The Basics

More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates used spinal manipulation to help his patients recover from a variety of dysfunctions. In 1895, D.D. Palmer consolidated a number of concepts already in existence (such as manipulation, vitalism, the importance of the nervous system in health and disease, and nerve impingement) into a manual method of treatment, when he restored the hearing of a patient and gave birth to chiropractic.

Modern chiropractic has developed as a method of maintaining health and treating neurological and musculoskeletal dysfunction and their subsequent effects on the body. Chiropractic philosophy is based on the premise that the body has an inborn or ‘innate’ ability to maintain health and resist disease. Disease results when the nervous system is unable to properly communicate with the rest of the body.

Chiropractic care focuses on abnormal movements of the spine and the effects these restrictions have on the nervous system and the entire body. Chiropractic treatment does not replace conventional veterinary medicine; however, it can provide additional means of diagnosis as well as treatment options for spinal problems and biomechanical related musculoskeletal disorders. The goal of chiropractic treatment is to maximize mobility and optimize nervous system function to allow unrestricted exchange of information between the brain and all the body’s organs.

The central nervous system (CNS), consisting of the brain and spinal cord, monitors and controls all organ and tissue function in the body. Transmission of information to and from the CNS must flow freely to allow proper organ and tissue function. The spinal cord courses from the brain through a boney (spinal) canal made up of numerous spinal vertebral segments. Spinal nerves branch off the spinal cord and leave the spinal canal through small spaces (intervertebral foramen or IVF) formed by adjacent vertebrae. Restricted mobility between two vertebrae can adversely affect and/or irritate the nerves exiting the spine and other surrounding structures (e.g., arteries, veins, lymph vessels, ligaments, joints capsules, etc.) in the IVF.

Vertebral Subluxation Complex (VSC)

Chiropractic treats vertebral subluxation complexes (VSC), sometimes referred to as “subluxations” or “stuckages.” A VSC is defined as, any alteration of the biomechanical and/or neurophysiological dynamics of contiguous spinal and paraspinal structures (motion units) which results in a neuronal disturbance interrupting the body’s innate recuperative power. A motion unit consists of two adjacent articular structures (e.g., vertebrae) and all the structures in between (e.g., spinal nerves and other soft tissue structures in the IVF). Impacting the contents of the IVF, a stuck motion unit causes abnormal sensory input to the CNS leading to altered physiology (dysfunction) and ultimately pathology (signs and symptoms).

Common Causes of a VSC

  • Gravity – the forces of gravity are constant and put a continual stress on the musculoskeletal system.
  • Stress – a stressful environment can cause tension and lead to VSC’s.
  • Diet/Exercise/Rest – the body needs proper nutrition, exercise and rest to optimize its health, improper diet, exercise and rest can lead to deviations from health.
  • Trauma – caused by falls, trips, slips or being cast in a stall or under a fence.
  • Performance/Activity – active horses and dogs can apply stress and strain on their backs in a variety of ways regardless of the discipline, sport or event they are involved in.
  • Narcotics/Anesthetics – the entire general anesthetic process can cause back problems.
  • Rider/Saddle – problems with a rider’s seat (e.g., a crooked seat) or a poorly fitting saddle are frequent causes of back problems in horses.
  • Transportation – extended trailering times, accidents, poor shock absorption and unsympathetic driving can cause VSC’s in horses.
  • Shoes/Nails – poor hoof and incorrect shoeing in horses or poor nail care in dogs and cats interferes with movement resulting in subluxations.
  • Birthing Difficulties – difficult births can cause problems for both mother and offspring.
  • Age – as age increases the effects of previous small and/or large traumas to the spine become more apparent.

Signs and Symptoms of a VSC

Dogs and Cats

There are a variety of signs and symptoms of subluxations in small animals. The most common include pain, dysfunction and abnormality in mobility or posture. A few more specific signs and symptoms include the following,

  • Acute neck and/or back pain
  • Limited performance
  • Reluctance to: move, climb stairs or jump on to raised areas
  • Signs of pain when performing certain movements or being lifted
  • Hyper- or hyposensitivity
  • Lick granuloma on legs or paws
  • Recurrent ear or anal gland infections
  • Altered sitting position (so-called “puppy sitting”)
  • Lying only on one side
  • Recurrent digestive trouble
  • Urine or fecal incontinence
  • Discopathy
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Lameness

Additional, more general circumstances in which chiropractic can be of tremendous benefit include,

  • Sport dogs
  • Geriatic patients
  • Preventive treatments to maintain fitness


There are also a variety of signs and symptoms of a VSC in horses; one of the most common is pain. Horses with back pain often express this in their posture or in their refusal to work. Once pain is present the horse compensates by changing its posture and way of going, which can result in other problems such as joint changes. The following symptoms may indicate pain caused by a subluxation,

  • Reduced performance
  • Abnormal posture
  • Snapping and pinning back the ears when being saddled
  • Misbehavior when being ridden
  • Throwing the head back or up
  • Hollowing the back
  • Swishing the tail and pinning the ears
  • Refusing jumps
  • Difficulty with collected or lateral gaits
  • Changes in behavior
  • Frightened or painful facial expressions
  • Sensitivity to touch

Subluxations in the spine can affect muscle coordination and mobility of a horse, thereby causing decreased performance. The following symptoms may result from a subluxation,

  • Abnormal gait rhythm
  • Irregularity of gait which cannot be assigned to a particular leg or gait
  • Stiffness when the horse leaves the stall
  • Stiffness when bending and in its general posture
  • Muscular atrophy
  • Brushing or interfering
  • Difficulty engaging the hindquarters
  • Difficulty working “long and low”
  • Shortened stride in one or more legs
  • Overall decreased range of motion in gait
  • Difficulty flexing the poll
  • Lameness
  • Pulling against one rein
  • Rider seated off center due to the horse
  • Back does not swing

A major effect of a VSC can be restriction to the flow of information in nerves exiting the spinal cord between vertebrae. As these nerves innervate the skin, glands and blood vessels, this neurologic disturbance can lead to the following symptoms,

  • Unusual itching at the base of the tail or other parts of the body
  • Increased sensitivity to heat and cold
  • Asymmetrical or reduced sweating

Correcting a VSC

The word chiropractic is derived from the Greek meaning “to perform with the hands.” When a chiropractor or veterinarian, professionally trained and certified in animal chiropractic, identifies and corrects a VSC, they use their hands to restore normal mobility in the vertebral motion unit. Corrections are made through a chiropractic adjustment. An adjustment is performed with a very specific contact, short lever, high velocity, low amplitude, controlled, but forceful, thrust in the normal range of motion of the joint. The nature of a true chiropractic adjustment makes it a very safe method of treatment. On the other hand, non-specific treatment techniques, if not done properly, can damage ligaments and joints. Therefore owners would be wise to avoid non-specific treatment modalities in favor of safe methods of treatment for their animals. Likewise, owners should seek professionally trained and certified practitioners to examine and treat their animals with chiropractic or any other CAVM treatment modality.

Chiropractic Care and Management

Although chiropractic care and management is a very effective complement for conventional veterinary medical care, it is most beneficial when treating the cause of dysfunction in the body before the signs and symptoms of dysfunction develop. In other words, chiropractic focuses on health (through prevention), not sickness. If subluxations are corrected before signs and symptoms develop and other Key Ingredients of Health (i.e., diet, exercise, rest and mental state) are optimized, the body has a tremendous innate, recuperative power that can reverse the dysfunction and return to health.

Dr. Nie goes through an exam and treatment on a rope horse.

The horse wasn’t having any particular problems but the owner wanted an adjustment to keep him performing well.