Chiropractic: A 100 year struggle from pseudoscience to legitimacy

By Mahlon Wagner, Ph. D.

It is estimated that 75% of all Americans will suffer from lower back pain (LBP) at some time. Treatment of this common ailment has been estimated to cost $24 billion every year. (Compare this to the annual cost for treating lung cancer of $4 billion.) Clearly, if inexpensive spinal manipulation (without drugs or surgery) could alleviate some of this suffering it would be most beneficial to the public and health care organizations.

In the United States there are more than 50,000 chiropractors, making them the third largest group of health practitioners after physicians and dentists. The chiropractic of today was popularized in the United States in 1896 by Daniel David Palmer living in Iowa.

Anti-Medical Ideologies

Many chiropractors today continue to follow some of the more controversial ideas of D. D. Palmer and his heirs such as opposition to the use of drugs, to vaccinations and immunizations1, 2 without which the current state of health in our society could not have been achieved.

A recent survey of attitudes by chiropractors 2 shows that 80% do not want children to be required to prove that they have been immunized before entering public schools, between 41% and 68% are ignorant of public health victories over many crippling diseases through immunization programs, and most chiropractors simply reject the scientific evidence.

These attitudes suggest a strong emotional commitment to an anti-medical ideology that has pervaded chiropractic philosophy and history. Subsequent letters responding to the survey give additional ample evidence of this anti-medical paranoia. 3,4,5,6 Student attitudes become increasingly anti-vaccination during their four years of training, and they report informal sources are most important (ignoring scientific evidence).7


In general, most “conventional” chiropractors begin by examining the spine for subluxations and “adjusting” them to relieve LBP and a host of other ailments. Critics argue that subluxations exist only in the minds of the chiropractor. For example, when one potential patient visited several chiropractors, each one found quite different subluxations on spinal x-rays.8

Some chiropractors are quick to claim that patients who have been adjusted often report improvements in such conditions as asthma, bed wetting (enuresis), mental illness, depression, premenstrual syndrome, diabetes, angina and heart disease, colds and flu, constipation, tension and anxiety as well as lower back pain. This last condition, LBP, is the primary reason most patients first consult a chiropractor. There is some research to support the efficacy of spinal manipulation for alleviating LBP.

A 1991 public opinion poll by the Gallup Organization found that “90% of chiropractic patients felt their treatment was effective and more than 80% were satisfied with that treatment.” While patient satisfaction is undoubtedly an important outcome, there are many reasons for differences in patient satisfaction which are not related to the efficacy of the proposed treatment.

Nutritional Advice

Up to 80% of chiropractors give nutritional advice and actually sell nutritional/vitamin supplements directly to their patients.9 Many of these supplements (including homeopathic remedies, Chinese products and glandular substances) appear to be therapeutically worthless, but provide a significant financial income (often more than $50,000 per year).

A survey of California chiropractors found they had received a median of 80 class hours of formal nutrition education and many reported being able to readily diagnose osteoporosis, arthritis and allergies.10 About 65% of all chiropractors are dispensing nutritional products every day.11 These chiropractors encourage patients to come back for monthly adjustments long after the original LBP is gone. Many even suggest regular maintenance adjustments for infants and children to “prevent future health problems” such as colon cancer.12

Applied Kinesiology

Applied Kinesiology is used by 40% of chiropractors.13 It involves testing muscle strength to diagnose “weakness” of bodily organs as well as to determine which remedies (often homeopathic or nutritional supplements) would be effective.

For example, the chiropractor may place a potential remedy upon the chest or the tongue of the patient and test the resistance of one arm to movement before and after placing the remedy. Or the chiropractor might place a potato, egg or other substance upon the chest and discover allergies that need treatment.

Considerable research (some of it found in the chiropractors’ own Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics) has demonstrated that there is no scientific basis to such muscle testing.14

Questionable Methodologies

More than 43% report giving homeopathic remedies. And significant numbers of chiropractors use pendulums (dowsing), and magnet therapy.15, 16 Clearly, the fact that so many chiropractors use these suspect and unproven methods casts serious doubt upon the whole profession.

Recently, one chiropractor noted this disturbing trend and pointed out that many current practices are devoid of rational thinking and, in fact, are dogmatically shamanistic.15

Claims To Legitimacy

The patients and the public are frequently told that “chiropractic works.” “Twenty-five million patients can’t be wrong.” Two thousand four hundred years of spinal manipulations testify to its validity. Since there are no drugs or surgery, it is much safer, milder and more effective than conventional medicine. And we need only look at who supports chiropractic to know that it is worthwhile.

