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Science-based Chiropractic: An Oxymoron?

I spent 43 years in private practice as a “science-based” chiropractor and a critic of the chiropractic vertebral subluxation theory. I am often asked how I justified practicing as a chiropractor while renouncing the basic tenets of chiropractic. My answer has always been: I was able to offer manipulation in combination with physical therapy modalities as a treatment for mechanical-type back pain—a service that was not readily available in physiotherapy or in any other sub-specialty of medicine.

If I had it to do over again, however, I would study physical therapy rather than chiropractic. Considering the controversy that continues to surround the practice of chiropractic, I would not recommend that anyone spend the time, effort, and money required to earn a degree in chiropractic. Physical therapy, which is now beginning to include spinal manipulation in its treatment armamentarium, may offer better opportunity for those interested in manual therapy. Properly-limited, science-based chiropractors are now essentially competing with physical therapists who use manual therapy. Unfortunately, only a few chiropractors have renounced the vertebral subluxation theory, making it difficult to find a “good chiropractor.” I consider physical therapy to be more progressive and more evidence based. For this reason, I generally recommend the manipulative services of a physical therapist rather than a chiropractor.

There are some science-based chiropractors who use manipulation appropriately, but until the chiropractic profession abandons the implausible vertebral subluxation theory and is defined according to standards dictated by anatomy, physiology, and neurology, I would not describe it as a science-based profession.
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Neck Manipulation: Risk vs. Benefit

While manipulation of any kind has the potential to cause injury, stroke caused by neck manipulation is of greatest concern. Risk must always be weighed against benefit when upper neck manipulation is considered. Risk of stroke caused by neck manipulation is statistically low, but the risk is serious enough to outweigh benefit in all but a few rare, carefully selected cases.

When the RAND (Research and Development) organization published its review of the literature on cervical spine manipulation and mobilization in 1996, it concluded that only about 11.1% of reported indications for cervical spine manipulation were appropriate and that stroke and other serious complications occurred about 1.46 times per one million neck manipulations.1 In the same year, after examining 183 cases of vertebrobasilar stroke that occurred from 1934 through 1994 following neck manipulation, the National Chiropractic Mutual Insurance Company (NCMIC) concluded that “It has to be accepted that VBS [vertebrobasilar stroke] following SMT [spinal manipulative therapy] does occur.”2
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The Problem with Chiropractic NUCCA

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Atwood, who would normally be scheduled to post today, is on vacation. Consequently, we are publishing the following guest post by Samuel Homola, D.C., a retired chiropractor who limited his practice to science-based methods and spoke out against the irrational and abusive practices of his colleagues. He is the author of Inside Chiropractic and Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism and co-author with Stephen Barrett of the skeptical Chirobase website, a division of Quackwatch) .

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In 1895, Daniel David Palmer, a magnetic healer, announced that “95 percent of diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae; the remainder by luxations of other joints.” He opened the first chiropractic school in Davenport, Iowa—the Palmer Infirmary, which offered a three-week course of instruction.

In 1906, D.D. Palmer’s son, Bartlett Joshua Palmer, a 1902 graduate of the Palmer Infirmary, took over his father’s school. In 1924, claiming that “subluxation” of any vertebra would cause disease by compressing nerves in the intervertebral foramina, B.J. Palmer introduced the  “Neurocalometer,” a thermocouple device guaranteed to locate nerve-pinching vertebral subluxations. Chiropractors were told that if they did not use this “infallible” device to measure heat differentials on the skin over the spine, they could not competently locate and adjust a subluxation. But the Neurocalometer was not for sale. Chiropractors were forced to lease the instrument and then pay a monthly rent. 

In the early 1930s, after nearly three decades of teaching that subluxations anywhere in the spine can cause disease, B.J. Palmer announced that he had found the one and only cause of disease: subluxation of the atlas. Palmer concluded that subluxation of a spinal vertebra below the axis was not possible because vertebrae below that level were bound together by intervertebral discs and interlocking joints. Students at the Palmer School of Chiropractic were not permitted to adjust the spine below the axis until 1949 when full-spine techniques were once again included in the course of instruction. 

B.J. Palmer’s “hole-in-one” (HIO) technique for adjusting the atlas and the axis remained popular among certain factions of the chiropractic profession. According to the 2005 edition of Job Analysis of Chiropractic, published by the National Board of Chiropractic Examines, 25.7% of practicing chiropractors include the “Palmer upper cervical/HIO” technique in their adjustive procedures.       (more…)

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