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What is Chiropractic?

Updated on September 14, 2013

Chiropractic Neurology

What is Chiropractic? What do Chiropractors do? What do they believe? From conception until today chiropractic and chiropractors have been called many things; from quacks and scam artists, miracle workers to trusted doctors. When most people hear the term chiropractor they think “back crackers”. But what really is chiropractic? Chiropractic is the science and art concerned with the relationship between the spine and the nervous system as it effects the entire body, primarily with the restoration and maintenance of health. It was discovered in 1895 by D.D. Palmer in Davenport, IA then further researched and developed as a separate and distinct healthcare profession by his son B.J. Palmer. Today, chiropractic is one of the largest alternative healthcare professions in the USA. Being an alternative healthcare profession chiropractic seeks to improve the body’s health naturally by allowing it to heal itself from within, without the aid of drugs, surgery, or radiation. Chiropractors seek to eliminate the cause of the patient’s symptom and not just cover up the symptom itself.


It’s no secret that Chiropractors are interested in your back and neck but the reason why may surprise you. Chiropractors believe that the Nervous System is the key to maintaining a healthy body. Every day hundreds of thousands of biochemical reactions that are vital to keeping us alive occur in the human body. The nervous system regulates every one of these actions; from regulating hormonal and enzymatic activity, to interpreting sensory input, moving muscles and keeping your heart beating: everything is overseen by the nervous system. Every second your nervous system sends and receives millions of signals throughout its complex network of billions of neurons. Most of these signals travel between the brain and the rest of the human body. For this to happen, the signal must travel through the spinal cord.

Hippocrates -- The Father of Medicine
Hippocrates -- The Father of Medicine

Besides housing and protecting the spinal cord the spine also has 31 pairs of spinal nerves that are connected to the spinal cord and exit out from the spinal column at openings called intervertebral foramina which start the network of nerves that run to the rest of the body. Nearly all other nerves in your body eventually connect back to 1 or more of these 31 pairs of spinal nerves. Because of the spine’s ability to move, it also has the potential to become misaligned without a complete dislocation. These subtle misalignments are called subluxations. Subluxations can be caused by physical trauma, improper posture, irregular musculature, and repetitive motions that place mechanical stress on the spine and its supporting structures.

These subluxations can place undue stress or pressure on the spinal nerves, the blood and lymph vessels supplying the nerves, or the spinal cord itself. In 1975 the University of Colorado did a study of the effects of pressure on the nerve. They found that by placing the equivalent weight of a dime (10mmHg of pressure) on a nerve, the nerve loses up to 60% of its signal transmission ability, a significant loss. Often, our bodies experience this type of nerve loss and we don't even know it. That is because less then 10% of our nerve fibers send pain signals. Pain is usually the first indicator of a long-term problem, not a new one.

In 1992 and 1995, two other studies backed up the findings by the University of Colorado by again showing that 10mmHg of pressure on a nerve has the ability to lower the nerve’s ability to send and receive signals and that after only 5 minutes of this pressure, the supply of nutrients to the affected nerve was interfered with. In the short term, this loss of nutrients to the nerve results in the nerve being less efficient. Long term loss of nutrients to the nerve results in nerve root decay and death

Subluxated Cervical Spine
Subluxated Cervical Spine

Recent studies have shown that besides directly interfering with a nerve by compressing it, subluxations can also cause disorder in the body by placing mechanical stress in the spine. Each individual vertebra is innervated by mechanoreceptors and nociceptors. Mechanoreceptors help sense your body’s position in space as well as assess the different mechanical stresses being placed on a joint. When any bone is out of its ideal position adverse effects follow. When a vertebra is out of place, the undue stress placed on the joint leads to accelerated degeneration of the bone and the vertebral disc.

