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.

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About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

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