Primary vs Secondary Subluxations

The spine is a complex series of bones, cartilage, connective tissue, nerves, and blood vessels, all surrounding the spinal cord. The bones of the spine, called vertebrae, are cushioned by cartilaginous discs that separate them. On each vertebra are protrusions called spinous processes that allow for them to connect to the ones above and below in a neat row while still may allowing for motion. This is called articulation. Any abnormality in the way the vertebrae sit in their places in the spine can have an impact on function. This deviation from the normal form and function is called subluxation, which is similar to a dislocation that one would see in other kinds of joints.

Primary vs. Secondary

A primary vertebral subluxation is an abnormal position of the vertebrae in the articulation of the spine. Similar to a tree growing with pressure on one spot, the spine will bend and shift to compensate until it returns to the full upright form it is intended to hold. A tree will grow with a curve to adapt, and the spine is similar. Other articulations of vertebrae will shift to accommodate the initial defect so that the spine can remain upright and functional. Those compensatory changes are called secondary subluxations. Unfortunately, this can create long-term pain due to wear and tear on the abnormally joined vertebrae, the discs in between, and the nerves and blood vessels that extend off of those structures.

Signs and Symptoms of Subluxations

  • Pain, sometimes only at the site of the secondary subluxations
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • Weakness in the back and extremities
  • Changes in the temperature and color of extremities
  • Headaches
  • Motor defects

The clinical presentation of subluxations is dependent upon where the defects are and to what degree they impact the other structures of the spine. A subluxation that impinges on the spinal cord will have more severe symptoms like weakness, tingling, color changes, and motor defects. A subluxation that only impacts the bone and disc may have pain as the only symptom. In some cases, a subluxation can put tension on the tough sac that surrounds the spinal cord, called the dura mater. This tension can create significant neurological symptoms, as mentioned above, and more.

How Do Subluxations Occur?

Primary subluxations can be due to traumatic injury (such as a car accident), posture (as with constant leaning forward to look at a device screen), repetitive use injury (for example, constant torsion of the spine in a repetitive motion for work or sports), and disease and disorders (like Ehlers-Danlos). Once the initial shift in the articulation of the vertebra occurs, like the tree being pushed, the rest of the form will change in response. This change leads to the secondary subluxations seen in response to primary defects.

How Can Greater Life Chiropractor Help?

Fortunately, chiropractors are uniquely well-suited to treat subluxations of the spinal vertebrae. Because the secondary subluxation is a failed compensation for the primary subluxation, treatment is often focused solely on correcting the primary defect. The goal is for the correction of the instigating problem, the primary subluxation, to allow for the spine to self-correct the secondary subluxations, which are only there due to the need to adapt for the original problem. You can contact Greater Life Chiropractic today to have Dr. Grant Lisetor create a custom treatment plan for you.


Schafer, R.C. (n.d.). Chapter 18: Basic spinal subluxation in Considerations Chiropractic Management of Sports and Recreational Injuries, 2nd ed. Wiliams & Wilkins.