Why I spent the weekend in the ER after a chiropractor visit

Hi everyone!  So… this is not all what I had been planning to write about this week.  But I had the craziest experience this weekend, and I feel a responsibility to spread the word about what happened to me.

(My apologies to those of you who follow My Sacroiliac Joint Saga as well– you’re going to get this twice.  I normally don’t cross-post, but in this case, I feel the most important thing is to spread the word about what I’ve been through.  So please bear with me!).

I need to start out by saying that– thank God– I haven’t been permanently injured.  But my understanding from the emergency room doctors is that I’m lucky I wasn’t– and that plenty of people are.  

I’m not quite sure what the best way to tell the whole story is.  I spent time in two different emergency rooms and, as someone who plans to work in the medical field, learned a lot.  There is so much I want to analyze, and lessons I will be drawing from this.

But the most important thing to me right now is getting the word out as fast as I possibly can, in case my story can influence someone else.  So let me just tell you what happened.

Some background info:

As many of you know, I stopped receiving chiropractic adjustments to my SI joints because I found they were counterproductive to my healing.  The seemed to place too much force on the already-sprained ligaments, and although they put things into place temporarily, I found I did better when I stopped getting adjusted and used only the Muscle Energy Technique on myself.  (This was the key to my finally getting better).

But since then, I have still gone back at times for pain in the rest of my back and neck.  I have mentioned rotation of the lumbar vertebrae as something that has also caused me pain at times, and I’ve found chiropractic visits have actually given me a lot of relief for that.


The lumbar vertebrae

I’ve sometimes been skeptical of the chiropractic profession, but quite frankly, I received so much pain relief from the adjustments that I was willing to keep going.   I hadn’t found that the adjustments made any other part of my body so unstable, in the way that they did to the SI joints.

And I only went to chiropractors who used the Activator tool, which is supposed to be a gentler and safer alternative to the more vigorous adjustments chiropractors can do with their hands.

However, my opinion of chiropractic safety is totally different after what happened on Friday.

What happened

I just moved recently, and I’ve still been carrying things in and out of my new place.  I had really been pushing it, and on Friday, I knew my back was sort of twisted up, more so than usual.  I had a pretty big weekend planned, including going out dancing with friends, so I wanted to sort of “undo” the effects of moving and have a carefree weekend.  (As I write this, I’m sort of reprimanding myself that maybe looking for a “quick fix” was not a great idea).

So I booked a last minute appointment with my chiropractor and he performed the same adjustments on me using the Activator tool that he has a million times.

However, this time was different.  He was adjusting one of my lumbar vertebrae (that means one of the vertebrae in my lower back).  And I got a shooting pain all the way down my left leg, down to my left foot, that was worse than any other pain I’d felt before during an adjustment.

I’d had some odd neurological sensations during adjustments before.  My chiropractor (and some of the others I’ve seen) always brushed it off and said it was normal, or that it was just the body adjusting to being in a new position.

However, this pain was worse.  It wasn’t excruciating, but it also didn’t feel normal.  It felt like my body telling me something was wrong.

Once I stood up, things got worse.

The pain in my left leg hadn’t totally gone away, and I was having tingling in both of my feet.  Worse, I felt unsteady, like I was drunk from the waist down.  My calf muscles were shaking, and I felt as though my knees were going to give out.

If you had been in the room at that moment in time, you would have seen my lower legs visibly shaking.  It wasn’t just a sensation– it was clear as day.

Yet, my chiropractor still reassured me that it was just my body adjusting to being in a new position.  He was very polite, but also didn’t really look at me or examine me.

I sat down in a chair to rest, and…. he actually left and went home, leaving me with the secretary.  I was his last patient of the day.  (The emergency room doctor was astounded when I said this!).

I hung out in the chair for a while, and walked around the office a few times, seeing if things started to feel more normal.  It was my left leg that felt limp, as if it might give out underneath me.  I felt like I couldn’t fully control it when it came time to take a step, as if I had to rely more on my right leg.

Now, if something like this ever happens to me again, I would go straight to an emergency room. 

