Subluxation vs Dislocation –
Everything You Should Know
While many people are familiar with the term “dislocation” and have a general idea of what that means in terms of the human body, subluxation is usually a less familiar term.
Just because most people cannot define “subluxation” on the spot does not mean it is not a common occurrence, however. If you consider it in statistical terms, it becomes clear why a subluxation can happen so easily, because they are related to our body’s joints.
The human body has hundreds of joints—places where bones connect to move body parts. We sing about this from the time we are young children (“the knee bone connected to the thigh bone….”). Most of us are generally aware that the joints are doing the real work between these bones in our bodies.
So, think about the odds: with hundreds of these joints at work in our bodies every day, occasionally, some are simply bound to fail. Just as surely as our intricately built automobiles will occasionally break down, or our expertly designed laptops will sometimes crash, or our carefully constructed dream home can fall prey to termite damage, so too will our bodies find themselves experiencing problems with our joints.
A subluxation can happen to anyone at any time: this painful injury can set back even those who keep their bodies in peak form with a healthy diet and a strict exercise regimen. In fact, sometimes, it is an exercise regimen that can cause subluxation (more on that below).
Now that you know the term “subluxation,” we will dig in and take a more detailed look at how and why they occur and what can be done to treat them and relieve the associated pain and discomfort. Additionally, we will outline how injuries known as subluxations differ from those classified as dislocations.
How Does a Subluxation Differ from a Dislocation?
A joint subluxation occurs when the bone connecting to the joint is partially out of that joint—the keyword here being “partially.” The joint-bone connection often, in most subluxation cases, doesn’t resolve itself. Additionally, it can range from being hardly noticeable to an incredibly painful problem that must be addressed quickly by a chiropractic professional.
As you may have guessed after learning the emphasis on “partial” when it comes to subluxation, that is how we distinguish between it and what is known as a full dislocation.
If you have ever known someone with a dislocated shoulder or kneecap (or if you have experienced one of these painful injuries yourself), you will know that such an injury is truly “visible.” A dislocated shoulder will actually look square rather than its normal rounded state. A dislocated knee is also a rather unfortunate sight to behold, and it can quickly turn a weak stomach upside down.
It is clear in the case of a full dislocation just how painful the injury must be. On the other hand, a subluxation may not “look” as painful as it is often invisible to the naked eye, outside of an x ray and professional opinion.
A good example of this is an injury common in little ones known as “nursemaid’s elbow.” The technical name for this, which you might hear from a pediatrician, is a “radial head subluxation.”
This type of subluxation occurs when an infant or toddler’s arm is pulled (for example, when a parent quickly pulls her up to prevent her from falling down some steps) and one of the bones in the elbow partially dislocates.
The tricky thing about nursemaid’s elbow (like most subluxations) is that you cannot easily see it. And it is a subluxation unique to the under-five population, who may not be able to articulate what has happened or that they are in pain.
Parents and caregivers usually catch on when they notice the child favors one arm; this is their way of avoiding the pain that occurs when using the affected arm bone. The elbow’s subluxation can be corrected by a doctor, who will gently move the bone back into its place.
Thankfully, we are not susceptible to this kind of subluxation after the early childhood years, as our ligaments will tighten as we grow. However, various other subluxations can and often do occur at any age and in any growth and health stage. This is where chiropractic care comes into play, both in identifying and correcting these issues that can have a profound impact on your health.
Types of Subluxation
In addition to the radial head subluxations we described above, other subluxation categories affect the shoulders, the knees, and the spine.
A partial dislocation between the upper arm and the scapula is technically a shoulder subluxation, usually caused by an injury or trauma. Certain athletes are more susceptible to this kind of subluxation, where the repetitive motion will loosen the ligaments over time. Swimming, tennis, and volleyball are all activities that can contribute to shoulder subluxation.
This type of subluxation can be extremely painful and will decrease mobility; one quickly realizes just how often a shoulder is used throughout the day when that mobility becomes limited by shoulder pain. This is why we treat many patients with a chiropractic shoulder adjustment.
A patellar subluxation describes what happens when the patella and tibia become partially dislocated. Anyone who has experienced this type of injury knows the unusual sensation of feeling that the knee might “give way.”
In addition to feeling unsteady, those with knee subluxations may also be subject to pain and swelling. This is a subluxation that can be visible without a scan as the patient’s knee may look misshapen.
Also called vertebral subluxation, this type of partial dislocation can either be caused by trauma or may also refer to misaligned vertebrae. The main concern with spinal subluxation is this. Misaligned bones put pressure on the nerves. Affected nerves can then negatively affect a multitude of different areas of the body depending upon where those nerves travel.
Chiropractors further divide vertebral subluxations into levels that we will take a look at below.
Types of Vertebral Subluxation
When assessing a subluxation of the spine, a chiropractor will be placing it in one of three categories: anterior, posterior, or inferior.