Many famous people have sought out chiropractic treatment, such as: Presidents Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, as well as John Wayne and even several sports teams.17 But this is an example of faulty reasoning. Appeals to authority or a roll call or a majority vote of intellectuals or prominent people is not the appropriate way of deciding scientific truth. There is an old Chinese proverb that even if thousands of people say a foolish thing, it still remains foolish.

The “test of time” argument is also not valid or else we would also have to consider astrology and dowsing to have been proved by their longevity. Longevity also is a poor substitute for good scientific research.

The second claim is that “chiropractic works.” It has been commonly accepted that when left untreated 48% of LBP patients are better within one week, 75 to 85% of sufferers report recovery from LBP within one month and are able to return to work. And 92% recover within two months.

Chiropractic treatment often does provide immediate relief, but this could be temporary or illusory (not due to the treatment itself) and there is conflicting evidence of long-lasting relief.

So when we are told that chiropractic “works” we might often be dealing with a lack of understanding of the placebo effect (that suggestion or even no treatment at all are equally effective) and as Oliver Wendel Holmes (1842) argued:

“90% of those patients seen by a physician in daily practice would recover, sooner or later, with more or less difficulty, providing nothing is done to interfere seriously with the efforts of nature.”18

Whatever one thinks about chiropractic, we must agree that it has achieved great success as an industry. It is licensed in every state and is covered by many health insurance plans.

To what does chiropractic owe its success? First, chiropractic has been described as the “greatest tribute to applied public relations that the world has ever known.” Many chiropractors advertise widely in newspapers and other media and also make extensive use of “practice building seminars” where they learn how to attract patients and how to keep them coming back long after the original pain is gone.

In fact, many of the brochures distributed to patients make claims for chiropractic that are not currently justified by available scientific evidence.19

Second, the chiropractic profession has been claiming persecution by the scientists, physicians and an intellectual elite throughout its 100-year existence. The American public is well known for its sympathies for an underdog or the persecuted, regardless of the reasons for the rejection.

In addition, it has been suggested that precisely because of the AMA opposition, the chiropractic profession temporarily put aside its internal divisiveness to unite against an external hostile force.20

Third, chiropractic shares with other alternative approaches a dissatisfaction with and/or distrust of physicians who may prescribe expensive drugs or painful surgery. Often physicians either find nothing wrong with the patient or else tell them that time alone will cure the ailment.

The first (psychosomatic) suggestion may offend the patient and the second may frustrate the patient who wants a fast, easy “fix.” In contrast, the chiropractor may take more time to talk to the patient and readily agrees that the patient indeed has a problem–a serious problem.

It has even been suggested that it is quite appropriate to ensure patient satisfaction by providing simplistic (and often erroneous) explanations for the patient’s suffering.21 The positive and confident demeanor (of the chiropractor) has been found to result in greater patient satisfaction than the cautious, non-positive demeanor (of the physician).21

The chiropractor impresses upon the patient that he will help by direct, drugless, and essentially pain-free intervention to quickly alleviate the pain. This is followed by a physical ritual of a “laying on of hands.” The healing/therapeutic power of touch is well documented in both scientific research and in the Christian tradition.22

And finally, many chiropractors offer a simplistic explanation about health similar to other “holistic” approaches and reinforce a distrust of conventional medicine and science. Actually it is ironic that chiropractors claim to be holistic when, in reality, many are narrowly fixated upon the spine.

In summary, chiropractors have become excellent salesmen, psychologists and therapists. They have learned to appeal to the fears of the patients and how to offer comfort and relieve anxieties.

This success has been achieved although there is no solid scientific evidence for subluxations. In spite of, or unfortunately, perhaps because of, the use of pseudoscientific techniques such as applied kinesiology, homeopathy and others, and in spite of a vitalistic, occult philosophical tradition, chiropractic is now celebrating 100 years of success.

Distinguishing Good Chiropractic From The Bad

What is very sad is that there are many good, honest, dedicated and scientific chiropractors. These people reject all of the pseudoscience and they shun the unethical and deceptive practices of many chiropractors.

What is needed then, is some way to distinguish these scientifically-oriented practitioners from the poor chiropractors. In fact, suggestions have recently been offered to physicians who may be considering referring patients for chiropractic care.23

But perhaps the best guidelines are negative ones. That is, one should avoid chiropractors who engage in suspicious practices. Warning Signs

As one critic said, much of chiropractic is “the only legally recognized and licensed superstition in the United States today.”24


Mahlon Wagner, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of psychology at the State University of New York, Oswego. This article has appeared on the Senior Mag website and the “Confessions of a Quakerbuster” blog.


1. International Chiropractic Association. Policy Handbook & Code of Ethics. “Immunization and vaccination.” 1993; p. 28. Arlington, VA.

