Chiropractic: Quackery Hiding in Plain Sight

Chiropractic adjustment is a scam! It’s quackery of the purest kind dreamt up by a snake-oil salesman who claimed he was told from beyond the grave that manual therapy, especially spinal manipulation therapy, restores your body’s “innate intelligence”, curing all of your ailments. There is no scientific evidence that it can restore or maintain health, and only lukewarm evidence that it can help with lower back pain, with most credible research putting it on par with a good massage. Chiropractic adjustments are frequently associated with mild to moderate adverse effects, with serious or fatal complications in rare cases. Yet, despite these well-documented facts, chiropractic adjustment remains a $15-billion industry, with the largest number of chiropractors (approximately 75,000 of them) found in the United States. There, this quackery has wormed its way into the health care system and the psyche of the general population, who have been conned into thinking that this pseudo-medical alternative therapy has real health benefits, and who allow these charlatans to perform potentially fatal manipulations upon them. (See “Y-strap” in video below) 

Here in the UK, chiropractic adjustment is relatively unpopular, with only 3,000 registered chiropractors nationwide. This is probably due, in part, to the fact that most Brits see it for what it is – a scam, and it is often lumped together with other New Age alternative therapies. Even the NHS calls it a “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), which is their code words for “bulls**t”, and warns people about the possible risk of stroke associated with spinal manipulation. Up until recently, I thought everyone was on the same page regarding the ineffectiveness of chiropractic, however, my comments section was inundated with people telling me that I was wrong when I listed it as an example of modern-day quackery. 

“Whilst many see quacks as relics of the past, from a time when modern medicine was still in its infancy, the truth is that they are still among us. Wearing the cloak of science and playing on the fears of their victims, they are master salesmen who often convince their punters to come back for more and more and more. Whereas they once stood atop a soapbox spouting their dubious claims free of legal consequences, they now do it online, hidden behind disclaimers leaving behind a wake of misery. Yes, they may no longer be selling literal snake oil, but what about homeopathy? acupuncture? chiropractic adjustment? organic diets? all of which (we are told by these charlatans) will cure our aches and pains, and all of which have zero credible evidence of their effectiveness” – Myles Power

After reading the comments defending chiropractic adjustment, which were almost exclusively written by Americans, I realised that there is a lot of misinformation out there. My hope with this blog post is to counter some of that misinformation and attempt to critically evaluate its effectiveness. However, before I do that, I believe a quick history lesson is needed on chiropractic’s quasi-mystical origins.

The first chiropractic adjustment was performed in 1895 by Daniel David Palmer, who manipulated the spine of a deaf janitor by the name of Harvey Lillard, allegedly curing him of his deafness. For this, D.D Palmer, who was an avid proponent of various forms of pseudoscientific alternative medicine, as well as a practising magnetic healer and spiritualist, is known as the father of chiropractic medicine, despite not coming up with the idea himself. Instead, D.D Palmer was given the knowledge of chiropractic from a deceased medical physician by the name of Dr. Jim Atkinson during a seance.

“The knowledge and philosophy given me by Dr. Jim Atkinson, an intelligent spiritual being, together with explanations of phenomena, principles resolved from causes, effects, powers, laws, and utility, appealed to my reason. The method by which I obtained an explanation of certain physical phenomena, from an intelligence in the spiritual world, is known in biblical language as inspiration. In a great measure, The Chiropractor’s Adjuster was written under such spiritual promptings.” – D.D. Palmer

The origins of chiropractic are also backed up by his son and fellow chiropractor, B.J. Palmer.

“Father often attended the annual Mississippi Valley Spiritualists Camp Meeting where he first claimed to receive messages from Dr. Jim Atkinson on the principles of chiropractic.” – B.J. Palmer.

D.D. Palmer, as well as other magnetic healers of the time, believed that the human body had an ample supply of natural healing power transmitted through the nervous system. The name he coined for this healing power was “innate intelligence“, which he believed when obstructed resulted in illness. He dubbed these obstructions “spinal misalignments”, or “subluxations”, and believed that spinal manipulation would help restore normal “nerve supply” of this “innate intelligence”, and thus heal the recipient. At this point, spinal manipulation was not a technique for treating spinal or musculoskeletal problems, it was a cure for all human illness. Early chiropractic pamphlets hardly mention back or neck pain, but assert that “chiropractic could address ailments such as insanity, sexual dysfunction, measles, and influenza.” 

