Have you ever encountered a person (or have you been the person) that, when the topic of chiropractic is brought up, becomes awash with obviously negative thoughts? Against what I do, there is unquestionably strong bias, the history of which dates back nearly one hundred years.
BJ Palmer, the developer of the chiropractic profession and, specifically, the developer of the Upper Cervical specialty, took the idea of chiropractic and shaped it into something viable, specific, and scientific. Prior to, it was something new to the mainstream and in dire need of development. As with the invention of the airplane around the same time, chiropractic required a lot of trial and error before its fledgling practitioners fully figured it out and realized the potential of what it could mean on a larger scale. The public’s initial reaction, of course, was skeptical.
Once Palmer developed a repeatable system for chiropractic and began teaching it to greater numbers, then greater numbers of people were being helped by it with more consistency. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, chiropractic dominated traditional medical methods in helping people survive and recover. Chiropractic patients, of which there were nearly 50,000 under care for Spanish flu, died at a rate of about 1 in 900. Medical patients were dying at a rate of 1 in 15. The staggering discrepancy upset the status quo and, rather than embrace chiropractic for its ability to help people, medical men had chiropractors thrown in jail for practicing medicine without a license.
So began the rocky relationship between chiropractic and medicine. Dr. Palmer struggled for years trying to legally separate chiropractic from medicine in both practice and principle. During a series of federal court hearings in 1958, he drew a line in the sand philosophically. He stated that, in opposition to the medical mindset that disease is caused by things from outside the body and that only external remedies can cure the disease, chiropractic is governed by what he called the Law of Life, meaning that most diseases are caused by problems that arise inside of the body due to its inability to properly regulate itself and that, by finding and correcting the cause of that dysfunction – a major component of which is interference that fundamentally prevents the brainstem and brain from performing optimally their vital, routine processes – then normal regulation would resume and most diseases could be healed by the body’s own innate recuperative properties; a sound concept to anyone with a basic understanding of physiology and human potential. A medical physician with a Senate seat said to Palmer, upon hearing of the chiropractic principle, "If I had to do it over again, I would have come to your school and studied under you."
Nevertheless, the larger, better known, and more influential medical industry sadly helped breed a stronger bias beyond that which was born of the natural human response to fear the unknown. The American Medical Association, in particular, was eventually found guilty in federal court of a “lengthy, systematic, successful and unlawful boycott” designed to damage chiropractic. For several decades, medical physicians were actively encouraged to demean chiropractic to their patients or even carry anti-chiropractic literature on-site. The kind of pessimistic response you sometimes get when attempting to educate people about Upper Cervical has often been passed down through the generations; prejudice is horribly well-ingrained in our culture and no single federal court ruling, however important, could have ever undone such wide-scale undermining.
It has not helped that the chiropractic profession itself has been integral in proliferating the bias. Despite Dr. Palmer successfully leading the way to amendments in federal law confirmed by the Senate that separated chiropractic and medicine definitively, something happened in the years that followed that hurt chiropractic and continues to hurt it to this day. Anxious to gain acceptance, chiropractors started practicing like medical physicians with medical philosophies, simply replacing pharmaceutics with spinal manipulation. They carved their niche as lower back pain specialists and presented themselves to the public as such. Thousands of chiropractors followed suit (and there are only 77,000 total in the USA, a tenth of the total number of medical doctors).
The adoption by insurance companies of covered chiropractic services only helped drive the bias against the profession further because, since insurance is designed for medical treatment, to be covered under the insurance umbrella means chiropractors have to practice like traditional medical physicians, treating symptoms instead of maximizing the body’s ability to heal itself.
Imagine for a moment a world in which nutrition was considered an alternative for medicine (and some might posit that such a world already exists), that instead of eating well because it is allows your body to thrive, you were encouraged to eat well until your digestive system stopped showing symptoms of poor health. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the value in proper eating habits would recognize how limiting it would be to think of nutrition as an alternative for medicine, as a treatment in place of a fundamental life choice. Chiropractic was never intended to be an alternative to medicine either. Structural balance and proper nervous system function rank right alongside nutrition as necessary components for optimal health (the reimplementation of which should be a first-option for sick people, not the last).
I’ve read a great deal about Palmer over the years and have great admiration for what he sacrificed; his picture hangs on the wall adjacent to my correction table. He was well-known for winning over the critics of chiropractic and the Upper Cervical specialty – from researchers to medical doctors to the general public – with passionate education and clinical expertise.
We should never dwell on history, but we should acknowledge it and learn from it. Since the day the Triad Upper Cervical Clinic opened, I have sought to bring awareness to my profession by teaching its basic tenets to the public and fellow practitioners of the healing arts alike and then letting the logic of it, the science behind it, and the results achieved by it speak for themselves. However, it would not be hyperbole to suggest that, for every one person or practitioner that gets it, there are fifty or more that still do not. The task at hand remains substantial, and knowledge of that fact helps to remind that change takes time, especially in the face of such historical misconception.