Chiropractic Quackery: The Wacky Fringe Side

Chiropractic Quackery: The Wacky fringe - cartoon of a person's spine
Spine Logo vector created by roserodionova – Freepik

Let’s say your back hurts. You go to a chiropractor, over a few visits they crack a few joints, and that’s all she wrote, right? That’s certainly what I used to think about chiropractic. It turns out, though, that quackery has been around from the very beginning of chiropractic. The modern back-cracking that most of us are familiar with has been built on some rather out-there origins.

Traditional/straight chiropractic

the mid-1890s by D.D. Palmer founded chiropractic in the mid-1890s. According to Wikipedia, he claimed that the idea came to him from “the other world.” Which other world, you might ask? Apparently, whatever world was the home to a doctor who had died 50 years prior. So yeah, we’re not starting off well.

Old-school chiropractic types, also known “straight” chiropractors, believe in vitalism, which is the notion that there’s some sort of life energy that distinguishes living from non-living things. Ah, non-measurable life force energy, a popular favourite in many different forms of quackery (e.g. reiki). Straight chiropractors also reject scientific principles. 

In traditional chiropractic, all health problems are seen as stemming from vertebral subluxation. This is thought to interfere with the “innate intelligence” expressed through the nervous system, which, in turn, impairs the body’s natural healing abilities. These so-called subluxations aren’t actually visible on X-ray, though, so it’s not clear that they are literally real.

According to an editorial by Johnson and colleagues, the American Medical Association put up a fight against chiropractic, even creating a “Committee on Quackery” to “contain and eliminate chiropractic.” In 1966, the AMA adopted a policy that described chiropractic as an “unscientific cult” with a “rigid adherence to an irrational, unscientific approach to disease causation.”

Modern “mixer” chiropractic

“Mixers” take a more modern approach that retains some of the old beliefs but also incorporates science. They accept the idea that vertebral subluxation is not the sole cause of disease.

Websites of modern chiropractic organizations mostly focus on the back/joint pain that you might expect. That’s what they do, they know how to do it, no problem. However, there’s a bit of quackery mixed in here and there, as the original beliefs associated with chiropractic haven’t entirely gone away.

The website of the Association of Chiropractic Colleges says this about vertebral subluxation:

“Chiropractic is Concerned [sic] with the preservation and restoration of health, and focuses particular attention on the subluxation.

A subluxation is a complex of functional and/or structural and/or pathological articular changes that compromise neural integrity and may influence organ system function and general health.”

Sounds a bit different from the “straight” perspective, but a subtle flavour is still there.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says this about chiropractic:

“… [It] emphasizes the body’s ability to heal itself. Treatment typically involves manual therapy, often including spinal manipulation. Other forms of treatment, such as exercise and nutritional counseling, may be used as well.”

It adds that the purpose of joint manipulations is to improve joint motion and function. That sounds quite reasonable. Nutritional counselling seems like a bit of a random add-on,  but I didn’t see an explanation of the reasoning behind that.

Side effects

Side effects of spinal manipulations are common; it’s estimated that up to 61% of people experience a short-term worsening of pain and stiffness. In some cases, manipulation of the upper spine can lead to permanent disability or even death.

Strokes occur as an adverse event in an estimated 5 out of 100,000 manipulations; note that this is the number of manipulations, not the number of patients.

Still quacking

In my neck of the woods, chiropractors have been in the news in recent years for taking an anti-vaccination stance. The original chiropractor, D.D. Palmer, described vaccines as “filthy animal poisons,” and the basis for this was his rejection of the medical field as a whole. Modern anti-vax chiropractors focus heavily on what they see as downsides to the vaccine without acknowledging any public health benefits. “Straight” chiropractors are also against water fluoridation.

In my province (British Columbia, Canada), the regulatory body for chiropractors has recently issued a directive that chiropractors are not to make claims that they can reposition fetuses in utero, including turning them from the breech position. They’re also not allowed to claim that they can make labour shorter, easier, and less traumatic, or that they can treat postpartum depression. The regulator cites a lack of evidence as the reason for its directive. The fact that this is even an issue at all clearly implies that some chiropractors were making these unsupported claims in the first place.

If you’d like to see some straight chiropractic quacky fun, you can check out the video here (there’s no hyperlink because I’d rather not give them a backlink):

So what does this mean?

