Sandra DeMaster remembers the early years of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) painfully well. “I never knew how painful anything could be until I got RA,” says DeMaster, a retired piano teacher who lives in Wausau, Wis.

Although medication did alleviate the pain, DeMaster didn’t like the way it made her feel. So on the advice of her daughter, she tried something different. She visited a chiropractor. Since experiencing almost immediate relief from chiropractic visits, DeMaster has seen her chiropractor regularly.

DeMaster counts herself among those who swear by the benefits of chiropractic, a field that has not been without controversy since its founding more than a century ago. Today, it’s the third-largest primary health care profession (after medicine and dentistry).

But is Sandra DeMaster’s experience representative? Can chiropractic really help people with RA? Practitioners of mainstream medicine don’t necessarily disagree, but rheumatologists are careful to caution people with RA who seek relief through chiropractic. Because in some conditions and circumstances, chiropractic can actually worsen symptoms of RA.

The Chiropractic Approach

First, a little background on chiropractic, a word of Greek origin meaning “done by hand.” Chiropractic medicine deals with treating and preventing musculoskeletal system disorders and the effects of those disorders on the nervous system and general health. Doctors of chiropractic must complete four years of specialized training at an accredited chiropractic college on top of undergraduate work before they can become licensed to practice.

People have long been wary of chiropractors because they “crack your back” or “snap the neck.” Chiropractors will tell you that, although the field does rely primarily on manual manipulations, drop table adjustments and instrument adjustments are done in a calculated way and are intended to restore mobility in joints. Manipulations can be by hand or by using an instrument.

In such treatment, an essential first step is to take an X-ray to get a good look at the spine and neck. “A reputable chiropractor will always take an X-ray before an adjustment,” says Jane Dinerman, DC, a chiropractor in Atlanta.