“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.” – D.D. Palmer

At one point both Palmer and his son gave serious consideration to establishing a religion based around chiropractic adjustments. The reason for this is that they believed, as many chiropractors still do, that “men do not cure”, and that spinal manipulation healing properties come from a Divine Creator who is using the chiropractor as a conduit. 

Picture of D.D. Palmer

Although initially keeping chiropractic a family secret, in 1898 D.D. Palmer began teaching it to a few students at his new Palmer School of Chiropractic. Later, his son, B.J. Palmer, took over the school, and rapidly expanded its enrolment, which put a strain on their already tenuous relationship. D.D. Palmer disagreed with the direction of the emerging field under his son’s leadership, and the two became bitter rivals, amplified by B.J. Palmer’s underlying resentment for the way his father had treated him and his siblings as children. In 1913, Palmer was struck from behind by a car driven by his son and later died in hospital. The official cause of death was recorded as typhoid (something which chiropractic adjustment should be able to cure), however, many (including myself) believe that it is more than likely that he died as a result of the injuries caused by his son. 

B.J. Palmer

Initially, the success of chiropractic was considerable, and by 1925, more than 80 chiropractor schools had been established in the United States. 

“Give me a simple mind that thinks along single tracts, give me 30 days to instruct him, and that individual can go forth on the high- ways and byways and get more sick people well than the best, most complete, all around, unlimited medical education of any medical man who ever lived.” B.J. Palmer.

Nearly all of these schools were diploma mills offering a quick and easy way to make money from the desperate, and most were at each other’s throats. 

As the concepts of chiropractic are not based on solid science and are instead rooted in quasi-mystical gibberish, it was only a matter of time before the profession would start to fracture. There are now, today, numerous chiropractic factions, some of which hold diametrically opposing beliefs. The two largest of these factions are the “straights”, who religiously adhere to D.D. Palmer’s notion of the “innate intelligence”, and view subluxation as the sole cause of all human disease, and the “mixers”, who are somewhat more open to conventional medicine and see chiropractors as back pain specialists. This should be enough to discourage anyone thinking of seeing a chiropractor, as you don’t know what flavour of spinal manipulation they subscribe to. It’s the equivalent of visiting a general practitioner and having to worry that you might be prescribed blood-letting. 

Although pure “straights” are now in the minority, there is a large overlap between the two groups, and you will often find “mixers” making patently false medical claims about chiropractic. For example, The British Chiropractic Association (BCA), which is meant to be the respectable face of the chiropractic profession, once promoted that its members could treat, among other things, asthma in children. In his 2008 column, “Beware the Spinal Trap”, published in The Guardian, theoretical and particle physicist, Simon Singh, said the following…

“You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact, they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma, and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.” – Simon Singh

The BCA responded by suing Singh for libel, claiming that he was stating as a matter of fact that the Association was being consciously dishonest in promoting chiropractic for treating children’s ailments. The libel suit was a PR nightmare for the BCA and inspired the filing of formal complaints of false advertising against more than 500 individual chiropractors within one 24-hour period. The backlash was so intense that it prompted the McTimoney Chiropractic Association to write to its members telling them to remove leaflets that made claims about whiplash and colic from their practice and to be wary of new patients and telephone inquiries. They also told their members, “If you have a website, take it down NOW” and “Finally, we strongly suggest you do NOT discuss this with others, especially patients”. The BCA eventually withdrew its suit, but by this point, the damage had already been done. They had been publicly dragged through the dirt, their bogus claims exposed, and they were accused of using British libel law to suppress debate. 

As I said at the beginning, there is no scientific evidence that chiropractic can restore or maintain health, and only lukewarm evidence that it can help with lower back pain. So, if this is the case, why do so many people say that a chiropractor helped them with their lower back pain? The answer is the same reason why those who take homeopathy believe it is treating their ailments. As the chiropractor, Preston Long, author of Chiropractic Fraud and Abuse: An Insider’s Lament, said…

“The fact that patients swear by us does not mean we are actually helping them. Satisfaction is not the same thing as effectiveness” – Preston Long

Generally, research carried out into the effectiveness of chiropractic has been of poor quality and research published by chiropractors is distinctly biased. Controlled clinical studies of treatments used by chiropractic have repeatedly shown that there is “no evidence that spinal manipulative therapy is superior to other standard treatments for patients with acute or chronic low-back pain”. Systematic reviews of spinal manipulation have also shown the same thing; that it is pure quackery, and no better than a good massage. 

