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What Is a Subluxation? Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

If you’ve been reading about chiropractic care and its treatments you might have crossed the term subluxation. In most cases, chiropractic patients listen to this word after their initial diagnosis and when chiropractors are going through the spinal adjustments and manipulations. But, hearing this word so many times during your treatment plan might leave you asking – what is a subluxation?

What Is a Subluxation of the Spine?

A subluxation, also known as a vertebral subluxation complex, is a disorder of the spine where the alignment and physiological functions of the spine are altered, moving them from their normal position and placing excessive pressure and inflammation on the spinal nerves. Instead of the joint surface completely losing contact, a subluxation is considered to be a “partial dislocation.” In some cases, these spinal misalignments can be quite painful, depending on the reason why they form. If left untreated a subluxation can trigger a degenerative process in the surrounding areas, and it might become more difficult to reverse it as the body progressively adjusts itself to the misaligned or partially dislocated shape.

In the chiropractic world, a subluxation is the most important reason to check your intervertebral joint motion and your musculoskeletal system. One could say a chiropractor’s entire world revolves around finding and realigning subluxations to improve and promote wellness.

Although a subluxation can occur for a number of reasons, the most common include:

  • Car accidents
  • Poor posture
  • Sitting for long hours
  • Improper lifting
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Emotional stress
  • Chemical imbalances

The above factors can cause the spine’s vertebrae to move from their proper position and cause a range of health problems.

Types of Subluxation Chiropractors Look At

Spinal Cord Vertebral 3D Model

Some chiropractors like to separate subluxation by the level of dislocation present between the joints. In this case, some types of subluxation include a V-shape widening, moderate subluxation, advanced subluxation, and finally ending up in a dislocation.

Subluxation can occur in one of three types:

  • Anterior Subluxation (forward) – This type is the most common, it is localized and purely ligamentous, and the bone is not involved.
  • Posterior Subluxation (backward) – This type of subluxation is very rare, and it is often the result of an injury or trauma.
  • Inferior (downward) – This type of dislocation is also rare, and it entails the joint being displaced downward.

The Five Components of Vertebral Subluxation Complex

A subluxation, or partial dislocation, interferes or distorts the normal nervous system functionality.  Chiropractic adjustments performed by a licensed chiropractor can help with vertebral subluxation treatment by realigning the affected vertebrae and restoring proper function to the nervous system. There are five components that combine to create a spinal vertebral subluxation complex, also known as VSC.

These five components include:

  1. The Osseous Component – This is where the vertebrae are either slightly out of position, not moving correctly, or undergoing degeneration. This component is sometimes known as kinesiopathology.
  2. The Nerve Component – This is the malfunctioning nerve. This condition is caused by improper spinal function that blocks, pulls, or irritates delicate nerve tissue, causing symptoms in various parts of the body depending on the nerve affected.
  3. The Muscle Component – When the muscles supporting the spine tighten, weaken, go into spasms, or suffer from atrophy, it results in a change in muscle tone. This condition requires repeated spinal adjustments.
  4. The Soft Tissue Component – This occurs when you have misaligned vertebrae and pressure on nerves resulting in changes in the surrounding soft tissues. This means the tendons, ligaments, blood supply, and other tissues undergo changes. This component is also known as histopathology.
  5. The Chemical Component – This occurs when all of these components of the VSC are acting on your body, and therefore causing some degree of chemical changes. These changes can be slight or massive depending on what parts of the body are affected by your subluxations. This component is often known as biochemical abnormalities.

When the vertebral subluxation complex is present, a variety of issues can occur to the spine, its related soft tissues, and the organs and tissues controlled by the affected nerves. It’s extremely important to have a chiropractor examine your spine thoroughly before determining if further treatment for spine strain is required.

Chiropractor Viewpoint on Subluxation Causes

man with herniated disc in pain

Subluxations can occur at any age and can be attributed to various causes. However, subluxation causes can either be physical or emotional, the latter referring to chemical or emotional stressors. Understanding the subluxation cause can help chiropractors steer the treatment plan to target the source of the problem and not just the symptoms.

Some of the most common subluxation causes include:


The most common causes of subluxations and sudden trauma injuries include car accidents, slips and falls, and so on. However, subluxations can also occur after childbirth, for both the child and the mother. Another physical cause of subluxation can be attributed to sleeping in a bad position, poor office ergonomics, and walking with poor posture. All of these impacts can nudge the vertebrae out of alignment leading to a subluxation.


While physical traumas are easy to spot, toxins on the other hand? Not so much. Our bodies are a conglomerate of chemicals, and to stay healthy, our bodies must remain chemically balanced. When we ingest more toxic chemicals whether through the environment, food, or our drinks, we are at risk of impacting this balance. When these chemicals start fluctuating, our muscles can contract, changing the fiber length in the muscles, thus causing a subluxation.


It might seem impossible for your emotional state to change your body. However, when you are experiencing stress, or you are going through any emotional distress, your body is thrown off-balance. Lower back tension and neck tightness can begin to change as a result, and the pulling from tight muscles can draw some of your vertebrae out of alignment. Not to mention, stress also alters your chemical balance by raising cortisol levels, which brings us back to the toxins that cause subluxations.