Nociceptors sense and respond to potentially damaging stimuli. The response that Nociceptors send is usually perceived as pain. When a mechanoreceptor senses something is wrong, this can activate (if the signal is strong enough) nociceptors to send pain. Without going into detailed neuro-anatomy or physiology your body operates on a system of dermatomes and referred pain. A dermatome is an area of skin supplied by sensory neurons that arise from a single spinal nerve ganglion. Symptoms that follow a dermatome, like pain or a rash may indicate a pathology that involves the related nerve root. Referred pain is the concept that when you have pain in your left arm, it could indicate a problem with your heart. Dermatomes and referred pain, along with mechanoreceptor and nociceptors, explain how pain in a person’s arm, leg, foot, head, or side can be directly related to a problem of the spine


What does all of this have to do with chiropractic? Chiropractic is the science of diagnosing and removing subluxations of the spine and the study of the effects that pathologies, including subluxations, of the musculoskeletal system have on the function of the nervous system and vice versa. Nerve supply is the power of life and without nerve supply our bodies die. Humans can survive a couple of weeks without food, days without water, and even a few minutes of not breathing or having a heartbeat. However, humans can’t live for more than a few seconds without nerve supply. Actor Christopher Reeves was paralyzed from the neck down due to a horse riding accident. He wasn't paralyzed because his muscles were injured: he was paralyzed because his muscles had lost their connection to the brain when parts of his upper cervical spinal cord were severed by bone fragments.

Chiropractors believe that between the innate intelligence of the brain and the DNA blueprint that each cell carries, your body has the power to heal and regulate itself. Think about this, when you cut your finger and bleed, within minutes your body is already starting the clotting process and within a couple of days, the wound is completely healed, without any conscious thought on your part. Now if you were to cut your finger, then mysteriously drop dead, you too would bleed but the cut would never heal. Why is that? You still have all the same parts and cells that contribute to healing cuts, but you do not have a nervous system telling those cells to heal the cut.

According to Chiropractic philosophy when there is nerve interference your body’s ability to communicate and react/adapt to different conditions is compromised and thus health declines. By removing the interference with the nerve tracks and restoring normal movement in the joints, your body will be able to communicate better with itself and be able to repair itself from within. To take this a step further chiropractors believe that since every organ, tissue, and cell is controlled by nerves, that loss of normal function of these organs, tissues, and cells can occur when a nerve that connects to them is interfered with. When normal function is compromised the body can experience symptoms, pathologies, and even death if the loss of function is long term.

Chiropractors are not against traditional medicine, however they believe that the least invasive methods should be tried first.Chiropractic seeks to facilitate the bodies healing from within to bring it back into balance naturally, without drugs or surgery.Chiropractors believe when the body is in balance, with the proper nerve communication and biochemistry, the body will be able to perform optimally and be able to automatically adapt to different circumstances to maintain ideal health.

Chiropractic is based on a vitalistic philosophy rather then the mechanistic philosophy that traditional medicine is based on. The main difference between the two is on how each views the patient. Mechanism tend to view each body as basically the same, with each part identical in each body. They assume that any action, stimulus, or reaction will have the same outcome in everybody. Mechanists view the body as a machine and look at each part of the body individually without thought to how that part is influenced by the rest of the body. An example would be an auto mechanic who fixes a broken ball-bearing without looking to see what caused it to break, like a faulty axle for instance. He replaces the ball-bearing, but it will break down again because the broken ball-bearing was the symptom, not the cause. The cause would be the faulty axle.

Every year, thousands of people die from adverse reactions from taking drugs. Some from high-potent prescription drugs, others from "safe" over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen. This shows why the mechanistic view is flawed. If everyone was truly the same and operated the same way then each drug would work the same in each body, but they don't. Some people can take them and be fine, others may die because their body has a different biochemistry. When Doctors treat people utilizing a mechanistic view, they tend to treat everyone with similar symptoms the same, without consideration for how the body operates as a whole, and the uniqueness each person represents.

Vitalists look at each person's body individually and unique. They recognize that while everyone has the same parts, not every body operates the same way. There are over 64 trillion different DNA combinations that a person may have. That means there are 64 trillion ways the body can operate. Seeing how there are only 7 billion people on earth, chances are each one of them are completely unique. Chiropractors take this uniqueness into consideration when treating their patients. Vitalists also recognize the how the body operates as a whole, and how a problem in one part could be caused by a malfunction in another.


