Subluxation-based chiropractic care is sustained more by faith than by facts
Much of what is discussed in this article has been said before in previous articles I have written for Science-Based Medicine. But since the audience for SBM has greatly increased over the past few years, some subject matter should be repeated for the new readers and researchers coming to this site for reliable information on health care.
Many consumers now search SBM for articles dealing with controversial alternative treatment methods that have been shown to be ineffective or to be loaded with fraud and quackery. Chiropractic in particular continues to be problematic for its failure to renounce the scientifically indefensible, nonfalsifiable subluxation theory that defines the profession as a whole. A review of chiropractic web sites reveals that many chiropractors continue to base their treatment methods on subluxation theory, encompassing a broad scope of health problems. Some chiropractors are now including use of “functional medicine” which uses “natural tools” to treat diabetes, thyroid disease, neuropathy, and other diseases best treated by conventional medical care. Most alarming of all is the treatment of infants and children by “pediatric chiropractors.” Chiropractors are being certified in 10 different specialties, including a diplomate in Diagnosis and Internal Disorders.
As long as chiropractic is licensed as a health-care profession based on subluxation theory or some other unscientific approach, it will continue to be subjected to scrutiny and criticism by the science-based community. It is, in fact, the moral and ethical responsibility of science-based practitioners to oppose any form of unscientific health care, wherever it might exist, separating sense from nonsense without being influenced by politics, special interest, pseudoscience, or belief systems.
The saga of chiropractic began in 1895 when D.D. Palmer, a magnetic healer, announced that “95 percent of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae, the remainder by luxations of other joints.” Palmer opened the first chiropractic school in Davenport, Iowa, offering a three-week course of study at the Palmer School and Cure, subsequently renamed the Palmer School of Chiropractic. The school was taken over by B.J. Palmer, the son of D.D. Palmer, in 1906. In 1910, the course of instruction was six months. Kansas and North Dakota were the first states to pass laws legalizing the practice of chiropractic (in 1913 and 1915). By 1921, the Palmer School of Chiropractic, requiring 18 months of study, had 2,000 students, reaching a peak enrollment of 3,600 in 1922. By 1923, 27 states had chiropractic licensing boards. Hundreds of chiropractic schools sprang up, some offering correspondence courses. There were no entrance requirements, anyone could become a chiropractor. H.L. Mencken wrote in the December 11th, 1924, issue of the Baltimore Evening Sun:
Today the backwoods swarm with chiropractors, and in most States they have been able to exert enough pressure on the rural politicians to get themselves licensed. Any lout with strong hands and arms is perfectly equipped to become a chiropractor. No education beyond the elements is necessary.1
Although Palmer’s subluxation theory was contrary to all known laws of anatomy and physiology, the theory was appealing to the general public. Medical science was in its infancy, struggling to find effective and safe remedies for disease and infection. There was no known cure for many common ailments, and many of the medicines used by physicians were ineffective or harmful. In the public marketplace, the door was wide open for snake oil salesmen, entrepreneurs, and opportunists who could mix a concoction or fabricate a new treatment guaranteed to work. With growing numbers of chiropractors treating disease and infection by adjusting the spine to relieve alleged pressure on spinal nerves, offering treatment claimed to be superior to medical care, members of the medical community felt an obligation to oppose what they viewed to be blatant, unbridled quackery.
An old Palmer illustration showing how a displaced vertebra could cause disease by pinching a spinal nerve.
I am often asked, “What do chiropractors do?” That’s not an easy question to answer. The answer is usually expected to be, “They treat back trouble.” But as alternative medicine practitioners, chiropractors do a lot of things, and they treat a variety of ailments, based largely on a scientifically-invalid vertebral subluxation theory which proposes that nerve interference resulting from a misaligned vertebra or a dysfunctional spinal segment can affect general health.
As a co-host of the Chirobase web site, I frequently answer questions about chiropractic, some of which are published in a section titled “Consumer Strategy/Consumer Protection.” In this post, I’ll focus on these:
- Are Subluxations Causing My Health Problems?
