(Investigator 132, 2010 May)

The word chiropractic comes from the Greek, cheir, (hands) and prakticos, (done by).

Although manipulative techniques to treat pain and disease similar to those practiced in contemporary times have long been in use, it was not until 1895, that it was re-introduced as a formal method of therapy by a Canadian named Daniel David Palmer. Palmer performed a manipulation on the neck of his janitor who had been deaf for seventeen years, and as a result his hearing was restored. Palmer postulated that human health was dependent on the unimpeded function of the nervous system, that is, if the transmission of nervous impulses were blocked by what he called 'subluxation' or an incomplete or partial dislocation of the vertebrae, then this impingement on the nerves would interfere with normal neurological functioning.

In practice then, chiropractic is the manual adjustment of the spine to correct nerve interference and to restore health. While spinal manipulation is perhaps beneficial for certain sport related illnesses it is doubtful that as some claim, all illnesses are treatable this way.

Chiropractic is claimed to be a primary health care system and many chiropractors embrace the holistic medicine philosophy, often including dietary, exercise and nutritional advice as well as counseling on healthy life-style habits. It is promoted as a means of overcoming low back pain, disc disorders, chest, legs, arms, knees and shoulder pains, digestive disorders, menstrual problems, emotional disorders, diabetes, hay fever, asthma, heart problems, acne, ulcers and shingles.

Historically, conventional medical practitioners have displayed a certain antipathy towards chiropractic, and have lobbied to keep it outside the consensual health care system.

The anecdotal reports of patients who have continued to use chiropractors have kept the field alive however, despite scientific and medical studies which dispute both the theory and efficacy of chiropractic.

While most orthodox medical practitioners see chiropractic as a competitive alternative approach to health care, given the expanding curriculum in chiropractic training, the more sympathetic see the issue to be where chiropractic fits into the overall picture of health care. Of particular relevance, as in most cases where 'hands-on' contact characterizes treatment, the patient's perception of the chiropractor as a caring and humanistic healer is paramount in seeking their medical attention.

Palmer's concern was primarily the spine and he confined his use of the term "subluxation" to the thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves that travel down the spine from the brain to a series of openings in the vertebrae. A "luxation", in conventional medical terminology, is simply a dislocation, usually of a joint. By extension, a "subluxation" is a partial dislocation. The problem with the theory is that neither chiropractors nor scientists have been able to confirm the existence of a "subluxation", much less show that it leads to illness.

Studies carried out by Crelin (1973), and Stalker and Glymour (1985), showed that subluxation does not exist. Dissected human spinal columns were subjected by Crelin to various amounts of measured force, and he was unable to demonstrate any pinching of the spinal nerves without actually breaking the spine.

A 1986 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, reported that 84% of 145 chiropractors surveyed by telephone said that "subluxations" are not visible on X-ray, but nearly half said that they "could always find something" when billing Medicare. In 1990 Medicare paid $US181 million for the chiropractic adjustment of these bony displacements of the spine called "subluxations" that are not demonstrable on X-rays.

If, as chiropractors claim, a subluxation causes a particular illness or disability, then once the adjustment has been made the problem should disappear; there should be no need to continually attend a chiropractor for further treatment. While some conditions are amenable to manipulation, most are not and the reputation of alternati ve treatments such as chiropractic rests on the odd dramatic cure, the failures being ignored. Two other dangers associated with alternative therapies are the possibility of delaying diagnosis of a serious disease and of interfering with effective therapy (Crelin 1985).

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 4, 1995, that an actor, Ms Vicki Luke, was awarded a total of $109,000. damages for suffering a spinal injury caused by the manipulation of her spine during treatment by a chiropractor.

The standard medical opinion of chiropractic is, that by ignoring the processes by which organs and tissues relax and contract without direct nervous stimulation – and still become diseased and damaged – the chiropractic manipulation of the spine to treat patients is at best simplistic and at worst, dangerous.


Ballentine, H.T. 1967. "Medicine and Chiropractic." Journal of the American Medical Association. 200: 131-35.

Crelin, E.S. 1973. "A Scientific Test of Chiropractic Theory." American Scientist 61:574-580.

Skrabanek, P. 1984. "Acupuncture and the Age of Unreason." The Lancet, 11, 169-71.

Smith, R.L. 1969. At Your Own Risk: The Case Against Chiropractic. Pocket Books. New York.

Stalker, D. and Glymour, C. (Eds). (1985). Examining Holistic Medicine. Prometheus Books. Buffalo. NY.

Sydney Morning Herald, May 4, 1995. Actor entitled to at least $100.000.

US Department of D.H.E.W.     1975. Acupuncture Anesthesia. Washington DC. DHEW pub. No. (NlH) 75-784.

From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age