5X5 Episode 91

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5X5 Episode 91
Chiropractic 1
13th July 2010

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5X5 90 5X5 92
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Chiropractic - Part 1[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about the history of chiropractic. Chiropractic began with Daniel David Palmer (D.D. Palmer), at the end of the 19th century, who founded the discipline of chiropractic with some interesting similarities and differences to what we know about chiropractic today.

E: Yes, so at the time that Palmer founded chiropractic in the 1880s, the world was well along into the Second Industrial Revolution. Innovation and creativity was abundant in many areas of industry and knowledge, and the world of medicine was no exception. Health care was branching out to new and unexplored areas, philosophies and techniques. All varieties of treatments and cures, including scientific medicine, vitalism, herbalism, magnetism, leeches, lances, tinctures and patent medicines were competing to be the new method for the upcoming new century. But in the 1880s, both the practitioners and the patients of these medicines did not have much knowledge—still didn't have much knowledge as to the causes or the cures for illnesses. Drugs, medicines and quack cures were becoming more prevalent and were unregulated. So the timing was almost perfect for a concept such as chiropractic to work its way onto the stage of medical treatments. And Palmer, who was a teacher and a grocer before he became a healer specializing in magnetic therapy, was ready to take this quackery to a whole new level.

S: Yeah, and as Evan said, D.D. Palmer began his healing career as a magnetic healer. Magnetism was very popular as a form of unconventional or quack medicine in the 19th century, gaining in popularity after Mesmer and his concept of animal magnetism. So Palmer further extended this notion of using magnetism to heal. And Palmer was also deeply embedded in the spiritualist movements of the time, and he essentially combined notions of magnetic healing and spiritual healing with extending that to the notion of his particular form of vitalism, or the notion that there is a life energy—an energy that separates living things from non-living things and that is responsible for health, and therefore interruptions or either some sort of blockage or imbalance of this life force is commonly blamed in older superstition- or philosophy-based systems for illness. So D.D. Palmer's conception of it was actually not much different than many other even far more ancient concepts of health and disease—there's a blockage in the flow of vitalistic life force. The name that D.D. Palmer gave to that life force as he conceived it was innate or innate intelligence. He felt this extended to people down from God, through their skull into their body and through the body, through the spinal column and the nerves. And that subluxations or displacements in the bones of the vertebrate (the bones of the back) would block the flow of innate intelligence and therefore cause illness. His ideas were actually very similar to the ideas that were also being founded at this time of osteopathy. Now the osteopaths believed that bony abnormalities would block the flow of blood and therefore, they manipulated the bones in order to restore blood flow, while D.D. Palmer and chiropractic manipulated bones to restore the flow of innate intelligence through the nerves. And straight chiropractors still adhere to that philosophy today, although many chiropractors (perhaps the majority) no longer hold those same philosophical ideas that Palmer did.

J: So Palmer claimed that he discovered chiropractic while he was researching the medical history of a partially deaf man named Harvey Lillard. Lillard told Palmer that 17 years earlier, he felt a pop in his back and his hearing had been impaired ever since. So Palmer examined Lillard and found a lump that he concluded was a spinal misalignment and he speculated that this was a possible cause of Lillard's hearing loss. So Palmer claimed to have corrected the misalignment and that Lillard's hearing improved. However, Lillard's daughter disputed this story, claiming her father told her that he was telling jokes to a friend in the hall outside of Palmer's office and Palmer came out to join him with a book in his hand, so when Lillard got to the punch line, Palmer laughed and smacked him on the back with the book, kinda like a knee-slap reaction to the joke. The book apparently was very heavy, therefore it had enough force behind it that it supposedly affected something on Lillard's back and a few days, later Lillard told Palmer that his hearing seemed better.

S: Now of course the neurological pathways that subsume hearing do not go anywhere through the spine. So there really isn't any anatomical plausibility to D.D. Palmer's story.

J: So as Palmer developed chiropractic, he of course started a school of chiropractic. He established this in 1897 and it was the world's largest school of chiropractic and its alumni went on to start other schools of chiropractic. So D.D. Palmer's son B.J. is actually given credit for greatly expanding the scope of the school and is also responsible for the chiropractic profession as it is today.

B: Yeah, that's true Jay. D.D. and B.J. had a rather rocky relationship after D.D. sold his school of chiropractic to his son. I believe the father was doing a stint in prison and he sold the school to his son, but it seems that each had their own ideas as to the direction the field should go, and it actually got so heated between them that there's a lot of people that attribute D.D.'s death to his son hitting him with a car while he was walking in a parade. D.D. actually died weeks later, apparently of typhoid fever. It's a little ironic that in a book published a few decades later called The Chiropractic Diagnosis, that book states that if you adjust the middle dorsal, lower dorsal and upper lumbar area of the spine, you could actually treat typhoid fever. Father and son did have disagreements about chiropractic, but it seems that having B.J. at the helm really assured his father's legacy because D.D. after all died in 1913 so it hadn't been going for that long. B.J., as Jay mentioned, greatly expanded chiropractic and he successfully fought those early medical community battles when it was really fighting for its life. Today now more than one hundred years, later chiropractic is bigger than ever. It has unfortunately become increasingly accepted by physicians and intertwined with health care systems. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, there are close to 50,000 chiropractors in 2008[1], and many millions of Americans will seek chiropractic care this year.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


Transcriber's notes[edit]

  1. Note that these Bureau of Labor statistics say 27,050 chiropractors for 2008.
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