During their initial consultation, I frequently have patients express concern about having their neck adjusted. They may have heard that cervical manipulation can cause a stroke, or they may have watched too many action movies in which giving a quick twist of the neck is an efficient way to kill someone instantly. (Side note: did you see the episode of Lost where Sayeed snaps a guy’s neck using only his legs? I had to laugh at that one!)
Whatever the reason, I can assure you that chiropractic adjustments are one of the safest forms of treatment for musculoskeletal complaints. In most cases, there are no negative side effects. In fact, most people report a sense of relief following an adjustment. Occasionally there may be some soreness at the aadjustment site, similar to post-workout soreness. Severe side effects are very rare, which is why we chiropractors enjoy one of the lowest malpractice rates among physicians.
Probably the most often cited and controversial serious side effect to neck adjustments is vertebal artery dissection. A very small percentage of the population has a compromised vertebral artery. With extension and rotation of the neck, this artery can tear, causing a stroke. What is controversial is the timing of the stroke. Early symptoms of a vertebral artery dissection include neck pain and headache, which may lead someone to a chiropractor. The person may then have a stroke in the hours or days following the adjustment. The question is, did the adjustment actually cause the stroke or would it have happened anyway? It could have just as easily happened by looking up at the stars, turning the head to back up the car, or getting a shampoo at the salon.
With all things considered, the best current evidence indicates that vertebral artery dissection is only associated with chiropractic manipulation in 1 of every 5.85 million adjustments. To put this in perspective, you are 585 times more likely to be struck by lightning and 58,500 times more likely to die in a car crash. You are more at risk driving to your appointment than you are on the adjusting table!