But again, at the time, I’d been told so many times that this sort of thing was normal following an adjustment.  And I’d sort of experienced it before, feeling a little funny or off-kilter when it was time to walk out to my car.   It had always worn away by the time I got home.

So I drove home, and got out of the car expecting to feel totally normal.  Yet, I didn’t.  I was still walking strangely.

However, I was late to meet some friends so I didn’t think too much about it, and headed out for the night.  I was still expecting it to wear off.  We were sitting down at a restaurant and I honestly was not in much pain.

Yet, when I came home around midnight and went to walk into my apartment, it hit me.  This was NOT normal.  This was NOT my body adjusting anymore.  I’d taken enough science classes to know this.  These were neurological symptoms.

That’s when I picked up and went to the ER.  

For those of you in the Boston area who may be curious, I went to Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where I’m happy to say there was hardly any wait time to see a doctor.  I did end up having to wait a few hours for x-ray and MRI, as they had to call the techs in from home, and then more urgent patients went before me.

But– thank God– both the x-ray and the MRI of my lumbar spine were totally normal, as was my neurological exam.

However, both the doctor AND the nurse warned me that they see this sort of thing ALL the time, and that I was lucky nothing worse had occurred.  I asked what sorts of injuries they saw, and they both got a look on their face like “Wow, you don’t even want to know.”  The doctor literally said, “The list is too long for me to get into right now” (as he had other patients waiting).

The nurse specified a bit more and explained they saw things like bone fractures, as well as injuries to nerves and blood vessels (arteries and veins).  They saw people with permanent nerve damage.  And worse, they saw people with strokes (which is somewhat well-known to be a risk of neck adjustments, due to the position of the arteries in the neck relative to the vertebrae).

I was just in total shock and awe.  I had tried to do some research on the risks of chiropractic adjustments before, as, again, I’d heard of the risk of stroke of neck adjustments.

But nothing I’d found online had ever given me the sense that the risks were this prevalent.  Both the doctor and the nurse looked me in the eye and said “We would never go to a chiropractor.”

The doctor was especially adamant.

He said “we see things like this all the time, and I am very, VERY glad that your symptoms aren’t going to be permanent.  I can’t tell you not to go back to the chiropractor, but look at what happened.  You ended up here.  And you are lucky it wasn’t worse.”

So finally, at 7 am, I drove home.  

I had been reassured that spinal cord was intact and not being pinched by anything– at least not in the lumbar spine, which was the area we had been concerned about due to my symptoms.

The final pronouncement was that it was something musculoskeletal and would wear off with time.

However, things would turn out not to be quite so simple.  

I am still okay, as you will see in my next post.  But this insane weekend was far from over.


15 thoughts on “Why I spent the weekend in the ER after a chiropractor visit

  1. Ronda says:

    I see a chiropractor that used a pretty rough adjustment for the SI joint, but it worried about me so now I just have them use the activator. It seems so much easier in you body. It’s dissapointing to even thing that can cause such issues. I gave such terrible neck/shoulder issues that I can’t imagine anything else helping. Acupuncture is something I like for everything but my si joint and back. For some crazy reason it seems to make that worse. Do you ever try acupuncture?

    • Sunlight in Winter says:

      I have tried acupuncture a few times, although this was before I had SI joint issues. The first time I tried it, it was for musculoskeletal pain, and it was actually my doctor who performed it. (She called it “medical acupuncture”). I did get better in that period of time, although I was also doing PT and exercising, so I can’t say if it was only the acupuncture.

      The second time, I went to a highly recommended acupuncturist trained in Chinese Medicine. I was going for digestive problems, and I have to say– it didn’t help at all. At the same time, I would later get another diagnosis from a GI doctor, so it’s not surprising that the treatment didn’t help. That’s my problem with a lot of “alternative health” treatments– maybe the treatment has some value, but often I feel they aren’t familiar with a wide range of diagnoses.

      I never felt that it made anything worse, though. Generally speaking, in all the reading I’ve done, there is some convincing evidence for acupuncture to help with musculoskeletal pain, although in Western medicine, the exact mechanism is not known. Many doctors/researchers believe the physical act of sticking needles into the body stimulates the body’s own pain-relieving chemicals, and is not necessarily based on “energy flow.”

