Chiropractic focuses on manual “adjustments” of the spine and includes a vast array of nonscientific interventions. Chiropractors typically claim that:

  • Spinal joints often develop alleged misalignments, fixations, or other problems they call “subluxations.”
  • Subluxations impair health by interfering with the function of the nervous system.
  • Spinal “adjustments” restore the integrity of the nervous system and enable the body’s inherent recuperative power to restore health. 

Chiropractic’s “subluxation” concept has no validity. Neither its alleged subluxations nor its postulated nerve interference has ever been scientifically demonstrated. Many chiropractors attribute recuperative power to an imaginary “life force” they call “Innate.” Many others refer to “subluxations” as “joint dysfunctions” rather than anatomical impairments, but this concept is just as meaningless. 

Philosophy and treatment methods vary greatly from one chiropractor to another, but there are two main types. “Straight” chiropractors tend to limit themselves to manipulation to “adjust” the spine. Some routinely manipulate the neck to address ailments through the body. “Mixers,” in addition to manipulation, use standard physical therapy methods and a wide spectrum of questionable products and procedures. Many chiropractors detect “subluxations” in healthy individuals. A small percentage of chiropractors reject the subluxation concept and limit their practice to short-term treatment of musculoskeletal conditions using conservative procedures similar to those of physical therapists and osteopaths. 

Spinal manipulation can be an evidence-based therapy offered by physical therapists and doctors of osteopathy as well as by chiropractors. Manipulation may relieve low-back pain of musculoskeletal origin, but it has not been demonstrated superior to other treatments. There is little evidence that spinal manipulation is effective for other musculoskeletal conditions, and its use for non-musculoskeletal conditions is not science-based. Manipulations to correct “subluxations” are never legitimate. 

Many chiropractors falsely claim that chiropractic adjustments can help conditions such as asthma, infant colic, and ear infections. Some even claim that people with perfect spinal alignment will remain disease-free. Most services  encompassed by so-called “pediatric chiropractic” have never been scientifically validated or even tested—and the manipulation of bones that have not yet finished developing may be unsafe. Some chiropractors aspire to be the portal of entry for all medical care, but they are not qualified for that role. Medical education usually takes at least 7 years, whereas chiropractic schools provide a 4-year program with far less quantity or depth of clinical experience. 

Chiropractic surveys have found that the majority of chiropractors use methods that are unsubstantiated and lack a scientifically plausible rationale. The most widely used include: 

  • “Preventive maintenance”—the notion that detection and correction of “subluxations” leads to better general health and should be done regularly from birth onward
  • Fanciful systems of diagnosis and treatment based on “applied kinesiology” muscle testing, leg-length measurement, thermographic scanning, contour analysis, hair analysis, routine x-ray screening, skin resistance measurement (electrodermal testing), and surface electromyography (sEMG).
  • Inappropriate prescription of dietary supplements, herbs, and homeopathic products 

Consumers should also be aware that manipulation can have adverse effects. Soreness in the manipulated area is common. Ruptured discs and broken bones are probably rare. Neck manipulation can cause a stroke by damaging an artery to the brain. Though rare, this complication is serious enough that it should be mentioned in informed consent for all patients for whom neck manipulation is advised. 

SFSBM advises people who contemplate seeing a chiropractor to become thoroughly familiar with chiropractic’s pitfalls. Should you decide to consult one, it would be prudent to seek one who rejects the subluxation concept and whose practice is limited to short-term treatment of musculoskeletal conditions using conservative procedures such as exercises.

Download: chiropractic.pdf

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SfSBM is a nonprofit organization that promotes health care and information based on sound science. This article is copyrighted but may be noncommercially reproduced with appropriate credit. SBSBM’s Web site has references and additional information.