- Is a Misaligned Atlas Causing My Back Pain?
- What is that “Thumper” My Chiropractor Uses on My Back?
- How Does a Chiropractor Locate Subluxations?
- Should I Let a Chiropractor Adjust My Baby?
- Why Is Every Chiropractor’s Treatment Different?
- Can Neck Manipulation Cause a Stroke?
- Should I Go to a Chiropractic College?
- Are There Any Good Chiropractors?
- Is It Possible to Reform the Chiropractic Profession?
By far, most of the questions I receive express concern about questionable methods and advice offered in the offices of chiropractors. Many questions are generated by the suspicions of patients who initially visited a chiropractor for treatment of back pain and who were then offered spinal adjustments as a treatment for health problems unrelated to the spine. Patients are often concerned about the expense involved in such care, usually extended over a long period of time, followed by “maintenance care” to correct or prevent “vertebral subluxations” after symptoms have resolved. I generally advise patients to refuse chiropractic care for anything other than a musculoskeletal problem, to seek treatment only when symptoms are present, never pay for treatment in advance, and to discontinue treatment and see an orthopedic specialist if symptoms worsen after a few days or have not subsided after a week or so.
Chiropractors often deny that neck manipulation can be a primary cause of stroke by injuring vertebral arteries. But according to Jean-Yves Maigne, M.D., head of the Department of Physical Medicine at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Paris, France:
It is now a well established fact that cervical thrust manipulation can harm the vertebral artery. This accident was formerly regarded as very rare, although severe, and related to atherosclerosis. Clinical tests were proposed to detect patients at risk. The problem is now better known. It is no longer attributed to atherosclerosis…but to a dissection of a vertebral artery, a clinical entity observed in younger patients (20-45 years). It remains very rare, but mild symptoms appear to be not so infrequent. Finally, the predicting tests seem to be deprived of any value.1
In 1997, the French Society of Orthopaedic and Osteopathic Manual Medicine (SOFMMOO), following presentations by anatomists, neurologists, radiologists, and practitioners in the field of French Manual Medicine, adopted the neck-manipulation proposals made by Dr. Maigne.1 “Acknowledging the fact that prevention is out of reach,” said Dr. Maigne, “the aim of these recommendations is to reduce the number of (not to say to suppress) rotational cervical thrust manipulations in a targeted population. This population consists mainly in females of less than 50 years old. Five recommendations were developed, in addition to classic contraindications of spinal manipulative therapy.”
The recommendations of the SOFMMOO, dealing with cervical manipulation in general and allowing the use of neck manipulation in special cases, are worth considering since they were reviewed by medical specialists in different disciplines and approved by licensed practitioners who use manual therapy, long before the stroke-neck-manipulation furor reached its peak in the United States.
When Forbes.com published Steven Salzberg’s article “New Medicare Data Reveal Startling $496 million wasted on Chiropractors” (April 20, 2014), a flood of mail (more than 300 comments) from chiropractors and their patients provided a wealth of evidence that subluxation-based chiropractic is alive and well despite rejection by the scientific community. Pro-chiropractic comments laced with anti-medical rhetoric and ad hominem attacks, expressed with religious fervor, failed to distinguish between generic spinal manipulation (that can be useful in the treatment of mechanical-type back and spinal problems) and chiropractic adjustments used in an attempt to restore and maintain health by correcting vertebral subluxations. No distinction was made between a real, symptomatic orthopedic subluxation and an imaginary, asymptomatic chiropractic “vertebral subluxation complex,” neither of which has been shown to be a cause of bad health. While the chiropractic profession may have some justification for objecting to any suggestion that chiropractic treatment has no value whatsoever, especially in the case of mechanical-type back pain and other musculoskeletal problems, the tone and content of many of the comments by chiropractors provide good examples of why chiropractic is so often criticized by the scientific community.
