Chiropractic Crackpottery

A very popular branch of alternative medicine, one that has exhibitions in the malls, advertises in rented booths in county fairs, and has multiplied like mushrooms in the yellow pages of all urban communities in the US is chiropractic. Many people believe that chiropractors are real doctors, and that chiropractic is actually a branch of medicine. However, the entire profession of chiropractic is based on the assumption that every pain and disease (or “dis-ease”) is caused by the nerves pinched between the bones of the spinal column.

Ddpalmer 2328478Chiropractors treat all kinds of diseases by the manipulation of the spine. This includes not only low pack pain, for which chiropractic is famous for, but also asthma, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, infertility, and a host of other conditions. Neck pain treatment is a very delicate procedure. Any adverse manipulation of the neck can cause severe injury. One such unfortunate case, in which the patient had a fatal stroke, was precisely the result of the manipulation of the neck by a chiropractor.

The founder of chiropractic is Daniel David (“D.D.”) Palmer (1845-1913).1 Palmer started as a grocer in Davenport, Iowa, but soon was attracted to phrenology,2 and eventually practiced as a full-time “magnetic healer.” To attract patients, D.D.’s brother ran articles in newspapers claiming that D.D. cured patients simply by the motion of his hands, and that he could cure tumors and cancers without medicine. His technique was to locate the dysfunctional organs and to impart a “life force from his hands into that dormant organ, thereby assisting it to throw off the unnatural condition.”

  1. For a detailed and fascinating account of the controversial discipline of chiropractic, see Magner, G. Chiropractic: The Victim’s Perspective, Prometheus, 1995. What follows in this article is taken from this book.
  2. Phrenology was a pseudoscience, very popular in the nineteenth century, based on the assumption that one can diagnose diseases by analyzing the bumps on the head.

Chiropractic dates its origin to September 18, 1895, when Palmer claims to have manipulated a spinal bone of Harvey Lillard, a janitor where he had his office, and curing him of a 17-year-old deafness instantly. “Shortly after this relief from deafness, I had a case of heart trouble which was not improving. I examined the spine  and found a displaced vertebra pressing against the nerves which innervate the heart. I adjusted the vertebra and gave immediate relief.” From these two instances of “cure,” Palmer concluded that other diseases were caused by the same “pressure on nerves.” In Palmer’s own words, “the science (knowledge) and art (adjusting) of Chiropractic were formed at that time.”

Palmer referred to the “displaced vertebrae” as “luxations.” Then, shortly after the turn of the century, one of his disciples began calling the alleged problem areas “subluxations.”  The term subluxation soon became central to chiropractic theory and is still used by chiropractors today.

To base the entire profession of chiropractic on “subluxation” and to diagnose all the diseases and pains as pinched nerves in the spinal disks after practicing it on one or two patients is a paradigm of pseudoscience. When conventional medicine claims that penicillin kills bacteria, it can prove it in an overwhelming majority of cases.  But when chiropractors claim that they can cure pain by manipulating the spine, the only “proof” they offer is word of mouth, claims of other practitioners, and in rare cases, patients who have been “cured” – probably due to other mechanisms such as the placebo effect.

In 1896, with the help of a local minister, Palmer coined the name
chiropractic from Greek words meaning “done by hand.”  That same year, he incorporated his first school which was renamed Palmer Infirmary and Chiropractic Institute in 1902.  Several years later, D.D. was jailed for practicing medicine without a license.  His son B.J. took charge of the Institute, and refused to give his father access to school grounds after the latter’s release from prison.  An arbitration committee resolved the dispute between father and son by allowing the son to purchase the school upon which he renamed it Palmer School and Infirmary of Chiropractic (or Palmer School of Chiropractic) in 1907.

And this is how chiropractic started in America.  From its inception, the discipline had factions.  There were those so-called “straights,” such as B. J. Palmer, who believed in the centrality of the spine. There were also “mixers,” such as Willard Carver, who advocated other modalities in addition to the spinal manipulation. Today, the same factions still exists among chiropractors.1 Some chiropractors practice under the assumption that the dogma of the founders – D.D. and B.J. Palmer – is the truth and everything else follows from that. 2  Others rely on spiritual inspiration (Innate Intelligence), empirically testable but untested (and uncontested) hypothesis such as subluxation, and uncritical rationalism.  An example of this mentality is the claim of some chiropractors that “chiropractic works because the nerve system is the master switchboard of the body.” The existence of a wide spectrum of beliefs in the chiropractic community should be an evidence of its pseudoscientific character. The factions among chiropractors resemble the denominations of a religion.

What about subluxation? Is it still the central theme of chiropractic? Are there any experimental proof of its role? Although in 1975 the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) “disaffirmed the [monocausal] doctrine that holds to a singular approach to the treatment of disease,” the ACA’s current “Chiropractic: State of the Art” booklet states that “classical subluxation” theory and the “nerve compression hypothesis” still occupy a “central place in the chiropractic rationale.” The policy handbook of the International Chiropractors Association (ICA) states that “subluxation is a reasonable and credible diagnosis.”3 In 1980, a prominent chiropractic educator asked one thousand chiropractors on the ACA’s mailing list whether they agreed with various statements related to such beliefs. Of 268 respondents, 4% agreed that subluxation is the cause of all diseases, and a whopping 70% agreed that “the chiropractic subluxation may be related to the cause of most diseases.”  To the question of whether they thought that the subluxation hypothesis was scientifically supported 95% said that it was only “partially” supported or not supported at all! In other words, chiropractic “doctors” are consciously practicing a theory that has, at best, “partial” scientific support.

  1. A standard joke among chiropractors is: For every “DC” (“doctor” of chiropractic) there is an equal and opposite DC.
  2.  Keating Jr., J.  “Chiropractic: Science and Antiscience and Pseudoscience Side by Side.” Skeptical Inquirer (July/August), pp. 37–43, 1997.
  3. Magner, pages 31 – 32

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