A 1997 publication by the Foundation for Chiropractic Education and Research, supporting the vertebral subluxation theory, noted that “…we [chiropractors] have successfully distanced the concept of a chiropractic subluxation from that of an orthopedic subluxation.”1 When discussing “subluxations” or misaligned vertebrae, however, chiropractors often fail to point out the difference between an orthopedic subluxation and a chiropractic subluxation. Reference to subluxations in medical literature is often presented as support for the practice of chiropractic as a method of adjusting vertebral subluxations to “restore and maintain health.”
In the eyes of the public, the chiropractic vertebral subluxation theory has confused the definition of the word “subluxation,” a common medical term. Unlike the mysterious, undetectable and asymptomatic chiropractic “vertebral subluxation complex” alleged to be a cause of disease, a real vertebral subluxation, that is, an orthopedic subluxation, can be a cause of mechanical and neuromusculoskeletal symptoms but has never been associated with organic disease.
Subluxations: Real and Imaginary
An orthopedic subluxation, recognized and named as such since the days of Hippocrates, is a painful partial dislocation. Simple misalignment of a vertebra, also referred to as a “subluxation,” is commonly caused by disc degeneration, curvatures, spondylolysis, and structural abnormalities. Such a subluxation may or may not be mechanically symptomatic and can be seen on a plain x-ray image. In the absence of pathology such as disc herniation or osteophyte formation, these common vertebral subluxations or misalignments rarely affect spinal nerves and have never been associated with organic disease. Spinal nerves supply musculoskeletal structures. The body’s organs are supplied primarily by autonomic nerve ganglia and plexuses located outside the spinal column and by cranial and sacral nerves that pass through solid bony openings, providing overlapping nerve supply independent of any one spinal nerve that passes between two vertebrae.
An orthopedic subluxation, a true vertebral misalignment, or a mechanical joint dysfunction that affects mobility in the spine is not the same as a “chiropractic subluxation” that is alleged to cause disease by interfering with nerve supply to organs. Such a subluxation has never been proven to exist. There is no plausible theory and no credible evidence to support the contention that “nerve interference” originating in a single spinal segment can cause an organic disease.
In a paper published in 2008, two academic chiropractors offered this observation: “The health claims made by chiropractors with respect to the application of manipulation as a health care intervention for pediatric health conditions continue to be supported by only low levels of scientific evidence. Chiropractors continue to treat a wide variety of pediatric health conditions.”1
Despite lack of support by the medical and scientific community, chiropractic treatment of children is growing in popularity, and more chiropractors are specializing in “chiropractic pediatrics.”
The International Chiropractic Association offers a post-graduate “Diplomate in Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics” (DICCP) and publishes a “peer reviewed” Journal of Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics. The diplomate syllabus is a 30-module, 360+ hours classroom course during weekends over a three-year period. There is no hospital training and no contact with diseased or injured children — only a “mandatory observational/training weekend at a chiropractic center for special needs children under multi-disciplinary care.”2 A post-graduate certification in chiropractic pediatrics (CICCP) can be earned after 180 hours of classroom instruction.
In a June 2008 joint press release, the American Chiropractic Association’s (ACA) Council on Chiropractic Pediatrics and the Council on Chiropractic Pediatrics of the International Chiropractors Association (ICA) announced that the ICA’s Diplomate in Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics (DICCP) is now recognized by the ACA and its council as the official credential for specialization in chiropractic pediatrics.3
Noting increasing public support for chiropractic treatment of children, a January 2009 press release from the American Chiropractic Association made this announcement: “Survey data indicates that the percentage of chiropractic patients under 17 years of age has increased at least 8.5 percent since 1991.…Studies are beginning to show that chiropractic can help children not only with typical back and neck pain complaints, but also with issues as varied as asthma, chronic ear infections, nursing difficulties, colic and bedwetting.”4
A trend toward greater utilization of chiropractic by children has not gone unnoticed by the medical profession. An article in the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) described chiropractic as the most common complementary and alternative medicine practice used by children, who made an estimated 30 million visits to US chiropractors in 1997.5 In 1998, children and adolescents constituted 11% of patient visits to chiropractors.6
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.
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
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) .
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…)