The science and evidence base for chiropractic

Chiropractic is a hypothetical system of healing that was invented by a Canadian-born American called Daniel David Palmer (1845–1913). Palmer was heavily into spiritualism and all sorts of ‘energetic’ healing traditions that were current in the late 19th century. He is on record as saying that he got chiropractic from “the other world”. He called it his religion and placed himself on a par with “Christ, Mohamed, Jo. Smith, Mrs. Eddy, Martin Luther and other who have founded religions”.1 For some time he practised as a magnetic healing ‘doctor’.

However, not everyone was taken in by his claims and an 1894 edition of his local paper, the Davenport Leader, observed the following of him:

A crank on magnetism has a crazy notion that he can cure the sick and crippled by his magnetic hands. His victims are the weak-minded, ignorant and superstitious, those foolish people who have been sick for years and have become tired of the regular physician and want health by the short-cut method…he has certainly profited by the ignorance of his victims , for his business has increased so that he now uses forty-two rooms which are finely furnished, heated by steam and lighted by forty electric light…he exerts a wonderful magnetic power over his patients, making many of them believe they are well. His increase in business shows what can be done in Davenport even by a quack.2

The story goes that he met a man who had a lump in his back and who was also deaf. For reasons that aren’t clear, Palmer was convinced that the lump and deafness were connected and that if he could get rid of the lump, it would cure the deafness. He reportedly pummelled the man’s back and got rid the lump, after which the man could supposedly hear again.

Palmer decided that perhaps misaligned vertebrae in the spine caused all disease. He theorised that nerves were trapped by the misaligned vertebrae and that this interrupted the nerve flow necessary to keep ill-health at bay. It followed that manual adjustment to the spine was necessary to realign the vertebrae and free the trapped nerves that were causing the blockage. He called the misaligned vertebrae ’subluxations’. He thought he could feel these ’subluxations’ when he prodded people’s backs and he thought he was successfully poking them back into place.

“A subluxated vertebra…is the cause of 95 percent of all diseases… The other five percent is caused by displaced joints other than those of the vertebral column,” he wrote in his book, The Science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic, published in 1910 and reprinted in 1966. “The kind of disease depends upon what nerves are too tense or too slack,” he wrote in the same book.

X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, two years before Palmer set up the first of several schools of chiropractic. It would be some time before they were widely used in medicine and, as it turns out, chiropractic subluxations did not show up on x-rays. However, by this time, the notion had attracted a following in the United States as one of a variety of unproven therapies in fashion even in the face of increasing opposition from the scientific community. Many chiropractors, including Palmer himself, were jailed for ‘practising medicine without a licence’.

Palmer’s son Bartlett Joshua Palmer took a keen interest in his father’s project and was set on making it less spiritual and more professional. “We manufacture chiropractors. We teach them the idea and then we show them how to sell it.” (Shapiro 2008).

The father and son relationship wasn’t a good one and some blamed B.J. for his father’s death though he was exonerated by the courts and went on to develop the chiropractic idea into the twentieth century.

Despite Palmer’s theory being conclusively discredited as erroneous (and even rejected by a small minority of chiropractors), chiropractic quickly spread outside the United States, reaching the UK in the early 1900s. There, sustained by the formation of various professional associations and colleges, it saw a slow but steady growth in popularity. The last few years have been especially rewarding for the profession in the UK, not least because of its success in gaining the political credence required to achieve statutory regulation.

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1 D.D. Palmer’s Religion of Chiropractic

2 Doctor Who? Inappropriate use of titles by some alternative “medicine” practitioners The New Zealand Medical Journal

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