Jesus on toast: chiropractic version

Jesus on toast: chiropractic version

Chiropractors finding subluxations on x-ray films has some disturbing similarities to people finding religious images on pieces of toast.  At least, that is the take-away message I got from a fascinating article in Chiropractic & Manual Therapies with the provocative (and long) title,

Gimme that old time religion: the influence of the healthcare belief system of chiropractic's early leaders on the development of x-ray imaging in the profession. 

The author explains, as we who faithfully consult SFSBM for our information already know, chiropractic subluxations are rooted in a religious paradigm. Chiropractic mythology holds that minute misalignments of the spine cause interruption in the flow of "Innate Intelligence" or a "Universal Intelligence" which runs down from the brain to all organs of the body via the nervous system. It is a form of vitalism, the idea that there is some supernatural force which exerts an influence on bodily function.  According to chiropractic belief, correction of these putative misalignments removes this impediment and normal functioning is restored. 


BJ Palmer, the son of DD Palmer, the "magnetic healer" who "discovered" chiropractic in 1895, seized on the idea that plain film radiographs, fairly new to medicine at the time, could provide visual evidence that subluxations actually existed. (BJ once favorably compared himself to Jesus Christ.)  In 1910, he purchased the first x-ray machine for the Palmer School of Chiropractic and set about making the x-ray machine an indispensable tool for subluxation detection.  Indeed, the notion that subluxations could be plainly seen right there on the x-ray became an article of faith for chiropractors, just like the existence of the subluxation itself. 

That belief system continues to this day.  The Practicing Chiropractors' Committee on Radiology Protocols 2006 guidelines purport to provide evidence-based support for subluxation analysis via x-ray. To be fair, as the author points out, not all chiropractors or chiropractic guidelines agree with this. 

Elaborate diagnostic and treatment systems have developed over the years to detect and correct the magical subluxation.  Without any coherent scientific basis for chiropractic's central thesis, chiropractors were free to devise their own methods. After all, if the chiropractic subluxation is a product of the imagination, why not devise imaginary means to find it and do something about it?  

And they did. The author found 23 different named technique systems, all of which utilized x-rays based on the rationale that they can detect subluxations. Some of these are still in use today, like Chiropractic BioPhysics, NUCCA, Gonstead, Grostic, and Atlas Orthogonality. Naturally, there is competition among these, each claiming supremacy in one way or another. (Claims of supremacy is one metric of religious belief employed by the author in his analysis.)   One claim to fame is the ability to find the tiniest misalignment of the spine. 

Advanced Orthogonal referred to: 'Digital x-ray analysis  to measure misalignments to the 1/100th of a degree.'  Cowin [another technique] averred that their methods would uncover displacements 'as small of 0.75 degrees (or, translated into linear measurements, each as small as 28 thousandths of an inch or 0.7mm).'

Just goes to show you: competition is not all it's cracked up to be as a way of improving goods and services in the marketplace.

In an analysis that is too complex to adequately summarize in this brief space, the author reviewed the religiosity of the Palmers and other early promoters of chiropractic and looked for reflection of that religious thinking in development of the plethora of treatment systems and, specifically, their incorporation of x-rays as a diagnostic tool. And he found it. 

These findings indicate that a system of belief has operated, and is still present in parts of the chiropractic profession. This belief system demonstrated qualities in common with religion rather than science and a reliance on clinical evidence.

He notes that in accepting a religious belief,

one necessarily discounts other views, limiting perspective to a certain framework. Life becomes easier. It is satisfying to be part of a community and to be told that the complex, confusing world is actually simple and explicable. This is one of the psychological benefits of religion.

He finds the same forces in operation with chiropractic patients.  Reducing one's problem to a subluxation, plainly visible on the x-ray and gone post-treatment, as demonstrated with a post-treatment x-ray, makes the patient's problem so simple and understandable. No wonder it appeals to patients.  Even if they are being fried by radiation in the process.  

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