A quote in the Forbes article, from my Science-Based Medicine article “Chiropractic: A Summary of Concerns,” brought this comment from a prominent chiropractor:
…Harriet Hall, Edzard Ernst, Jann Bellamy, and other current renowned medical bigots who attack all CAM providers but turn a blind eye to the dangers of the medical profession….Steven, your chiro critics are invalid—none of them are researchers or educators, but they are just disgruntled practitioners from yesteryear. Don’t get me started on the Science-Based guys who are just haters like you—Harriet Hall, Edzard Ernst, Jann Bellamy are renown medical bigots.
Although obscured by controversy, there is evidence to indicate that spinal manipulation can be as effective as conventional treatment methods in relieving low-back pain.1,2,3,4 This grain of truth mixed with chiropractic vertebral subluxation theory that encompasses a broad scope of ailments makes it difficult for the average person to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate use of manipulation by chiropractors. A person who is satisfied with chiropractic manipulative treatment for back pain might be led to believe that the same treatment can be used to treat a variety of organic ailments by correcting “vertebral subluxations.” Such treatment is usually described as a “chiropractic adjustment.”
A manual chiropractic adjustment
Although chiropractic care based on subluxation theory has been rejected by the scientific community, spinal manipulation used in the treatment of mechanical-type back pain has a plausible basis that makes it acceptable in mainstream healthcare. A good back-cracking back rub provided by a chiropractor or some other manual therapist can be a pleasurable, pain-relieving experience, and this can be a preferred method of treatment for some types of back pain. But you should be well-informed enough to know where to draw the line in separating subluxation-based chiropractic adjustments from appropriate use of generic spinal manipulation if you should consider treatment by a chiropractor. Otherwise, you might become the victim of the bait-and-switch tactics of chiropractors who offer you treatment for back pain and then attempt to indoctrinate you in subluxation theory.
Much of what follows in this article has been said before in other articles of mine posted on this site. An up-to-date summary of basic concerns about chiropractic care, however, might be useful for new readers and others, including professionals, who want a brief overview for quick reference in seeking answers to questions about the problematic aspects of chiropractic use of spinal manipulation.
Preamble: When my book Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism [full text] was published in 1963, renouncing chiropractic vertebral subluxation theory and recommending that chiropractic be developed as a subspecialty of medicine in the treatment of mechanical-type back pain, the chiropractic profession refused to acknowledge or review the book. I was labeled “an enemy of chiropractic.” If it had not been for the support I received from the science-based community, I might have had doubts about my mind set and my motives. Favorable reviews by members of the science-based community sustained me over the years; for that, I am deeply grateful. Today, still unheard by the chiropractic profession, the message of my Bonesetting book remains relevant in describing the problems of chiropractic. Although out of print, the entire book can be read online on Chirobase.org.
The Aftermath of Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism, 1963
In view of the absence of any extensive histories of chiropractic, this book has a place in medical collections and reference libraries. ─ Eric Meyerhoff, Director, The Medical Library Center of New York, N.Y.C., Library Journal, February 1, 1964
In regard to your recent application for membership in the American Chiropractic Association and insurance in the National Chiropractic Insurance Company, please be advised that the ACA membership committee has rejected your application. ─ H.W. Pruitt, D.C., Executive Secretary, American Chiropractic Association, May 17, 1965
I purchased your book some months ago on Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism. I found it to be a most intriguing and enlightening publication which has been of value to me in some of my own studies in medical anthropology. ─ James G. Roney, M.D., Ph.D., Stanford Research Institute, November 11, 1965
[Editor’s Note: Today, we have a guest post from Sam Homola, who, as you recall, practiced as a chiropractor until he ultimately realized that there is no evidence that subluxations exist. Since then, he’s discussed in various places, including, we are pleased to say, SBM, his skepticism regarding chiropractic. Enjoy!]
Much has been written (and published on this site) about the implausibility of chiropractic vertebral subluxation theory which proposes that a vertebral subluxation complex or a spinal joint dysfunction “may affect organ system function and general health.” Associated chiropractic gimmickry that might be harmful as well as a waste of time and money should be also be brought to the attention of concerned consumers. As a chiropractor (retired) who has renounced subluxation theory, it might be helpful to share my concerns about some dubious chiropractic methods that are foisted upon an unsuspecting public, unchallenged in the market place.