      I have not heard of acupuncture making things worse, but if it does– I would definitely listen to your body. A lesson I’ve personally learned is that you don’t need to know, intellectually, why something doesn’t work for you– what’s important is that you believe in yourself. The answer may come to you later but definitely don’t waste your time and money on something you think you “should” do!

      • mdrrhodes@verizon.net says:

        Hi –

        Quick question, I have a squishy type foam wedge that I use in my car, but it’s too squishy. I have another cheap foam one that is working better but is too small?

        Just wondering if you’ve had any luck with a wedge type pillow that you like. We are going on vacation and driving 4 hours. We will be stopping often, but I also wanted to try a new wedge pillow.

        Thank you SOOO much for all the time you take to post such great information! Your website has given me so much hope. I really enjoyed your last posts, but need to re-read them because it’s a lot of great information to figure out.

        Before my SI joint surgery I had a disc replacement in my lower back. My surgeon said it is common for SI joint patients to need disc replacements and vice versa. I’ve still have issues where my muscles in my mid back spasm and my hip goes out sideways because of the swelling, etc.. My chiropractor said I need to strengthen my entire back so that doesn’t happen – that is why I’ve also gone to PT for my upper back/shoulder area as well as my SI joint.

        I think the aqua aerobics class is going to help the most. You gave me the final push I needed to get out of my comfort zone and do what my surgeon has been telling me to do all along. So grateful for you!!


        • Sunlight in Winter says:

          Hi! Thank you so much for the kind words! Unfortunately, I don’t have any cushions that I can personally recommend :( I’m really glad to hear my blog has been so helpful though.

          I definitely think your surgeon gave you a good explanation, regarding the relationship between the low back and the SI joints. Each depends on proper movement patterns of the other. I also think that overall strengthening is your best bet for combatting this. So yes, it sounds like you’re on the right track!

      • mdrrhodes@verizon.net says:

        Hi Again –

        Sorry to bug you again, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to ask you questions this way, or if you prefer a different way that’s more convenient for you.

        One of the PT’s I saw showed me the MET move, but I press my foot to the floor instead of against my hand like in the video. It seems to still work, but was wondering your opinion on this.

        Lastly, one of the PT exercises is laying on my back and dropping my knees to each side. It seems to stretch my lower back, but it has taken a lot to get past the point of it freaking me out. It doesn’t hurt or anything, actually just makes my knee pop because things are loosing up. But twisting like that seems weird. I also twist sitting up to stretch the sides of my back.

        Just curious if you do any stretches like this?


        • Sunlight in Winter says:

          No worries at all! I love getting comments on my blog, because then everyone else has the benefit of seeing our exchange, as well.

          Personally, I prefer the hand, but this may just be my preference. I think it’s okay to do whichever one seems to work better to you. All that matters is that you are still contracting the correct muscles.

          On the twisting stretch– I’m a bit surprised to hear you were given this stretch. I used to do that one before I developed SI joint issues, but I would NEVER do it now. If you like it, I’m not going to urge you to stop doing it, but I agree with you that it seems weird. I don’t like the idea of your knees popping. The occasional pop is harmless, but in my experience, doing something that intentionally provokes it on a regular basis is not a great idea. I don’t necessarily agree that the popping is just because things are loosening up. Your body may be trying to tell you something.

          It is not my place to override the instructions of a licensed medical professional that’s seeing you in person. I can only speak as one patient to another. But I can tell you that, I personally got better *without* doing any form of twisting stretch, ever. And I still don’t do them, so that I don’t risk a setback.

  2. Positively Alyssa says:

    I have honestly always been afraid of chiropractors and my specialist always mentions it. I am do glad you found a intelligent and knowledgeable ER doctor, they do seem like they have some sense. I appreciate you sharing this and I wish you nothing but the best!

    • sunlight in winter says:

      Hi Alyssa, thank you so much for your kind comment! That’s interesting that your specialist warned you– I’d never had a medical professional bring up the risks to me before. But now I’ll definitely do what I can to help spread the word!

