“When you mention chiropractors, people often think one of two things – ‘back’ or ‘quack,’” said Dr. Dale Rollette of the Rollette Chiropractic Center in Hammond.
And, indeed, the good doctor may be correct. Chiropractic care has only been legalized in Louisiana since the mid 1970s, long after many states adopted laws to regulate the practitioners of vertebral realignment long said to ease discomfort in the joints and promote better health. Lingering prejudices against the profession kept many insurance companies from compensating chiropractors for their services for many years, but times have changed.
“The nervous system controls every function of the body, and if there’s an interruption in the messages from the brain to other parts of the body due to misalignment, the patient will be more susceptible to disease or pain,” said Dr. Nancy Dominick-Gravel of Care Chiropractic in Mandeville.
The science behind chiropractic theory and treatment is relatively simple, as Dominick-Gravel described. The entire body is controlled by impulses – or messages – sent from the brain through the spine. If the spine is misaligned and nerve impulses are disrupted, the result is pain or illness. So in theory, adjustments to the joints that enhance nerve signals make the patient healthier in a lot of ways.
Still, many if not most people think of chiropractors as a treatment of last resort – when traditional medicine and painkillers fail – for back pain, neck pain and headaches.
“Those are the most common things we see,” said Dr. Bill Chapel, who practices with his son Dr. Brett Chapel at Slidell Chiropractic Clinic. “Ninety-five percent of our treatments are for musculoskeletal problems. The remainder would be mostly nonsurgical knee and shoulder problems. The majority are classic, recurrent, back or neck disorders.”
But pigeon-holing chiropractors as treating only musculoskeletal issues may be unduly narrow in scope. “People don’t know we adjust the extremities,” Dominick-Gravel said, referring to patients with ankle, knee or wrist problems. But there’s more to it, still. “Chiropractic adjustments stimulate the immune system,” Dominick-Gravel said. “Regular care is going to keep the immune system stronger.” Rollette agreed. “The traditional model is that ‘I’m healthy until I’m sick,’” he said. “That model is wrong. Go a medical doctor and say ‘nothing’s wrong’ and they say goodbye. We have to start with education.”
Chapel said while he does not advertise that chiropractic treats non-musculoskeletal symptoms, he sees improvement in his patients frequently as they continue a routine of chiropractic care in addition to nutrition and exercise. And because most chiropractic exams begin with comprehensive X-rays, chiropractors sometimes discover issues a medical doctor has overlooked. Dominick-Gravel said she recently discovered a cancerous tumor in a patient’s arm that an M.D. had misdiagnosed as a pulled muscle. When she called the M.D. to give him her findings, he wouldn’t even take her call.
“When I look at a patient, I’m looking at their overall health and need for care,” Dominick-Gravel said. “If I see an area that needs to be addressed, I’m going to send them to their M.D. I’m very detail-oriented. I’m always trying to uncover things. I’m there if I know it’s a chiropractic problem, but co-treating is what it’s all about. I’m in it for the total patient.”
“My workups involve X-rays and other exams a general practitioner isn’t going to do,” Chapel said. “We run across things that are not readily seen by the medical establishment.”
Chiropractors can also find themselves helping problems that were properly diagnosed in an M.D.’s office but were non-responsive to traditional care.
“Patients come for back pain,” Chapel said. “And a lot of times other problems they have get better. I hear patients say things like, ‘Since my low back pain cleared up, my stomach problems have gone away, too.’”
“The chiro-miracle happens every once in a while,” Dr. Brett Chapel said. “I’m not going for that, but it’s great when it happens. I’m working on the lower back. The body wants desperately to heal itself.”
Rollette, who shares his practice with his wife, Dr. Denise Rollette, also said chiropractic has benefits beyond pain relief. And with a large portion of their practice devoted to children, the Rollettes see a lot of patients with issues such as chronic ear infections, bed-wetting, asthma, and allergies. They’ve even worked with patients having fertility problems and prostate health issues. “We’ve had some really neat results you’d probably call miracles,” Rollette said.
Dominick-Gravel also said chiropractic has benefits for babies with colic, and patients of all ages with allergies, asthma and various stomach ailments.
Still, Bill Chapel is circumspect about how much credit chiropractors can claim – legally or otherwise – for improvement in non-musculoskeletal conditions. “If chronic pain clears up, yay!” he said. “But can we claim to treat every medical condition? No.”
All four doctors interviewed said education of patients doesn’t just include telling them how and why chiropractic works. Rather, the chiropractic approach to healthcare includes a fuller picture of wellness rather than just treating symptoms. “We try to advance towards wellness without medication,” said Bill Chapel. “Most people want a pill so they can eat the French fries.”
“Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are the worst places to be” for lifestyle health, Rollette said. “We’re as much lifestyle coaches as chiropractors.”
“There are some chiropractors who are passionate about that,” Bill Chapel said. “It’s not my responsibility to instruct everybody about everything. I see thousands of patients a year who get miraculous results here.”
But while chiropractors may see overall health and wellness benefits from their efforts, they do not claim to be a substitute for traditional medical care in all cases. Dominick-Gravel and Chapel said they regularly refer patients to medical doctors and are beginning to get referrals from medical doctors, too – something that wouldn’t have happened at all only a few years ago.
“There will be a few people left over who think chiropractors are witch doctors,” Bill Chapel said. “Young doctors are very receptive” to the benefits of chiropractic.
Chapel and Dominick-Gravel stressed that chiropractic is often safer than traditional medical care, too, in part witnessed by the much lower cost for chiropractors’ malpractice insurance.
“I’ve been doing this for 31 years and have never had a significant bad reaction to the application of chiropractic care,” Bill Chapel said. “It’s very safe and effective.”
Rollette is the most outspoken purist of the group, having never immunized his own children (now 22 and 20) and having foregone prescription and over-the-counter drugs since his college days. “Do what you’ve got to do, but our job is to get you off the meds ASAP,” Rollette said. “If drugs were working, rates (of cancer, diabetes and heart disease) would be falling instead of rising. We advocate no medications. Our approach is chiropractic first, medication second, surgery last. I’d tell a cancer patient, ‘you need adjustments in addition to whatever other care you are choosing.’”
Dominick-Gravel and the Chapels are also anti-drug, but acknowledge that sometimes patients need antibiotics or other pharmaceuticals. “I don’t think health comes out of a little bottle,” Bill Chapel said. “Although medicine is extremely necessary, I think health comes from within.”
“It’s not us against them,” Dominick-Gravel said, referring to the common gap between chiropractors and practitioners of traditional medicine. “It’s about us working together for the patient. People think chiropractic is so mysterious, but it’s really very simple.”