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Updated on March 23, 2012

The term "chiropractic" is derived from two Greek words- cheir, ' meaning "hand," and praktikos, meaning "effective".

Practitioners of this form of drugless therapy hold that the nervous system integrates all of the body's functions, including its defenses against disease, and that when the nervous system is impaired in any way (as by pressure on a nerve) it cannot perform properly. As a result there is a lowered resistance to disease, aches, pains, and other disorders.

The core of the nervous system is the spinal cord, which runs inside the 24 movable vertebrae of the backbone. Between these vertebrae are small openings through which nerves branch out to every part of the body. Chiropractors contend that even a slight displacement of the vertebrae (called a subluxation) can cause mechanical interference widi the spinal cord and nerves. Their aim, therefore, is to eliminate the interference by manipulating or adjusting the misplaced vertebrae. With the nervous system thus repaired, they believe that the body is then able to remedy the ailment. Although most adjustments are made on or in the region of the spine, where misalignments and dislocations are more likely to occur, treatment may extend to the pelvis or any area where manipulation of bones, muscles, and other tissues will remove the "nerve interference."

Chiropractors claim notable success in treating many disorders, including lumbago, slipped discs, arthritis, hay fever, and high blood pressure. Leading practitioners contend that, contrary to popular belief, reliable chiropractors do not claim to cure such diseases as cancer, heart disease, or blood disorders. Nor do they perform surgery or intrude into areas outside their province of training. For example, chiropractors do not prescribe drugs. However, chiropractors themselves disagree on the scope of their methods of treatment. Those belonging to the International Chiropractors Association want chiropractors to treat patients only by spinal manipulation, while members of the American Chiropractors Association think that treatment should be broadened to keep pace with advances in physiotherapy and related fields. They use diathermy, psychological counseling, and dietary measures along with spinal manipulation.


Chiropractors say that they can trace their treatment methods to Hippocrates and other noted physicians of ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, early manuscripts of the Egyptians, Hindus, and Chinese do reveal incidents of this form of treatment. However, modern chiropractic is said to have been founded by a Canadian-born Iowa merchant, Daniel David Palmer, who is credited with having performed the first chiropractic adjustment in 1895. Three years later, Palmer established the Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, and in 1910 his textbook, The Science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic, was published. In this book Palmer explained that chiropractic is "the science of adjusting by hand any and all luxations of the articular joints of the human body; more especially, the articulations of the spinal column, for the purpose of freeing any and all impinged nerves which cause deranged functions."

Before his death in 1913, Palmer's son, Bartlett Joshua, had joined him in developing the methods of modern chiropractic. Bartlett's son, David Daniel, took over after his father's death in 1961, emphasizing manual manipulation of the spine as the principal chiropractic procedure.

Since its founding, the field of chiropractic has grown considerably. According to the Bureau of the Census, there were 14,360 chiropractors in the United States in 1960. By the mid-1960's, chiropractic associations stated that there were many more, perhaps as many as 30,000.

Training and Licensing

There are colleges in the United States that offer the Doctor of Chiropractic degree (D.C.), and their enrollments are estimated in the tens of thousands. Admission to most chiropractic colleges requires a high school diploma or its equivalent. In some states, students are also required to take 2 years of training at a liberal arts college.

To obtain a D.C. degree, a student must enroll in a 4-year course and take more than 4,000 hours of instruction in basic medical sciences and chiropractic subjects. A typical curriculum of basic science courses include histology, anatomy, embryology, chemistry, diagnosis, pathology, physiology, bacteriology, symptomatology, pediatrics, gynecology, and public health. Chiropractic subjects include spinal analysis, palpation, X-ray interpretation, and chiropractic principles and techniques. Some colleges offer more than 400 hours of X-ray studies.

Mississippi and Louisiana are the only states that do not license chiropractors. In most other states a chiropractor is required to pass the same basic science examination as a medical doctor before receiving his D.C. degree.


Chiropractic has long been the target of heavy attack from the medical profession. The American Medical Association has charged that "chiropractic constitutes a hazard to rational health care in the United States because of the substandard and unscientific education of its practitioners and their rigid adherence to an irrational, unscientific approach to disease causation." The AM A has further charged that no chiropractic school is accredited by recognized accrediting bodies; most chiropractic instructors lack college degrees and are not qualified to teach the basic sciences; and chiropractors are barred from practicing in any hospital accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals.

A study of admission practices at seven leading chiropractic colleges was made by the AMA's department of investigation in 1964. Results of this study declared: "The actual admitting practices followed by 5 of the 7 schools contacted do not meet the professed standards set up by the two chiropractice organizations, as well as those standards that the schools have set for themselves according to their own catalogues."

Chiropractors claim that such charges are motivated by fear of economic competition. They insist that their theories and methods are misunderstood and that their educational requirements have been vastly improved in recent decades. In addition, reputable chiropractors often refer patients to medical doctors when the patient's illness lies outside the realm of chiropractic.

Although chiropractors are not employed by the U.S. Public Health Service and state health departments, their widespread acceptance is attested to by the fact that many insurance companies and workmen's compensation laws honor claims for treatment by chiropractors. It is estimated that four million people obtain the services of a chiropractor each year.


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