Although many people say that chiropractic helps them, around half of all chiropractic patients experience mild-to-moderate adverse effects such as pain or worsening of symptoms. Although rare, there have been cases where spinal manipulation has been associated with more severe complications; some leading to stroke or even death. A systematic review of the latest available evidence found at least 700 people who had serious complications and 50 people had died as a direct result of spinal manipulation from a chiropractor. The review noted that these are probably not reliable figures, referencing five surveys published in the literature in which doctors were asked to report instances where their patients have experienced serious adverse effects after visiting a chiropractor. The results invariably disclosed a multitude of complications after chiropractic manipulation, all of which were not reported in the medical literature, implying that the actual numbers are much higher. Another systematic review reported 14 cases of adverse effects of spinal manipulation in children, 10 of which involved serious complications. 

The last thing I want to get off my chest is the fact that chiropractic “doctors” are not real doctors, and you should not be going to them for medical advice. Not only are there multiple cases of delayed or missed diagnosis through people consulting a chiropractor, but many hold anti-science views on such things as the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations. An American survey was carried out on 1% of all U.S chiropractors, of which one-third of the sample agreed with the statement that there is no scientific proof that immunisation prevents diseases, that it causes more disease than it prevents, and that contracting an infectious disease is safer than immunisation. 

I also think that many chiropractors have ideas above their station and believe, erroneously, that they are part of the medical community, and thus have the authority to give out medical advice. In reality, they are not; they are people who have wasted a large portion of their life studying either the ramblings of a quack and his spooky ghost friend or a technique of pain management which, time and time again, has been shown to be ineffective. Either way, studying chiropractic was their mistake, not yours, and you should not encourage their delusions of grandeur.

I think I have clearly shown that chiropractic adjustment is a scam, and I didn’t even have to mention its aggressive marketing, its links with Scientology, the chiropractors who are deceiving people into believing they are medical doctors, the high incident rate of sexual boundary transgressions, or the ridiculous amount of fraud perpetrated by chiropractors. However, I know this blog post will be rejected by proponents of chiropractic for being biased or one-sided and I don’t care. This blog post was never for them who in all likelihood they are too invested to critically evaluate their industry. This blog post is for those seriously considering visiting one of these quacks and hopefully, I have convinced you not to.

About Myles Power (715 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

5 Comments on Chiropractic: Quackery Hiding in Plain Sight

  1. I used to do sales at a “corrective” chiropractic clinics. I could fill a tlon episode with the stories of how they scam people. Whether it’s the UK or US, whether it’s a straight or mixer, pain relief or corrective, you always have a better option then to see a charlatan like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An excellent article. Many of the same issues apply to osteopathy. For some reason, osteopathy seems to be seen as more legitimate than chiropractic even though the two professions are actually closely related and similar techniques are used.

    Like

  3. Until I read this article, I thought chiropractic’s chicanery consisted of cracking people’s joints and calling it therapy. Having visited two, and never returned, I dubbed the so-called doctors “crack quacks.” Now I know the chicanery was at one time even more ludicrous.

    Like

  4. Can you cover accupunture. I’ve heard mixed results and my uni opened an accupunture course recently

    Like

  5. Shame on you, Myles, please do your research.
    It is sad to hear Myles call all chiropractors frauds, regardless of their education and certification.
    In most Nordic countries chiropractors are part of the public health service and are highly regarded, and you have to study chiropractics for 5 years to get your license.
    In Norway the national health service performed a study evaluating the effectiveness of chiropractics before giving the treatment a seal of approval in 1989, and granting chiropractors the right to give sick leave.
    Just like doctors around the world differ greatly in competence, so do chiropractors. I have tried maybe 7 chiropractors from when I was 13 to now 50 years old, two of them were useless, and two have been lifesavers. The last one ended a week of excruciating pain in a single visit.
    The origins of school medicine was also terrible, and Myles uses the founder of chiropractics for theatrics.
    We all know how easy it is to get kinks in our necks or sciatic pain, from the tiniest movement. And nothing shows up on an xray or any other scan. Why is it impossible that another tiny movement could move things back to the right position?
    Good, certified chiropractors work.
    Just check out this video of Dr Ian:

    Backrub? I don’t think so!
    Or watch the testimonials in the channel of Dr Ace:
    https://youtube.com/user/acethayer1
    He never even touches their backs!

    Like

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