2.Colley F & Haas M. Attitudes on immunization: a survey of American chiropractors. J Manip Physiol Ther. 1994; 17 (9): 584-590.

3. Cashley MAP. Attitudes on immunization: a survey of American chiropractors (letter). J Manip Physiol Ther. 1995; 18 (6):420-421.

4. Colley F & Haas M. Reply to Cashley. J Manip Physiol Ther. 1995; 18 (6): 421.

5. Demetrious J. Attitudes on immunization: a survey of American chiropractors (letter). J Manip Physiol Ther. 1996; 19 (4): 280-281.

6. Colley F & Haas M. Reply to Demetrious. J Manip Physiol Ther. 1996; 19 (4): 281-282.

7. Busse JA, Kulkarni AV, Campbell JB & Injeyan HS. Attitudes toward vaccination: a survey ofCanadian chiropractic students. Canadian Medical Journal, 2002; (June) 166 (2): 1531-1534.

8. Jarvis W. Chiropractic: a skeptical view. Skep Inquirer. 1987; 12: 47-55.

9.Christensen MG & Morgan D. Job analysis of chiropractic, summary of the practice of chiropractic within the United States. 1993. Greeley, CO: National Board of Chiropractic Examiners.

10.Newman CF, Downes NJ, Tseng RY, McProud LM & Newman LK. Nutrition-related backgrounds and counseling practices of doctors of chiropractic. J Amer Dietetic Assoc. 1989; 89: 939-943.

11.Barrett S. Chiropractors and nutrition: the supplement underground. Nutr Forum. 1992; 9 (July/August): 25-28.

12. Peet P & Peet J. Chiropractic Pediatric & Prenatal Reference Manual. 1992; South Burlington, VT: Baby Adjustors, Inc.

13.Gemmell HA & Jacobson BH. Practice methods and procedures of chiropractic doctors in Oklahoma. Oklahoma Chiropr J. 1989; (Spring): 6-7.

14.Klinoski B & LeBoeuf C. A review of the research papers published by the International College of Applied Kinesiology from 1981-1987. J Manip Physiol Ther. 1990; 13: 190-194.

15.Hultgren GM & Jeffers JS. Shamanism, a religious paradigm: its intrusion into the practice of chiropractic. J Manip Physiol Ther. 1994; 17 (6): 404-410.

16.Hawk E, Byrd L, Jansen RD & Long CR. Use of complementary healthcare practices among chiropractors in the United States: a survey. Altern Ther. 1999; 5 (1): 56-62.

17.Wilk CA. Chiropractic Speaks Out. 1976; Park Ridge, IL: Wilk Publ Co.

18.Holmes OW. (1842) Homoeopathy and its kindred delusions. In Stalker D & Glymour C. (Eds.) Examining Holistic Medicine. 1985; Buffalo NY: Prometheus Press.

19. Grod, JP, Sikorski, D & Keating JC. Unsubstantiated claims in patient brochures from large state, provincial and national chiropractic associations and research agencies. JMPT, 2001; 24 (5): 4-9.

20.Kaptchuk TJ & Eisenberg DM Chiropractic: origins, controversies and contributions. Arch Intern Med. 1998;159 (Nov 9): 2215-2224.

21.Thomas KB. General practice consultations: is there any point in being positive? BMJ. 1987; 294: 1200-1202.

22.Firman GL & Goldstein MS. The future of chiropractic: a psychosocial view. NEJM. 1975; 293: 639-642.

23.Homola S. Finding a good chiropractor. Arch Fam Med. 1998; 7 (Jan/Feb): 20-23.

24.Weil A. Chapter 11. Some medical heresies: osteopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy. In: Healing and Health. 1983; Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 123-142.

6 thoughts on “Chiropractic: A 100 year struggle from pseudoscience to legitimacy

  1. I agree with much that has been stated in this writing and I respect Dr. Wagner’s opinion. However, I think the article could’ve been a bit more objective. If you are reviewing medical journals like JAMA or NEJM, you will consistently find bias and lack of natural therapies due to private interest funding.

    The neurophysiology of chiropractic manipulation is scientifically explained very well by the work in “Principals of Neural Science” by Kandel and Schwartz. Dr. David Seamen and Frederick Carrick ( also describe in-depth the central nervous system consequences of afferent stimuli into any joint-complex dysfunction. It’s a long way from just placebo, as biomechanical problems in the spine can be measured, corrected and alleviate the cause of many types of pain.

