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.
Many years ago, when I was a naïve and gullible teenager, I read about a home treatment for constipation that involved rolling a bowling ball around on the abdomen. I was intrigued, thought it sounded reasonable, and might even have tried it myself if I had been constipated or had had a bowling ball to experiment with. Many decades later, with the advantages of a medical education and experience in science-based medicine and critical thinking, I encountered a treatment that reminded me of the bowling ball: visceral manipulation (VM), a practice developed by a French osteopath and physical therapist, Jean-Pierre Barral. This time I was far more skeptical. VM may be more sophisticated than a bowling ball, but its effectiveness and safety are equally dubious.
Visceral manipulation (VM) will probably be unfamiliar to most of my readers, but its promoters say it has been adopted by osteopathic physicians, “allopathic” physicians, doctors of chiropractic, doctors of Oriental medicine, naturopathic physicians, physical therapists, occupational therapists, massage therapists and other licensed body workers. Its origin follows the path of many other alternative health systems. Like chiropractic, ear acupuncture, iridology, EMDR, and others, it was developed by one individual based on his personal observations and experiences without any kind of proper testing. Like the others, it started with a single patient: in Ignaz von Peczely’s case an owl with a spot on its iris, in D.D. Palmer’s case a janitor whose hearing allegedly improved after something was done to his back, in Barral’s case a patient who said he had felt relief from his back pain after going to an “old man who pushed something in his abdomen.” From a single case they extrapolated to a general belief about disease causation and a whole diagnostic and/or treatment system.
How is VM Done?
A video shows Barral demonstrating his skills. He “listens with his hands” to detect tension (elsewhere the perception is designated as a thermal phenomenon). His diagnostic process begins by “listening with the hands” on the top of the patient’s head to determine the lateralization or general area of the problem. Then his hands “listen” to the areas of concern to further localize the problem. In this demonstration he detects something in the stomach which he says could be from decreased acidity or emotional tension. Then he listens to the skull repeatedly with both hands, does something simultaneously to the neck and abdomen, and finally he is satisfied that his hands are telling him that he has corrected the problem. (more…)