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Chiropractic: beyond crack ’n’ crunch

Reading time: 12 minutes

Chiropractic is well known for helping to realign the spine, but it has a long history of healing blood pressure, autoimmune diseases and much more. Cate Montana reports

In 1880, Daniel David Palmer, a Canadian immigrant and self-taught “magnetic healer,” moved to Davenport, Iowa, and set up his practice. By 1895 he had progressed in his thinking about the root cause of disease and come to the conclusion that the culprit was inflammation.

He believed inflamed tissues were caused by misaligned spinal structures rubbing against each other, causing heat and pain. In his view, only “spinal adjustments” could alleviate the situation. However, he also had a strong suspicion that the nervous system was somehow involved.

At that point, along came Harvey Lillard, the African American janitor at his office building in Davenport. The man has gone totally deaf after taking a bad fall 17 years earlier, severely jarring the lower part of his spine. Applying what little was known about the nervous system back in 1895, Palmer suspected a disconnect between the man’s brain and his ears, specifically related to Lillard’s lower spine. He adjusted the man’s lower back, his hearing was instantly restored, and the healing practice of chiropractic was born.

Two years after this remarkable event, Palmer founded the first chiropractic college in 1897. For several decades, chiropractic focused purely on adjusting the spine. However, as chiropractic grew in popularity, the pharmaceutical industry and allopathic doctors became concerned. By the time World War II ended, the American Medical Association had launched a vicious national campaign in the US to discredit chiropractic and its practitioners, publishing libelous articles in popular magazines, medical journals and even chiropractic journals.

Despite the disinformation campaign and a “quackery” label, the method continued to grow. Today, research has proven that inflammation indeed lies at the root of most chronic illnesses—heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, bowel diseases, cancer and Alzheimer’s.1 However, the culprit behind inflammation is a dysregulation of the autoimmune system. And here’s the even more interesting part: Palmer was actually correct in his assessment that structural impingement of the nervous system was at the root of many diseases.

For a very long time, doctors and researchers thought the immune and nervous systems were two completely separate systems in the body, which is why they vehemently pooh-poohed the idea that spinal adjustments could affect the immune system and, by extension, a wide variety of diseases.

Then, around 1990, it was discovered that the immune system and the nervous system are actually in constant communication, and the field of neuroimmunology was born. This was the discovery that pried open the door for chiropractic to finally enter the medical arena as a credible methodology capable of treating a wide variety of conditions.

Guy Riekeman, DC, former chancellor of both Life University in Marietta, Georgia, and Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, is a chiropractor at Chiropractic Lifestyle Studios in Royal Oak, Michigan ( “We are our nervous system,” he says. “We are not our heart. We’re not our lungs. We’re not our liver or our muscles. We are our nervous system. That’s where sensing, feeling, memory, consciousness and love and everything else connect.

“And our nervous system at 40 is not the same as it was when we were two years old. It develops. Everything in the human body, everything, is there for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to keep your nervous system alive and healthy as it goes through its conscious evolution in life.”

The bottom line, says Riekeman, is that when you affect the nervous system, whether you damage it or you create less interference in it, you’re having an impact on not just a localized condition but the body globally and its ability to function healthily.

What actually is chiropractic?

There’s been a silver lining to the decades-old smear campaign the medical industry has waged against chiropractic. It has unhooked practitioners from allopathic medical belief systems, biases and restrictions.

To obtain a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, practitioners undergo a rigorous four-year course of study on top of a regular undergraduate degree in the sciences. From there on, it’s a matter of personal preference what health area to pursue—traditional chiropractic with a strict focus on spinal manipulation, more expansive approaches or specialties like prenatal chiropractic care for mothers-to-be.

“The definition of chiropractic depends on who you talk to as to what it can or cannot do,” says David Milgram, DC, owner of Turtle Island Healing Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. “And that depends on what the person knows can be done.

“Traditionally, however, chiropractic is the practice of using the hands to assist the body’s alignment physically so that neurological function can be improved and/or restored and/or maintained. Primarily the vertebrae are aligned in order to allow the nerves to have freedom of motion so that they can function properly.”