Today’s chiropractors are educated as primary care physicians. As such they must not only be able to identify and treat subluxations and other pathologies of the neuromuscular-skeletal system, but also identify other potentially harmful conditions such as infections, cancer, and internal conditions such as cardiac, gastrointestinal, and renal disorders and refer their patient to the appropriate specialist for treatment. To do this chiropractors undergo a rigorous curriculum. Chiropractors take advanced courses in biochemistry, neurophysiology, visceral physiology, toxicology, gross anatomy, immunology, CNS, PNS, and nutrition. As well as courses in osteology, histology, spinal biomechanics, kinesiology, gross muscular dissection, blood/urine analysis, and spinal anatomy. This is all in addition to their course work in diagnostics, x-ray analysis, and chiropractic adjusting techniques. To be licensed, chiropractors must first graduate the doctorate program and pass 4 national board exams (5 in some states), plus meet all the requirements that each state sets forth. To maintain their licensure, chiropractors must complete numerous hours in continuing education credits each year.

Educational Hours
Educational Hours

Chiropractors may use a variety of treatment methods to treat their patients. The most common is the chiropractic adjustment. The chiropractic adjustment is the method in which chiropractic was founded on. It involves the chiropractor putting a measured thrust on a specific contact point to move the subluxated joint back to its normal placement and restore its normal range of motion. To locate subluxations, Chiropractors will perform variety of tests on their patient: including x-ray to not only locate the subluxation, but determine it severity. After a subluxation is located, chiropractors use their training in kinesiology and biomechanics to determine the appropriate method and direction to apply a manual force into the joint, with the goal of moving it back to its natural position within the body, and removing the nerve interference. Chiropractors may also prescribe additional therapies such as physical therapy or strengthening routines, various soft tissue treatments, exercise, and nutrition counseling to compliment the chiropractic adjustment and to bring their patients back to a state of homeostasis.


In multiple studies chiropractic has been shown to be more cost effective when compared to traditional medical care, and has been shown to be just as effective or more effective in treating back and neck pain as well as headaches. There are also numerous case studies that show chiropractic’s effectiveness in helping with a variety of other health problems. Chiropractic patients report being in upwards of 3x more satisfied with their care then those who visited a traditional medical practitioner. Among all healthcare professions, Chiropractic is one of the safest and least evasive. As a testament to this, chiropractors enjoy malpractice premiums around $1,500 compared to the $10,000 - $20,000 that general practitioner MDs pay yearly. Today’s chiropractic is more scientific than ever, and is even moving in the direction of specialization. You will find Chiropractic Neurologists, Chiropractic Orthopedics, Sports Chiropractic Specialists, Chiropractic Pediatrics, and more.

Today, Chiropractic is recognized as a separate and distant healthcare profession, with over 60,000 active Doctors practicing in the US alone. Every year, there are over 200 million visits to a chiropractor in the USA, more than any other alternative health provider. Overall, today the number of visits to an alternative care provider is nearly twice as high then that to traditional care providers. Visiting a chiropractor is no longer considered a taboo; in fact, many traditional medical doctors are putting feuds of the past behind them and embracing working with chiropractors. Interdisciplinary practices are on the rise and today, chiropractors are now paid staff at hospitals, rehab facilities, and military bases across the country.

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    • profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Marietta, Georgia

      Thanks for the comment! How you get along with any doctor is a vital part of treatment. I have had dentists and MDs who i just didn't seem to fit in with, so i found others that I did. I would encourage you to find a chiropractor whose personality fits yours. Thanks again for the feedback.

    • jlongrc profile image

      Jacob Long 

      5 years ago from Memphis, TN

      I didn't love the care I got from my chiropractor, but part of the issue was her personality and the other part was that it turned out my injury was probably not best dealt with by a chiropractor.

      This is a great, great hub -- maybe I'll try a chiropractor again!


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