Is chiropractic for real or just quackery? (2024)

Is chiropractic for real or just quackery? (1)

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Cecil replies:

The short answer: It depends on who’s doing it and what kind of results you expect.

Chiropractic was dreamed up in Davenport, Iowa, in 1895 by a guy named Daniel David Palmer. Unburdened by any formal medical training (not that medical training circa 1895 was always so great), Palmer was a devotee of phrenology, magnetic therapy, and other metaphysically inclined notions of the era, and he conceived of chiropractic as a “philosophy, art, and science” of healing. Its core premises: (1) the body is possessed of an “innate intelligence” that permits it, under ordinary circ*mstances, to repair itself as needed; (2) this innate intelligence is transmitted through the nervous system, and disease is usually caused by disruptions in the “nerve flow” resulting from “subluxation,” or misalignment, of the vertebrae; therefore (3) pretty much any ailment — deafness, heart trouble, you name it — can be treated by manual adjustments to the spine. (Hence the chiro- part, from a Greek root meaning “hand”; practice means “practical,” as opposed to theoretical.) Such an adjustment would typically consist of an abrupt push or pull on the back or neck, involving about the same range of movement as cracking your knuckles.

Before we go any further, there’s a nomenclature issue to address: In conventional medicine, a subluxation is a standard-issue partial dislocation, the kind of thing that’s easily spotted on an X-ray. So when chiropractors appropriated the term to describe typically imperceptible spinal abnormalities or functional problems that don’t lend themselves to direct observation — well, I won’t say it’s been the biggest barrier to mainstream acceptance of chiropractic, but it hasn’t helped.)

OK, so Palmer was in no small part a wacko, but this hardly differentiated him from many other quasimedical pioneers of the era — back then it was something of a seller’s market for zany ideas about health. What’s alarming is that there are many chiropractors working today who haven’t progressed much beyond Palmer’s initial precepts. These old-school types, known as traditional or philosophy-based chiropractors, still insist that spinal manipulation improves health by restoring the body’s “neural homeostasis.” Generally, such chiropractors don’t bother with clinical diagnosis or medical examination; adjustments aren’t necessarily a cure for what ails you but often a means of managing it long-term, meaning patients come in for multiple treatments over an extended period of time. Is this quackery? The continued existence of philosophy-based chiropractic suggests that some patients at least are experiencing results they’re OK with. Let’s just say I’ve got my doubts about any theory of medicine whose tenets were largely in place before the role of germs was widely understood.

On the other side you’ve got a significant number of chiropractors who’ve been more receptive to medical insights gleaned over the past century. Such new-breed chiropractors are often affiliated with hospitals or doctors’ practices and typically conduct thorough intake exams (including X-rays, MRIs, etc) as a matter of course. They’ll use spinal manipulation to treat non-disease-related back disorders, but they’re willing to break out some other tools in the therapeutic toolbox as well, which may include ultrasound, electric muscle stimulation, rehab exercises, and the like; they’ll also provide suggestions about lifting and bending techniques, diet, and ergonomics. Science-friendly chiropractors tend to have good success rates in combating lower back pain and tension headaches.

As you might imagine, scientific studies haven’t turned up much in support of the traditional chiropractic worldview. Ignoring dodgy research conducted by chiropractic true believers, there’s nothing out there to suggest that the disruption of nerve impulses causes disease. Thus, tweaking the vertebrae in the neck probably isn’t going to help anyone’s ear infection. There is clear evidence, though, that spinal adjustment can provide relief for acute back troubles, widening range of motion, improving function, and decreasing pain.

Then, of course, there are findings that you just don’t see coming. Writing last year in the Journal of Human Hypertension, a team of medical researchers reported on a placebo-controlled study in which people suffering from high blood pressure received a particular chiropractic adjustment to the C-1 or Atlas vertebra, which holds up the head. What happened? The procedure did in fact realign the vertebra with the rest of the spinal column, and the patients who underwent it showed significantly lower blood pressure for a sustained period afterward. It’s not clear why this should be, and the authors caution that it probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but still.

So if you’re suffering from lower back pain, is chiropractic worth a shot? Yeah, maybe. First see a doctor and rule out any underlying disease — if you’ve got osteoporosis, for example, you’re not a good candidate. Keep in mind that if spinal adjustment is going to help, you should see real improvement within a few weeks. And make sure to find a chiropractor who’s operating on a 21st-century scientific model; if you hear “subluxation,” just keep walking.

Cecil Adams

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Is chiropractic for real or just quackery? (2024)


Is chiropractic for real or just quackery? ›

Myth: Medical doctors don't believe in chiropractic treatment. Not all experts agree on the role of chiropractic care in the treatment of certain conditions due to the need for more research. Even so, chiropractic care is largely accepted as a complementary treatment for issues like neck and back pain.