The thinking behind chiropractic is that structural deformations of bones, ligaments and other connective tissue can physically restrict the nervous system. These restrictions can inhibit the circulation of fluids in and around the nervous system—cerebrospinal fluid, blood and lymph—affecting neurological function and lowering the body’s resistance to disease. The chiropractor works to improve, restore or maintain neurological function.

Another basic tenet of this healing practice is that the human body, given the proper support, is self-healing. Pharmaceutical drugs and “unnecessary” surgeries are to be avoided.

“We are self-developing, self-adapting and self-healing mechanisms,” says Riekeman. “The body is smarter than the doctor. As long as there’s not major interference, the body knows how to adjust its blood pressure, and, to a certain extent, it knows how to heal itself.

“If it gets stuck, the doctor can only think of eight things at a time to do. In contrast, the body is running 50 trillion functions simultaneously. It knows more than we do.”

What chiropractic can do

Stories abound throughout the chiropractic world: patients previously scheduled for painful knee surgeries, neck surgeries and back surgeries escape the knife and walk away, pain free, with physical function restored. But there are copious stories of high blood pressure lowering with chiropractic, too.

Why this happens is not certain. One theory is that adjustments of the atlas (the top of the spine) positively impact the parasympathetic nervous system, possibly lowering diastolic blood pressure. One study shows that aligning the atlas vertebra (high up in the neck) has an effect equal to simultaneously taking two blood-pressure medications.2 Spinal adjustments have also been shown to lower anxiety.3

The reasons may not be clear, but the results tell their own story. For example, allergies sometimes disappear, like in an English woman treated for acute dairy allergy by Ed Wagner, DC, at his practice in Pacific Palisades, California (

“She developed that allergy right after she was electrocuted when she ran her electric mower over the power cord,” Wagner says. “Electrical shock is a form of concussion. I gave her three treatments and it completely fixed the dairy problem.”

Then there are cases of eyesight restored, like the 100-year-old blind Navajo patient of David Milgram’s. “I went out to the Res to visit his family about three months after I’d worked on him,” says Milgram. “And there he was, walking unassisted down the road without even a cane.

“I was surprised and asked why no one was helping him, and his family casually said, ‘Oh, he’s been able to see ever since you last worked on him.’ He lived for another eight years after that.”

Riekeman described the case of a young Alaskan high school hockey player who took a bad fall on the ice, knocking himself into a concussion. “While the other symptoms went away, he never regained his ability to speak,” says Riekeman. “The doctors told his parents it was permanent.

“But his father had heard about how chiropractic helped professional hockey player Sidney Crosby after his accident. So, he got his boy on a plane and brought him to Life University. We put him under care with our chiropractic functional neurology department.

“He had not uttered a sound in months. Two days after care, he was starting to make sounds. After four days he was able to say his name. Day eight, he was talking at almost regular speed. A month after that, he was a hundred percent vocally capable.”

“Results from chiropractic all depend upon the array and variety of techniques used,” adds Milgram. “Some chiropractors are just whack ’em and crack ’em and stick strictly to adjusting the spine. Others, like myself, do a lot of soft tissue manipulation and are more feminine in their approach energetically, getting into things like SOT (sacro-occipital technique) with wedges and cranial work and adjusting of ligaments, muscles and visceral organs.” (For details about SOT, see “Types of chiropractic techniques” below.)

Milgram tells the story of adjusting a dropped kidney, a rare condition called nephroptosis. “I’ve had maybe 15 people in 40 years come in with excruciating low back pain and nothing touched it. Nothing worked until I checked them for a dropped kidney and did an adjustment where I got my hands underneath the kidney and on the low back and pushed it up in a very precise way I learned in SOT.

“You could jam something if you don’t do it properly, and you have to be shown how to do it. But every single one was out of pain immediately and back to work in a day, and never had the problem again.”

