The Science of Chiropractic – After 120 Years, Still Ahead of the Times

You can hard­ly blame Dr. D.D. Palmer for his excite­ment back in 1895: he had just restored the hear­ing of a deaf man by using hands-on spinal treat­ment.

While he was enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly try­ing his nov­el treat­ment method on more patients, he was also devel­op­ing a sci­en­tif­ic mod­el to explain the results.

His expla­na­tion of the new heal­ing art of “chi­ro­prac­tic” was insight­ful. In Dr. Palmer’s for­mu­la­tion, chi­ro­prac­tic fixed “ver­te­bral mis­align­ment” that caused “nerve inter­fer­ence.” Chi­ro­prac­tors use pal­pa­tion to iden­ti­fy spinal bones that are out of place which impinge nerves and inter­fere with the body’s abil­i­ty to con­trol its inter­nal envi­ron­ment.

Giv­en the state of med­ical knowl­edge in 1895, this sci­en­tif­ic mod­el was ahead of its time.

To put things in per­spec­tive:

  • In the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the prin­ci­ple that the body reg­u­lat­ed its “inter­nal milieu” in order to main­tain health was just begin­ning to occu­py its right­ful place at the cen­ter of phys­i­ol­o­gy.
  • Back in 1895, Ramon y Cajal, the “father of neu­ro­science”, had bare­ly begun his ground-break­ing sketch­es of indi­vid­ual neu­rons as seen under the micro­scope.
  • That was also the year that Wil­helm Roent­gen invent­ed the X-ray machine with its pow­er to peer under the body sur­face.

The bone-out-of-place mod­el served chi­ro­prac­tic well dur­ing its first few decades of devel­op­ment. But grad­u­al­ly it became clear that ver­te­bral mis­align­ment couldn’t be the entire expla­na­tion for the effects of chi­ro­prac­tic. For instance:

  • In study­ing spinal X-rays, chi­ro­prac­tors found that skele­tal mis­align­ment was extreme­ly com­mon. Near­ly every­one is twist­ed or kinked to some degree, yet clear­ly not every out-of-place bone is equal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. What makes one mis­align­ment impor­tant and anther triv­ial?
  • Pinched nerves have com­mon­ly rec­og­nized effects, such as numb­ness or mus­cle weak­ness. These symp­toms often improve from chi­ro­prac­tic care. But most patients nev­er have these signs of pinched nerves, even though they are suc­cess­ful­ly treat­ed for oth­er health con­di­tions with chi­ro­prac­tic. What else is going on?

In the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a new sci­en­tif­ic pic­ture came to promi­nence — the joint play mod­el of chi­ro­prac­tic.

With the emer­gence of the joint play mod­el, it became clear that chi­ro­prac­tors don’t sim­ply realign bones back into place, but fix joints that don’t allow nor­mal free­dom of motion.

This mobil­i­ty mod­el of chi­ro­prac­tic had a strong appeal to me when I was a chi­ro­prac­tic stu­dent back in the late 1970’s. After all, I had come from the world of mod­ern dance and bal­let, which is all about move­ment. Though I nev­er had the expe­ri­ence of restor­ing hear­ing for a deaf patient, I val­ued the cours­es I took on “motion pal­pa­tion,” which seemed to place chi­ro­prac­tic on a sophis­ti­cat­ed sci­en­tif­ic foot­ing while promis­ing a prac­ti­cal method for tar­get­ing the source of a patient’s prob­lem.

Over the years I’ve used the joint play mod­el to explain my approach to thou­sands of patients. When I’m able to pal­pate improved joint play after a treat­ment, it builds my con­fi­dence that I’ve made a pos­i­tive impact on a patient’s health. The joint mobil­i­ty mod­el goes a long way towards explain­ing the dra­mat­ic pain relief and health improve­ment that is rou­tine in my prac­tice.

Nonethe­less, the expla­na­tion isn’t com­plete. Restor­ing joint mobil­i­ty doesn’t encom­pass the entire­ty of chi­ro­prac­tic results. It’s a use­ful start­ing point to under­stand a patient’s con­di­tion, but not an infal­li­ble roadmap of the land of health.

Nowa­days, we’ve entered an excit­ing new era of med­ical knowl­edge with brain sci­ence at the fore­front, focus­ing on all the activ­i­ties of the brain: your lofty philo­soph­i­cal thoughts along with the ongo­ing, sub­con­scious cal­cu­la­tions that allow for self-reg­u­la­tion of health.

The newest gen­er­a­tion of think­ing about chi­ro­prac­tic empha­sizes the qual­i­ty of the nerve sig­nals going back to the brain. A restrict­ed spinal joint changes the bio­me­chan­ics of the spine, but it’s also a source of errat­ic neur­al feed­back.

If feed­back to the brain is off-kil­ter, a por­tion of your brain’s pro­cess­ing pow­er has to be divert­ed to sort through the chaos and com­pen­sate for it. Then you have less resilience. Less resis­tance to ill­ness. Less abil­i­ty to cre­ate the com­plex move­ment pat­terns seen in sports, dance, and even dai­ly life. Less health.

Chi­ro­prac­tic is at the fore­front of mak­ing use of this neu­ro­feed­back prin­ci­ple to help you achieve bet­ter health.

Achiev­ing bet­ter health means more than adopt­ing bet­ter health habits. Of course we want you to eat right, exer­cise more, get a full night’s sleep, and all that. But even with­out chang­ing your health habits one bit, chi­ro­prac­tic can help your brain improve its job of reg­u­lat­ing your inter­nal health.

That’s an essen­tial part of the health care of the future.


Deepen Your Body of Knowledge

Chi­ro­prac­tic and the future of health­care

Secret of a good chi­ro­prac­tic adjust­ment


About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty five years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods. His website,, provides more information about his approach. Please contact him at or at 212-400-9663.
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