    As far as the medical paranoia is concerned, the iatrogenic problems / deaths per year by modern medicine are staggering. JAMA (July 26, 2000;284(4):483-5) reports medical doctors are the 3rd leading cause of death, killing over 225,000 people annually:

    – 12,000 — unnecessary surgery
    – 7,000 — medication errors in hospitals
    – 20,000 — other errors in hospitals
    – 80,000 — infections in hospitals
    – 106,000 — non-error, negative effects of drugs

    I am not anti-medicine because I point out those facts. This is healthy skepticism and critically analytical thinking. Medicine functions incredibly in crisis situations but fails miserably in chronic disease treatment. Vaccines have actually taken credit for eradicating diseases that naturally stopped due to better sanitation practices occurring in the last hundred years.

    One need only to examine the history of medicine here in the US to know why the disease rates in this country are so high. Treatment tends to be, for the most part, only suppression of symptoms. This is falsely advertised as health restoration when it is not the case.

    The real danger of much of medicine is the arrogance and tunnel vision indoctrination that is bread in med school (mostly from older Physicians). The subconscious assumption is that any therapy that was important or scientific would’ve been taught to the MD in school. This doesn’t take into consideration of the conflict of interest associated with medical institutions and training, as British Medical Journal pointed out.

    The AMA is a monopoly in every sense of the word and was even found guilty of unlawful conspiracy in restraint of trade “to contain and eliminate the chiropractic profession” in the Wilk case in the late 80’s. The Flexner Report of 1910, which established this “gatekeeper,” had nothing to do with science, just politics, greed, and money as history proves.

    Nutritional advice and supplementation is not worthless, as you may want to take some time and review the American and European Journals of Clinical Nutrition and Biochemistry. Let’s not forget where many pharmaceutical active ingredients are derived from (plants, herbs, etc..).

    In our office, we perform specific functional lab testing to determine exactly what is needed in what amounts. You speak of DC’s making a small fortune off of supplements but you fail to acknowledge the kick-backs, vacations, etc. MD’s receive at the end of the year from Big Pharma. Not to mention, the bulk of doctors in the field are trained by Pharm reps.

    My office receives many referrals from medical doctors of all types because I show and explain to them scientifically how the treatments work. The results speak for themselves, that’s why we continue to get referrals.

  2. Matthew Loop is a chiropractor, and understandably he chooses primarily to denigrate modern medicine using discredited and unsupported statements. First, the iatrogenic deaths reported in the 2000 study have been thoroughly examined (in the medical literature) and discounted. Mr. Loop seems unaware of any medical literature which does not support his biases. As another example, recently in books and scientific articles Prof E. Ernst has convincingly demonstrated that there are very few additional benefits from chiropractic treatment found in the scientific literature.
    Most medical doctors and the medical profession as a whole are aware of their shortcomings and seems to be constantly striving to improve the profession and health care in general. In addition, it really isn’t logical to suggest that because there are flaws in one system, that automatically another system is superior. We must examine that second system itself to see its promises and also its flaws. And Mr. Loop seems intent on showing the legitimacy of chiropractic by attempting to find flaws in modern medicine.
    If one visits Mr. Loop’s website one sees that he emphasizes “practice building” to other chiropractors. It is to be hoped that he would spend equal time on attempting to scientifically validate the basic claims of chiropractic.
    And finally, by chance I managed to find many comments by Mr. Loop on Amazon where he writes glowing reports on many alt medicine books, and he seems to also have written an uncritical book about dubious cancer cures and treatments which has been severely criticized on One wonders if Mr. Loop understands the usefulness of “critical thinking” and “healthy skepticism” when applied to chiropractic and to modern medicine.

  3. That’s awesome. I have found much more problems in my neighbourhood of back pain. This is very common when you always tends to relax if you are in a sitting job. whenever you are tensed you lie back on your back.

    If you use your back too much then what will your back do??


  4. Mahlon,

    I agree with the fact that in my profession there are some that tend to utilize questionable methods to earn a quick buck, however I think it is safe to say you could direct this to any profession. Chiropractic is simply releasing the bodys ability to heal itself. Its efficacy has and will continue to be measured by objective measurements such as range of motion, changes on x-ray, and tonal changes; just to name a few.

  5. Keith Kramer admits to Chiropractic’s questionable methods. He suggests changes on x-ray is an objective measurement. However, never have subluxations (or their corrections) been documented on x-rays. Multiple chiropractors looking at the same x-ray will find different locations for the mysterious subluxation. Surely they should agree on precisely where the subluxation exists on the x-ray. As long as many chiropractors deny the germ theory of disease, and oppose vaccinations (and/or claim autism is caused by vaccinations)they will remain merely one more discredited alternative method of healing. Physical therapists who do spinal manipulation therapy (minus subluxation theory) have demonstrated effectiveness in some kinds of muscle pain.

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