Overall, it sounds like chiropractic started with a foundation of quackery, and then most chiropractors (although not all, like the guy in the video) built some much more reasonable layers over top. The problem with shaky foundations, though, is how do you trust what you’re walking on?

Were you aware of chiropractic’s quacky past (and present)?


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23 thoughts on “Chiropractic Quackery: The Wacky Fringe Side”

  1. I didn’t know this. My Dad’s been going to a chiropractor recently because of back pain; he seems to think it’s helped. Whether it would have happened anyway is another question.

  2. I go auch when I think about it. The most that I’m willing to have done is a traditional massage, no need to deblock any chi highways in my spine thank you.
    I’ve seen gruesome videos where those so called ‘doctors’ just torture people and even disabled children undergo some kind of ‘treatment’ which is clearly not good.
    The government should ban all those who are ‘claiming’ to heal when there are health risks or serious financial risks involved.

  3. Not surprised. I went to a “gentle” one for around a year on the rec of a regular doc I trusted. There were minor neck massages and some vibrating thingie attached to my shoulder. Nothing happened except a slight lightening of my finances due to the insurance copay per visit. He wanted to do treatments on my feet, which he insisted were messed up in some way (they aren’t), and also warned me if I quit going I would soon lose mobility in my right arm. That was 10 years ago 🙄

      1. Good point. Although, while I’d like to go to a massage therapist too, it’s never quite happened. I have some intermittent lower back issues, and am concerned about the therapy considering those. I’ve been told not to worry, but I invariably do.

  4. We have recurring low back problems. First time we went to Chiro was 25 years ago when our back hurt and we could barely walk. Chiro said, “we can’t help disc issues.” He then proceeded to attempt to sign us up for a treatment plan of x weeks for $750 prepaid. We declined, since he couldn’t actually treat us when we were “acute” and never went back.

    Car accident about 5 years ago. It paid for Chiro so we went. It’s kind of like worrying: we have no evidence that it helped and it felt like we were doing “something.” Had to go to ER for something, and ER docs said that Chiro neck adjustments rupture blood vessels in patient’s necks frequently enough that they had to check us for that! We never had our neck adjusted again and when insurance ran out, we did not return to Chiro

    Our Physical therapists have incorporated spinal work in the last 25 years, but very gently—no cracking

  5. I worked in the office of a sports Chiropractor for 3 years. I saw some people helped and others not. He was actually quite good at spotting MS in patients and making sure they went to get tested rather than adjusting them needlessly.

    My mom went to one who was a quack and when I worked as a personal trainer he hired me to do physical therapy with his patients. I quit after 1 week because he was nuts.

    My take on Chiropractic is you need to strengthen the surrounding muscles or you are bound to a life of chiropractic adjustments to keep things in place and it can become costly. There are some who are nuts, but I think that’s the case with all medical professions. Some are great, other’s not so much. I went to an internal doctor who told me to stop talking so much and chewing gum and that would help my stomach problems WTF and that was after his office manager asked when I was due and I wasn’t pregnant. I told them both to fuck off and left the office. Eventually I got the right doctor and ended up needing an 8 hour abdominal surgery. My insides had been ripped to shit after my 4th baby.

    In my case, I have a cyst on my spinal column creating severe spinal stenosis. No amount of chiropractic is going to help that. Just imagine if I went complaining of back pain, lol, they would have been adjusting me forever. I have no doubt they would have seen things “0ff” on my x-rays and would have tried to convince me that was the cause of my back pain. I can help my symptoms by strengthening the muscles that have been weakened from over compensation. My hope is to avoid spine surgery at all cost.

    My recent Ketamine fun was for mystery widespread body pain.

    1. You’re right, there are some nutbars in any field. Stop talking so much? Seriously? And no one should be asking a woman when she’s due unless she is clearly about to give birth any minute now,

  6. Ha! I’ve always been a bit leery with chiropractic without having any idea about its origins. Although, I do know some people who swear by it. I suppose like everything there are some who are genuinely interested in helping people with pain and others who are quacks! Either way, this was a very interesting read.

    1. It sounds like the ones who stick to back pain actually know what they’re doing, at least to some extent, and the out-there types are at least in the minority.

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