What Is A Subluxation?
The term subluxation refers to any disturbance in the normal function of a spinal motor unit consisting of two adjacent vertebrae. Its Latin derivation means ‘small dislocation’- sub (less than) luxation (dislocation). It’s a medical term which has been given special meaning through its adoption by the chiropractic profession. The term is a way to indicate to the medical community at large that the underlying cause of a particular set of symptoms is a dysfunction of the spine and nervous system. The more preferred term in chiropractic these days is ‘vertebral subluxation complex’. The newest accepted description in the International Classification of Diseases version 10 (ICD-10 codes) is ‘Segmental and somatic dysfunction of (whatever level of the spine)’.
What a mouthful! Is there a simpler explanation?
Sure. I’ll oversimplify a bit, but in layman’s terms, a subluxation is a stuck joint.
Maybe that’s a little too simple. Why should I worry about a stuck joint?
Joints between most of the bones in the body consist of cartilage covering the end of a bone enclosed in a capsule containing fluid (synovial fluid). The cartilage does not have a blood supply of its own, so it is nourished by diffusion of nutrients from the synovial fluid. The nutrients are in turn pumped into the synovial fluid by pressure differences created by motion of the joint. This same mechanism removes metabolic waste products from the joint.
So when a joint gets subluxated- stuck- and stops moving, a nasty cascade of events begins. The cartilage of the joints is no longer being nourished properly. Metabolic waste products build up in the synovial fluid. This causes inflammation, swelling, and pain. Pain causes the surrounding muscles to tighten, which further reduces motion in the joint and puts more pressure on it, leading to more inflammation and pain. The cycle repeats.
If the joints involved in this cycle are the joints of the spine, the inflammation ends up pressing on nerves and interfering with sensation and control, as well as causing pain along the course of the nerve. The classic example of this is sciatica, where pressure on the large nerve running down the back of the leg causes severe pain.
So in the short term that ‘simple’ stuck spinal joint leads to pain, disability, and interference with the nervous system.
Leave it stuck for five or ten years, and it will degenerate into osteoarthritis and become a permanent problem.
For an extensive discussion of the effects of subluxation, and a number of related articles, click here.
What’s the popping sound when you adjust my back or neck?
There’s a gas (nitrogen) dissolved in the joint fluid. As I rapidly take pressure off of the stuck joint, the reduction in pressure causes the gas to come out of solution- like what happens when you open a soda. The gas forms a bubble, and that’s what makes the sound. It’s not harmful to the joint in any way- just the opposite. That pop is the sound of relief!