Low-back problems are one of the most common reasons for visits to doctors’ offices and the most common cause of disability among persons under the age of forty five. Most of the time, acute low-back pain is the result of simple strain and is a self-limiting condition that will resolve in four to six weeks, with or without treatment. But since back pain can be a forerunner of disability or a symptom reflecting serious pathology, every effort should be made to seek appropriate care that is based on a definitive diagnosis. Failure of physicians to ease the concerns of back-pain patients by explaining their problem and advising them in the care of back pain often results in dissatisfied patients who may be attracted by the approach of alternative medicine practitioners who tout a spurious quick-cure treatment based on a dubious diagnosis. Misinformation provided by such practitioners may contribute to disability by allowing progression of disease or by exaggerating the seriousness of the problem in the mind of the patient. Thus, while back pain is rarely serious, it should always be carefully evaluated to reach an accurate diagnosis and to determine if specialized care is needed. Care should be taken to inform the patient in a positive manner─to avoid unnecessary surgery as well as inappropriate or unnecessary treatment.
Something to Consider When You have Back Pain
Almost everyone will experience acute low back pain at least once during a lifetime. Much of what must be done to care for a bad back must be done by you. It would certainly help to be well informed about the causes of back pain when seeking appropriate treatment.
It goes without saying that when incapacitating back pain occurs as a result of a serious accident or injury, you should seek emergency medical care. When back pain grows progressively worse, persists unrelieved for longer than a week, or is worsened by rest, you may need the services of a specialist. Back pain that occurs for no apparent reason and does not affect movement may be a symptom referred from an internal organ. Once a diagnosis has ruled out a serious problem and it has been established that you have nonspecific or uncomplicated mechanical-type back pain, self-help measures designed to relieve your symptoms and to protect and strengthen your back may be the only treatment needed. If there is no active pathological process and your back pain lasts three months or longer, you may have a “chronic” back problem that can lead to recurring back pain, requiring ongoing vigilance and self help.
Time is the most important part of treatment for uncomplicated back pain caused by injury. It’simportant, however, to be aware of red flags indicating that back pain might be the result of something more serious that a simple strain. In the absence of red flags, imaging studies or special testing might not be indicated during the first four weeks of low back symptoms. When a red flag is present, you should not delay in reporting your symptoms to your family physician.
When I graduated from Lincoln Chiropractic College in 1956, I had come to the conclusion that chiropractic’s subluxation theory, that misaligned vertebrae can cause organic disease, was not true. When I began my practice in Panama City, Florida, I limited my practice to care of mechanical-type back pain and related problems. Back then, that was not too much of a stretch, since manipulative services were not readily available in medical practices and there were a number of orthopedic and physical medicine texts recommending use of manipulation in the treatment of back pain.
In 1963, I published my book Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism, renouncing subluxation theory and recommending that chiropractic be developed as physical treatment specialty in the care of back pain. The book was reviewed by the Library Journal (February 1, 1964) and recommended for inclusion in medical and reference libraries. In 1965, I received a letter from the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) informing me that my application for membership in the ACA had been rejected. In the years to follow, I published many articles in an attempt to initiate an effort to change chiropractic from a subluxation-based practice to a legitimate physical treatment method that would fit in with mainstream health care. My suggestions were ignored and I was called a “chiropractic heretic.” Today, I find myself still saying some of the things I said in my 1963 Bonesetting book, still being rejected by most of my colleagues and still voicing opposition to subluxation theory.
There are now some chiropractors who do not subscribe to the theory that some kind of segmental dysfunction in the spine can cause organic disease, but they are overshadowed by subluxation-based chiropractors who publish their own journals, using scientific-sounding jargon to defend implausible theories and dubious treatment methods. Some of these chiropractors do not use the “subluxation” word, instead substituting some other vague description of a spinal lesion, such as “joint dysfunction,” alleged to have the same affect on the nervous system and general health as a “vertebral subluxation.”