- Anterior Subluxation: This describes a forward subluxation, where only the ligament is involved and not the bone
- Posterior Subluxation: A backward subluxation occurs as the result of injury or trauma to the spine, and this type of vertebral subluxation is rare
- Inferior Subluxation: This type of subluxation happens when the displaced joint is downward, and it is also a rare occurrence related to an injury
Causes of Spinal Subluxation
When it comes to subluxations of the knee, elbow, or shoulder, repetitive stress or injury is often blamed. And this can certainly be the case with the spine, too. However, there are more factors at work when it comes to spinal subluxation than you might imagine, including your emotional health.
Back pain is an incredibly distressing experience for anyone who suffers from it, for any reason. Chiropractors’ efforts to provide relief from this intense pain are often focused on spinal manipulation to correct subluxations for their patients. Spinal subluxation treatment is very common in our office.
This also includes understanding the causes of spinal subluxations, and we will outline some of the main ones here.
Emotional distress is closely linked to physical distress; there are many connections between our emotional state and our physical health. For example, we often think about the role that stress plays with heart disease.
Our emotional state can also play into the tension that occurs in backs and necks. That kind of tension—the feeling of tightness in our muscles—can actually pull vertebrae out of alignment, resulting in subluxation.
Toxins in Our Bodies
The chemical balance in our bodies plays a significant role in our overall health, and we know that too many toxins can create a variety of problems. So, it is no surprise that toxins can also be a root cause of spinal subluxations.
Chemical fluctuations can cause our muscles to contract, and when fiber length changes in the muscles, this can also result in subluxation.
Trauma to Our Bodies
A subluxation is frequently caused by physical trauma, and most of us think of examples that range from car crashes to skiing accidents. However, a spinal subluxation can also be caused by something as simple as sleeping in an awkward position or something as not-so-simple as giving birth. From massive traumas to everyday occurrences, a variety of physical impacts can shift our vertebrae out of alignment.
The Signs and Symptoms of a Subluxation
Swelling is one of the first signs of most subluxations in our bodies, in addition to pain (which may be immediate and intense, or it may progressively get worse, depending on the injury.)
Sometimes the signs can be difficult to detect, such as in the case of nursemaid’s elbow, which we described earlier. Our bodies react differently to injury and stress, and pain tolerance can also vary greatly from one person to the next.
We have all heard stories of superhuman feats from highly competitive athletes, such as runners completing a marathon on a broken leg (note: we do NOT recommend this). When it comes to a subluxation, the individual may also continue to go about his “normal” routine, with the partial dislocation slowly causing more and more pain until that routine is fully disrupted.
Either immediately after the partial dislocation has occurred or in the days and weeks after a subluxation, and an individual may experience:
- Pain at the site of the affected joint
- Noticeable swelling at the site of the affected joint
- The “give way” feeling: an unusual sensation of the joint being unstable
- Limited mobility in that area (or no mobility at all, as pain intensifies)
When the subluxation relates to misaligned vertebrae, it can be difficult for patients to articulate the pain’s intensity to those around them, who cannot “see” the injury. We tend to be much more empathetic when faced with someone whose shoulder is very clearly dislocated but less convinced by others’ back pain that we cannot see.
This makes for a very frustrating position for the sufferer of said pain, and she will often seek out relief not only from the pain caused by spinal subluxation but also relief from the sense that her limited mobility met with skepticism or is a burden to others.
While it is possible for a minor subluxation to resolve itself within the body, most will require some type of intervention by chiropractic care.
Specific physical maneuvers can be used to correct a partial dislocation; you may have heard people speak of “popping a shoulder back into place” (we do not advise this!) or of allowing a partial dislocation to “heal on its own.”
In cases where a medical professional corrects the connection between the joint and the bone, the pain will usually subside quickly. In other cases, the patient may be advised to take pain relievers, rest, and ice the affected area.
While this is the traditional advice and approach in the medical community, we believe chiropractic care provides a healthier and drug free way to correct this issue.
One of the most important parts of recovery also involves avoiding what caused the trauma in the first place, whether that means a change in an exercise routine or finding ways to reduce stress.
When it comes to treating misaligned vertebrae, a chiropractic adjustment is the best option for ensuring the joint is restored to its proper position. This will alleviate pain and restore mobility.
A chiropractor will locate and analyze the subluxation in the spine via x ray, and work to realign your vertebrae so that they are restored to the proper position in your body. The specific techniques used by a licensed chiropractor are your best bet for truly correcting a subluxation.
No amount of massages, heating pads, over-the-counter pain relievers, Epsom salt baths, or essential oils can replicate what a chiropractor can do to treat this painful condition. The aforementioned efforts, as well as ice and rest, only bring temporary relief.
Vertebral Subluxations and Our Overall Health
A vertebral subluxation can cause more than just back pain; this type of spinal injury can truly affect you from your head to your toes.
Pain and problems in the spine reach every part of your body, and consistent chiropractic care may be the answer you need before a vertebral subluxation has a detrimental impact on your overall health.
We exist to help patients identify what is causing their pain, and develop a plan to help treat them naturally through chiropractic care. If you or a loved one is experiencing a health concern, please get in touch today.