What Are Some Subluxation Symptoms?

Unlike a dislocation, subluxations cannot be seen and their symptoms often gradually worsen. Symptoms may vary depending on the severity of the subluxation and the location of the joints affected. Some patients might feel these symptoms immediately after the appearance of the subluxation, usually when it is caused by sudden trauma.

Some common symptoms of subluxations include:

  • Chronic pain around the affected joint
  • Swelling around the affected joint
  • Limited mobility of the affected joint
  • A sensation of the joint being unstable, wanting to give out, or numbness

If you suffer a subluxation, you’ll likely notice the pain immediately. It’s typically sharp and sudden, and you may hear or feel a popping noise in the area. As the shock of the initial injury wears off, you’ll notice that the other symptoms tend to follow. You may experience the same sharp pain when moving in specific ways, while a more dull and throbbing pain persists the rest of the time.

If left untreated, a subluxation can lead to chronic joint issues and a degenerative condition as your bones move with increased friction instead of the usual cushion from your surrounding soft tissue.

Possible Causes of Shoulder Subluxation

Shoulder subluxation is a condition in which the humeral head partially dislocates from the glenoid fossa of the scapula. This can result in pain, weakness, and limited mobility in the shoulder joint. Understanding the causes of shoulder subluxation is important for prevention and effective treatment.

One of the most common causes of shoulder subluxation is trauma. A sudden force or impact to the shoulder, such as a fall or sports injury, can cause the humeral head to partially dislocate from the glenoid fossa. Athletes who participate in contact sports or those who engage in activities with a high risk of falls, such as rock climbing or skiing, may be particularly susceptible to shoulder subluxation.

Repetitive motion can also contribute to shoulder subluxation. Certain jobs or activities that involve overhead arm movements, such as painting or working on an assembly line, can lead to shoulder subluxation over time. This is because these movements place strain on the shoulder joint, making it more vulnerable to injury.

Some people may be more prone to shoulder subluxation due to anatomical abnormalities. For example, a shallow glenoid fossa or a small humeral head can make the shoulder joint less stable and more likely to subluxate. Additionally, individuals with ligament laxity or weak muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint may be more susceptible to subluxation.

Possible Causes for Hip Subluxation

Not only can you experience a shoulder subluxation, but hip subluxations are also common. People often call this a “dislocated hip.” Car accidents are the leading cause of this subluxation, though other incidents can cause this injury to the hip.

Slips and falls, workplace injuries, and high-impact sports are other common causes. Additionally, if you experienced hip dysplasia as an infant or child, you’re more prone to hip subluxation than others. If this is the case, it will take far less force to injure your hip than those who did have dysplasia as a child.

You’ll have difficulty putting weight on the corresponding leg when you have a hip subluxation. You’re likely to experience muscle spasms in the area, swelling, discoloration, tenderness, lack of mobility, and even a loss of feeling in your hip, leg, or foot. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Possible Causes for Patella Subluxation

Since a subluxation can occur in any joint, your knees are also susceptible. We see these injuries mostly from slips and falls and sports. This happens when your kneecap slips out of proper placement, usually toward the outside of your leg.

Many people report hearing the “popping” noise when their knee goes out and cannot put pressure on that leg following the injury. With this type of subluxation, it’s also possible for your leg to give out entirely when trying to walk.

Recovery from Subluxations

Whether you have a subluxation in your spine, shoulder, hip, knee, or any other joint, you can expect a period of rest and recovery. Athletes want to get back in the game fast, and workers want to return to the job as soon as possible. However, rushing recovery and not giving yourself enough time to heal properly can lead to further damage.

Instead, there are steps that you can take to ensure you’re feeling better as quickly as possible. After seeking medical treatment, you’ll likely be referred for physical therapy. Attending these appointments and continuing the exercises they prescribe at home is essential.

The number one way to recover quickly from any subluxation is to rest. You may have to take a few days to a few weeks to allow your injury to heal. During this time, ice and warm packs may help, over-the-counter pain medication can ease the pain, and seeing your chiropractor for treatment can speed up recovery. Below, read more about how chiropractors can help you heal following a subluxation.

Chiropractic Adjustments for Subluxation Treatment

Man receiving chiropractic treatment.

As subluxations can evolve, early treatment is vital to ensure the joint remains in the proper position. The best way to treat subluxations is through chiropractic care. The primary goal of chiropractic care is to maintain an aligned body; localizing, analyzing, and adjusting subluxations is critical to keep an aligned body.

Some common at-home subluxation treatments include resting the affected joint, icing the area, and elevating it to reduce swelling. However, these will only help with some of the symptoms, but they will not correct or treat the subluxation itself.

The one and most effective subluxation treatment is a chiropractic adjustment.

In essence, chiropractic adjustments or spinal manipulation is a manual technique performed by a licensed chiropractor to treat subluxations. Through a physical examination, a chiropractor can analyze and locate spinal subluxations. Then, by using precise and manual techniques, chiropractors can realign the vertebrae on the spine to make sure they are placed back in their proper position.

If you believe you are suffering from subluxations and are experiencing joint subluxation pain, limited joint mobility, or joint swelling, then contact one of our chiropractic centers today.


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