Is chiropractic real or placebo? ›

Numerous controlled clinical studies of treatments used by chiropractors have been conducted, with varied results. There is no conclusive evidence that chiropractic manipulative treatment is effective for the treatment of any medical condition, except perhaps for certain kinds of back pain.

Why do doctors discredit chiropractors? ›

For most of its existence, chiropractic has battled with mainstream medicine, sustained by antiscientific and pseudoscientific ideas such as vertebral subluxation. Chiropractic researchers have documented that fraud, abuse and quackery are more prevalent in chiropractic than in other health care professions.

Why don't physical therapists like chiropractors? ›

Historically, medical doctors and physical therapists did not refer patients to chiropractors because they did not understand the benefits of chiropractic care and they didn't want to risk losing patients.

What does the AMA say about chiropractors? ›

The AMA maintains that a medical practitioner should at all times practice methods of treatment based on sound scientific principle, and accordingly does not recognise any exclusive dogma such as ... chiropractic ... (3). o medical practitioners who are members of the AMA engaging in research work with chiropractors.

Why is chiropractic considered a pseudoscience? ›

Calling chiropractic care a medicinal pseudoscience means claiming that the treatment process is not based on research and that the supposed health benefits are not actually related to chiropractic adjustments. However, that is not true.

Are chiropractors evidence-based? ›

Evidence-based research comes from reputable sources and recent surveys. They are universal in their support for first turning to conservative solutions such as chiropractic treatments: New guidelines from the American College of Physicians now recommend non-pharmacological treatments for low-back pain.

Why is chiropractic so controversial? ›

Chiropractic has been controversial since its inception in 1895, when it began with a claim that 95% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae. Unfortunately, the basic theory of chiropractic has changed very little since then.

What are negatives about chiropractors? ›

Serious complications associated with chiropractic adjustment are overall rare, but may include: A herniated disk or a worsening of an existing disk herniation. Compression of nerves in the lower spinal column. A certain type of stroke after neck manipulation.

Does Joe Rogan believe in chiropractors? ›

Joe Rogan recently came out with a very very viral and popular podcast and video where he said 98 percent of Chiropractic is BS.

What do MD's think about chiropractors? ›

A common misconception is that medical doctors “hate chiropractors.” This generally is not true. They usually dislike any specialist who makes them feel uneasy or unaware about their patient.

Should I get a massage or go to the chiropractor? ›

Those who have specific concerns regarding joint alignment or chronic pain may benefit more from chiropractic care since it is designed for correcting spinal misalignment whereas massage therapy does not correct structural issues but rather reduces pain through loosening muscles and soft tissues.

What do chiropractors struggle with? ›

6 cons of being a chiropractor
  • You spend a lot of time in school. ...
  • You may work overtime hours. ...
  • You perform high-risk procedures. ...
  • You may encounter impolite patients. ...
  • You work in person and may have a long commute. ...
  • You earn a lower salary than other types of doctors.
Mar 3, 2023

Who should not get chiropractic adjustment? ›

Chiropractic Care Is Not Recommended If You Have Any of the Following Conditions:
  • At increased risk for stroke.
  • Severe osteoporosis.
  • Broken/dislocated bones (fracture or dislocation in spine)
  • Bone tumors.
  • Infection in the spine.
  • Severe arthritis.
  • Severely herniated disc or sequestered disc fragment.
Sep 25, 2020

What were the main objections that the AMA had against chiropractors? ›

The AMA and its officials, including Dr. Sammons, instituted a boycott of chiropractors in the mid-1960s by informing AMA members that chiropractors were unscientific practitioners and that it was unethical for a medical physician to associate with chiropractors.

Should a chiropractor give medical advice? ›

Doctors of chiropractic should, when available, willingly consult with and/or recommend other health care professionals when this would benefit their patients or when their patients express a desire for such consultation or recommendation. VIII.

Are chiropractic adjustments a placebo? ›

Some claim that the relief provided by chiropractic adjustments is a “placebo effect.” In other words, your brain tricks your body into feeling better despite no actual change taking place. Is this true? Numerous studies and client testimonials say that it is false.

Is chiropractic treatment placebo? ›

Myth: Medical doctors don't believe in chiropractic treatment. Not all experts agree on the role of chiropractic care in the treatment of certain conditions due to the need for more research. Even so, chiropractic care is largely accepted as a complementary treatment for issues like neck and back pain.

Do chiropractic adjustments do anything? ›

A chiropractic adjustment can help reduce pain, correct your body's alignment and how your body functions physically. Chiropractic adjustments offer treatment that complements traditional medical care you receive.

What is the success rate of chiropractic treatment? ›

Compared to most medical treatments, few interventions can initiate back pain relief and healing like chiropractic adjustments can. The European Spine Journal published findings from a clinical trial uncovering how chiropractic adjustments resulted in a 72 percent success rate in treating sciatica-related symptoms.


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