  3. Clare says:

    Wow, that’s really scary! I’m sorry to hear that happened to you, Christy. I hope you are feeling better!

    Maybe chiropractors need to do a better job of assessing the level of injury/weakness in the joint before they adjust it. I have to admit I’m reluctant to stop going to mine entirely because I rely on him to get certain joints back into alignment. But over the last year I’ve had more success getting the joints in my arms and legs to re-align on their own, so I’m hoping someday I won’t need it anymore.

    I’ve also heard that there is a physical therapy technique for putting joints back that’s similar to chiropractic, but I’ve never had a therapist who knew how to do that. I wonder if that’s easier on the body?

    • sunlight in winter says:

      Thanks Clare :) I know exactly what you mean. Part of me already knows I’m going to be tempted to go back next time my back feels all locked up.

      You are right, I think there are a few different things PT’s can do. What you may be thinking of is that some PT’s do adjustments that are somewhat similar to what chiropractors do, but they aren’t as forceful. There are different “Grades” of force. What chiropractors do, I believe is Grade 5, and PT’s can do something like Grade 3. That may be something I look into. However some people say that having PT’s do have adjustments can actually be less safe, since chiropractors specifically go to to school to do adjustments, and it’s all they do. Whereas for PT, it’s one more thing they’re trained to do, on top of everything else.

      There is also the Muscle Energy Technique, which uses your own muscle contractions to pull joints back into place. So far I’ve only ever used it for the SI joints, but I think that’s probably the first thing I’m going to look into. It’s inherently safer to be relying upon your own nervous system, versus someone else’s hands, because your body has its own reflexes that will prevent you from doing any damage that way. I think that will probably be where I start.

      I’ve also had other PT’s use different hands-on techniques over the years. I didn’t know I wanted to be a PT yet and hadn’t taken any classes, but I’m not sure what they were.

      It’s frustrating because to find the right PT to use the right techniques of this sort can be time-consuming and expensive. That’s why I kept going to the chiropractor despite some of my skepticism– I knew I could get all of the joints that were bothering me back into place, in one visit, for one (not too high) payment. I already know it’s going to be a bit of a struggle to find a replacement.

      Which is not to say that I disagree with your decision to keep going. It’s a personal choice. But the bottom line is I was SHOCKED to hear how common the ER staff said these types of injuries were… when most of us have had no idea.

      • Clare says:

        I agree that what your ER doctor said really is shocking. Most of the time if a doctor tells me they don’t like chiropractors, they act like it’s because they see chiropractic as being like snake oil (useless), not because they think I’ll get a serious injury. Or they say they aren’t allowed to officially recommend it because it hasn’t been proven enough.

        As for chiropractic adjustments vs. physical therapy adjustments, I think there is something to be said for gentler adjustments, but I definitely understand the concern that maybe PT’s have a hard time getting enough practice at it. I’ve also been thinking that maybe there is always a risk that something will go wrong if a joint is far enough out of alignment that it won’t go back on it’s own – as far as I know, this is the case for full dislocations.

        If MET could be used all over the body, that would be awesome. I would rather do that than go to the chiropractor. I hadn’t realized that it might work for more than just the SI joints.

        Anyway, I’m grateful you’ve shared your experience with us. :)

        • sunlight in winter says:

          I definitely hope that putting this out there will help others! And yes I’ve been looking into MET. There definitely are techniques that can be used on the parts of the body. For example, here’s one type that can be used for the thoracic spine (mid-back). At first, it sort of does look like it might be forceful, given the way the PT is holding the patient, but ultimately when it comes time to do the actual “adjustment,” it’s just the patient using his own muscle contractions. Which, again, are a lot more safer due to how the nervous system works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZOrIKF6EKg&t=70s

          Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and letting me know my info is useful :)

  4. Invisibly Me says:

    Quite a way to learn this – I’m so sorry you had such pain and had to go through all of that. I’m glad you found knowledgeable doctors at the ER who knew what they were talking about, and also that you’re going to be okay. A very important message to get across to others so they don’t have the same experience or worse… x

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