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.
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.