Spinal manipulation, which is at the heart of chiropractic, has been an integral part of massage-type therapies since ancient times. The ancient Chinese practiced it. The Greek physician Hippocrates recommended it. And the Greco-Roman physician Galen reported curing hand weakness and numbness by manipulating the seventh cervical vertebra, which is located at the base of the neck.
But the specific type of spinal manipulation used in chiropractic was accidentally discovered in 1895 by Daniel David (D. D.) Palmer of Davenport, Iowa. Palmer ran a fish store, but he practiced laying on of handsa combination of massage and hypnotherapy-on the side.
In 1899, Palmer opened a chiropractic school in Davenport. (It’s still the largest and best-known chiropractic training program in the United States.) He enrolled only a handful of students in the first few yearsone of whom was his own son, Bartlett Joshua, better known as B. J.
B. J. Palmer became the chief promoter of chiropractic and an outspoken critic of mainstream medicine. His flamboyance attracted scores more students to his father’s school. But his M.D. bashing rankled the medical establishment. Davenport’s mainstream doctors persuaded local authorities to arrest both Palmers. The charge: practicing medicine without a license.
During the 1920s, many chiropractors spent time in jail on similar charges. But prosecutors couldn’t find people to testify that they had been harmed by chiropractic. Eventually, the arrests ceased. By the 1930s, states began licensing chiropractors. By 1974, chiropractic was legal in all 50 states, and about 23,000 licensed chiropractors were treating about eight million Americans.
The “New” Chiropractic
A cornerstone of mainstream medicine’s criticism of chiropractic has been that the spinal misalignment that D. D. Palmer postulated (called subluxations) can’t been seen on x-rays. Many chiropractors have questioned the concept of subluxations as well. “Positive health changes have never been convincingly correlated with vertebral alignment,” notes Daniel Redwood, D.c., a chiropractic physician at Atlantic Chiropractic in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “After an adjustment resulting in dramatic relief from back or headache pain, x-rays rarely show any discernible change in spinal alignment.” In addition, a landmark 1994 study found that many people who don’t have back pain do have significant spinal misalignment.
According to the current theory, chiropractic works not by realigning vertebrae but by normalizing the motion of the vertebrae as they move against one another. Very subtle changes in the motion of the vertebrae can have a profound impact on the nerves that run through them. One study showed that even the very smallest amount of pressure on the nerve root can decrease electrical transmission through the nerve by as much as 50 percent. These findings make chiropractic seem more like acupuncture. Both therapies seek to free blocked energy within the body, though by different means. And both therapies stimulate the production of endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers.
As acupuncture and other alternative therapies have grown in popularity, most chiropractors have expanded their practices. These days, only 15 percent of chiropractors-the “straights” -limit themselves to spinal manipulation. The remaining 85 percent-the “mixers” -may blend spinal manipulation with Western medicine or with other alternative disciplines such as Chinese herbal medicine, relaxation therapies, and nutritional therapies.