Does Chiropractic Care Cause Stroke?

Although most people experiencing chiropractic treatment have nothing but positive things to say about their care, every once in a while something happens that makes people question its safety and validity. With this week’s revelations that Playboy model and “Snapchat Queen” Katie May died of a stroke attributed to an artery ruptured during a chiropractic neck adjustment, it’s no surprise that people are concerned. It is, of course, devastating that this woman passed away after treatment, but does chiropractic care cause stroke? Evidence says no.

Death due to chiropractic manipulation is an incredibly rare occurrence. In fact, a RAND study shows that the chances of any serious complications at all during chiropractic neck adjustments are about one in one million–and the chances of stroke or death are even smaller. While all healthcare treatments carry risks, even routine medical procedures at your medical doctor’s office, chiropractic treatment is generally a safe, effective way to treat musculoskeletal conditions, including neck pain.

In fact, the relative safety of chiropractic treatments is well-established. Chiropractors have one of the lowest-costing malpractice insurance premiums across all healthcare practitioners because insurers recognize the low risk for serious side effects or problems. Medical errors among chiropractors are also exceedingly rare. While millions of people become victims of serious medical error every year, chiropractors have only a minimal incidence rate of medical error. Chiropractic care is safe for you and your family.

So Chiropractic Care Is Safe, But What About the Strokes?

Still, you may feel apprehensive about neck manipulations specifically. I understand your caution. Luckily, worries about your chances of stroke are not supported by the data. Independent studies confirm that patients who experience cervical spine (neck) manipulations are statistically no more likely to experience a stroke than those patients who have neck pain and saw a medical doctor but received no spinal manipulations instead. When done properly, cervical spinal manipulation does not seem to increase your risk of stroke in any significant way.

In fact, most patients who experience an arterial tear during or after chiropractic manipulation likely have an underlying vascular condition that has previously compromised the artery, whether due to a trauma, like a fall at a photo shoot, or due to a genetic predisposition. In Katie May’s case, it is likely that there was some sort of underlying arterial pathology that made her vulnerable to stroke–possibly caused by her fall earlier in the week.

As chiropractors, we are trained to catch the signs of these conditions through neurological tests, x-rays, and a thorough medical history. That’s why it is vital to tell your chiropractor about any acute trauma to your neck or spine before you begin treatment. Otherwise, we may exacerbate the damage. I always check for potential arterial damage before adjusting a patient’s neck, and I would never treat a patient that I think is at risk for a stroke. Instead, I would send that patient straight to the ER for a CT scan and alternative treatment.

Katie May’s death saddens all of us in the chiropractic field because we never like to hear about a patient experiencing trauma related to chiropractic care, but both the American Chiropractic Association and I maintain that chiropractic care does not cause stroke. Katie May’s death is a horrible tragedy and a “freak accident” (to quote the characterization Jeffrey Wang, MD and co-director of the USC Spine Center, gave to People Magazine about the event), but it should not make you fear chiropractic care. Don’t let an accident that is such an outlier prevent you from getting the chiropractic care you deserve.