation’s other most prominent medical groups as codefendants, such as the American Hospital Association, the American College of Surgeons, the American College of Physicians and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals.

After 11 years of legal action, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Getzendanner ruled that the AMA and its officials were guilty, as charged, of attempting to eliminate the profession. The judge found the AMA had participated in a “lengthy, systematic, successful and unlawful boycott” designed to restrict cooperation between MDs and chiropractors in order to eliminate the profession as a competitor in the U.S. health care system.

Various mainstream American medical associations contacted for this article, including the AMA, declined to discuss chiropractic.
Walk into a chiropractor’s office and you will see necks, backs and ankles being cracked – and, increasingly, some of them will belong to children.

With the demand for complementary and alternative treatment increasing, more people are considering the use of chiropractic care for children and newborns.

In fact, it is the most common type of complementary and alternative care for children, according to a study done by the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association in 2010. The study showed an estimated 86 million pediatric visits were made to chiropractors throughout the United States, Canada and Europe in 2007, the most recent data available.

“My most rewarding visits are with kids,” said Dr. Sean Curry, East Bank Chiropractic. “Because they don’t have a lot of scar tissue build up, they respond to care the quickest and the fastest.”

Children are brought to chiropractors for numerous reasons, one of the most prevalent being ear infections. Others include: cold, flu, asthma, colic, sleep disorders, reflux, ADHD and autism.

“These kids have gone through the medical protocol and have plateaued,” said Dr. Jeanne Ohm, CEO of the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association. “They are not functioning at a level the parents would like -- that’s when they go see a chiropractor.”

In the United States, chiropractors have become the third largest group of health care professionals who have primary contact with patients, according to a study by the Canadian Paediatric Society. Physicians are the first, followed by dentists.

In 2012, there were 70,000 chiropractors and 778,000 physicians in the United States. Every year there are more than 4,000 chiropractic graduates from 30 educational institutions, and due to increasing enrollment, the number of American chiropractors is expected to rise to 145,000 by 2015.

Dr. Tim Erickson, owner of Symmetry Chiropractic & Acupuncture, said as the number of pediatric chiropractors increases, the number of parents wanting their child to see one does, too.

He said some parents “get it;” they understand how much better their lifestyle is and want the same for their kids. This is known as the “wellness factor,” and is pursued for health enhancement and disease prevention.

Chiropractic is typically associated with intense movements and audible sounds confirming joints have moved. After manipulations like these, one might experience minor complications such as mild pain or discomfort, chiropractors say.

Some think the amount of force placed on adults is the same amount placed on children and are concerned for how safe it is for that small a body.

While the technique is the same, the approach is different. With the child, the amount of pressure used is sometimes not more than a finger touch.

“It’s a lot less forceful,” Curry said. “You don’t have to deliver a lot of force into the spine to get it to react.”

Curry said he gently works with the vertebra to stimulate neurological response and change. This, according to Erickson, requires no more than two ounces of pressure.

“Your fingers have to feel a little bit more,” he said. “I’m not looking at what I need to adjust, I’m visualizing in my mind by what my fingers are telling me.”

Throughout the evolution of chiropractic, different philosophies and practices have emerged. There is a continuing debate both within and outside the chiropractic profession about whether chiropractic should be considered a nonsurgical musculoskeletal discipline or a broadly based alternative to conventional medicine, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society.

Chiropractors agree, though, that their primary purpose is the restoration and preservation of health.

“It’s very important to know that chiropractic is not a treatment of any condition,” Ohm said. “We find areas in the spine that are not aligned, causing pressure to the nervous system and affecting normal body functions.”

Chiropractic services once were limited to adults. When Ohm started practicing 30 years ago, she said it was difficult enough to get adults to come in because they did not understand what chiropractors did. Patients were usually 25 years and older. Now, some are less than 25 minutes old.

Some think the safety and benefit of pediatric chiropractic is so great they want to start adjustments for kids as young as possible.

How about a couple of minutes old?

Erickson is among the chiropractors who go to hospitals to perform the immediate manipulation of newborns, including his son, who he adjusted no more than five minutes after he was born.

Erickson said the birthing process is traumatic. Moving through the birth canal and doctor’s grabbing onto the baby’s head can be stressful. Erickson sees newborns between 12 to 24 hours after birth and is looking at one thing: the spine. He is checking to see if it was thrown out of alignment in the process. If so, the spine will not function as best it can, he said.

This is the first “spinal milestone,” according to Ohm. The others include when babies start to lift their heads, sit, crawl and walk.

While Ohm said these are “ideal” times to have a baby checked, chiropractic on children has critics.

Sam Homola, a retired chiropractor, said he does not recommend chiropractic care for children and never recommends it for newborns.

“I personally cannot think of anything more horrendous or unnecessary than manipulating the cartilaginous cervical spine of a newborn -- or any young child, for that matter,” he said.

Homola, a long-time critic of his former profession, said chiropractic treatment is based on an implausible theory that nerve interference in a vertebral segment is a cause of a broad scope of ailments, requiring manipulation of the spine. Homola believes there is no evidence to support this.

“I don’t know of any condition affecting children that could be treated better by a chiropractor than by a pediatrician,” Homola said.

To become a licensed chiropractor, all states require the completion of a doctor of chiropractic degree from a council on chiropractic education-accredited college, according to the National Institutes of Health. With a general license, chiropractors can practice on patients from age zero to 100. Pediatric chiropractic is a specialty, though, and some get further certification for specific techniques and approaches.

Still, some think the chiropractic treatment of children entails more risk than benefit.

Some physicians question whether chiropractic is effective in treating the variety of conditions for which it is used.

Although families may use chiropractic for their children, many will not disclose this information to their physician. In a study conducted in a Montreal, Quebec pediatric outpatient department, fewer than 50 percent of parents told their doctor about using alternative therapies such as chiropractic, and similar results have been described in other pediatric populations.

The reluctance may be due, in part, to the parents’ expectation of a negative reaction from the doctor.

That’s why Curry said he tries to educate people on what chiropractors do and don’t do.

“Chiropractics is not any more dangerous than if a child becomes involved in a sport,” he said. “It would take a lot of force to do damage. A human hand is not able to do that.”