The Vertebral Subluxation Complex

In a nutshell, a vertebral subluxation is the impairment of optimal expression of your nervous system caused by physical, biochemical, or psychological dis-stress (see Causes section below).

The terms vertebral subluxation, vertebral subluxation complex (VSC) or simply subluxation are at the core of chiropractic care.  Many other terms have been used to describe aspects of this condition such as spinal misalignment or dysfunction, fixation, facet syndrome, or manipulable lesion, however these synonyms are overly mechanical and fall short of describing the true nature, complexity and global health implications of the vertebral subluxation.

Essentially, a vertebral subluxation occurs when the joints of the spine fail to move properly causing interference with the nerve messages from the brain to the body and/or from the body to the brain.  This can affect movement patterns, muscle balance and even the function of organs and the chemicals and hormones they produce.  Most subluxations do not cause pain (as the majority of nerves are not nociceptive or pain-sensing).

Studies continue to elucidate and characterise the numerous and varied devastating effects that subluxations can have on overall health and function.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) now accepts it as a listing in the latest international classification of disease and related health problems, referred to as M 99.1 Subluxation complex (vertebral).

Chiropractors are highly trained health care professionals specialising in the analysis and correction of vertebral subluxations.  Other manual care providers may use similar techniques to chiropractors to also help assist the body in functioning better but do not generally receive training in the specifics of the subluxation complex.

What are the Causes of Vertebral Subluxation?

Subluxations (spinal and nervous system dysfunction) can be caused by stressors (or forces) that your body cannot adapt to including:

  • Physical (both macro and micro-traumas) such as the birth process, learning to walk, car accidents, accidents at work or home, poor posture (school, work, home), sports injuries, lifting children, prolonged sitting or standing, repetitive activities etc.
  • Chemical factors including neurotoxins, excessive alcohol, tobacco, sugar, artificial sweeteners, food colouring, caffeine, MSG, biochemical constituents of foods (eg. grain-fed red meat, hydrogenated fats), environmental toxins (eg. mercury and other heavy metals), lack of proper nutrients (such as essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, protein), endocrine changes (for example increased relaxin and estrogen levels in pregnancy).
  • Emotional tensions like chronic stress, family conflict, grief, anxiety, depression etc. These tensions subconsciously influence our posture and neurological tone.

One or a combination of these factors can result in alterations to joint function and neurological integration.  Physical causes are the most obvious, but not necessarily the most common.

What are the Effects of Vertebral Subluxation?

Distorted nerve communications (Vertebral Subluxations) can be a cause of many other health problems beyond just headaches and back pain.  Some symptoms arising from nervous system interference may seem totally unrelated to the spine, for example digestive or respiratory problems, infertility, incontinence, poor concentration and memory, mood swings, and broken sleep patterns.

This is not to say that all disease or dysfunction is a result of subluxation alone.  Disease can occur with, because of, or despite subluxations.  However, subluxations always reduce the body’s innate ability to express life and function. Our lifestyle, environment, nutrition, toxins, genetic makeup, and even attitude also influence our health and well-being.

The chiropractor’s primary role is not to treat disease or symptoms but to improve your nervous system function thus allowing your whole body to perform as well as possible. A growing number of athletes use chiropractic care as a regular part of their training for injury recovery, prevention, and optimum performance.  In fact many people who are not obviously unwell or suffering are surprised to feel even better after chiropractic adjustments.

The effects of the Vertebral Subluxation Complex on the nervous system can be categorised into segmental and global alterations, including:

  • Compressive Lesions – spinal vertebrae pinch or choke nerve tissue, diminishing signals to and/or from organs or tissues.
  • Facilitative Lesions – If spinal vertebrae chafe, stretch, or irritate nerve tissue then signals going from or to the affected organ or tissue can be over-excited.
  • Dysafferentation (altered input) – If spinal joints no longer move through their normal range of motion this reduces mechano-receptive input and increases nociceptive signals to the brain (the cerebellum in particular).  This alteration to homeostatic integration has been shown to have wide ranging effects on posture, co-ordination and balance, along with mood and emotion, memory and other cognitive functions, elevated stress hormone levels and increased susceptibility to disease and degeneration (through spino-cerebellar-cortical loops).

A detailed summary of scientific literature pertaining to chiropractic and the neurological pathways affected by the vertebral subluxation can be found in ‘The 14 Foundational Premises for the Scientific and Philosophical Validation of the Chiropractic Wellness Paradigm – revised edition’ by Dr James L. Chestnut, B.Ed., M.Sc., D.C. (2003).