A proven range of effectiveness

Widespread clinical practice guidelines recommend the use of spinal manipulation therapy for back and neck pain.4 Chiropractic is recommended to treat lower back pain and is more cost-effective than physical therapy.5 However, a multitude of clinical studies demonstrate chiropractic’s ever-widening range of health applications.

Chiropractic treatments have been shown to improve migraine and cervicogenic headaches6 and are effective in treating carpel tunnel syndrome.7 Frozen shoulder improves with chiropractic care.8 Chiropractic treatment can provide an alternative to routine orthopedic surgery for a meniscus tear, a debilitating and painful rupture of fibrocartilage in the knee.9 Chiropractic care also reduces pain in patients suffering from osteoarthritis10 and can even mitigate the progression of osteoarthritis in animals.11

Realigning the upper cervical vertebrae in the neck can mitigate pain and improve symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).12 It may also reduce pain and improve neurological and musculoskeletal functions in patients with Parkinson’s.13

One study found adjusting spinal joints changes brain function, specifically improving activity by 20 percent in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates decision-making, motor control, eye movement, memory, the pain response and many other functions.14 Chiropractic care may improve cognitive function in people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.15 It also aids people suffering with depression.16

One fascinating application addresses the “knock-on” health effects related to concussions experienced in childhood and later in life. Wagner has developed a protocol for treating patients with various conditions that can be traced back to neurological damage they sustained in falls and blows to the head.

“I had one gentleman come with really bad posture, all curled over, with a bad limp from a dropped foot,” says Wagner. “He couldn’t lift his toes up to make a step and had been wearing a leg brace for 30 years. I asked him had he ever had a blow to the head, and he said, ‘No. But I did have brain surgery for a meningioma, and they accidentally cut the nerve to my foot.’

“I checked him for concussion protocol, which involves a wide variety of tests. He couldn’t pass any of the tests, which meant the surgery had had concussive effects. I found the exact spot on his skull and stimulated it with an ArthroStim (a hand-held, thrusting vibration device). Just that one maneuver on his skull, and his foot came back to life.”

Next-level nervous system care

According to Riekeman, three things interfere with the nervous system: One is physical trauma, such as concussion or spinal damage. The second is environmental toxins, everything from cigarette smoke and pesticides in foods to electronic radio waves, microwaves and 5G signals emanating from cell phone towers. The third is emotional stress.

“Veterans were coming back from the Middle East, and even if they weren’t physically traumatized, a lot of them were emotionally traumatized,” says Riekeman. “At Life University, we offered all these programs with positive psychology. We were working with the Dalai Lama, doing work with compassion and forgiveness and reconciliation, and these programs were highly effective.

“When you’re messing around with the nervous system, it affects every level of human existence. And as doctors, if we want to help people heal, we can’t afford to forget about that.”

Types of chiropractic techniques

“Sometimes it takes a manual maneuver by hand, sometimes it takes a device, sometimes it’s a laser that works,” says Ed Wagner. “Through applied kinesiology, I discover which approach will work best for any given patient.”

Applied kinesiology (AK), also known as muscle strength testing, is a diagnostic tool developed in the 1960s and used by approximately 40 percent of chiropractors in the US. It’s based on the theory that specific muscles are linked to specific organs, glands and other areas of the body. Testing the physical strength of certain muscles can determine the health or lack of health of the related structures or organs.

The following are some common techniques that chiropractors use in AK.

Manual adjustments to spine (direct thrust technique)

The direct thrust technique is the oldest, most commonly used chiropractic technique for realigning the spine. The action entails a direct thrust with the hands, applying appropriate directional force to a restricted vertebral joint.

Extremity adjustments

Shoulders, arms, elbows, legs, ankles, wrists, fingers and toes may also be manually adjusted.


Chiropractors may stretch ligaments and muscles by hand, moving in appropriate, often oppositional directions—usually based on information received from the body via AK testing.

Drop table technique

Also known as the Thompson technique, this involves adjustments done on a specially designed table with sections that make a very small dropping motion beneath the portion of the spine and other areas of the body being adjusted. The drop gives space for the practitioner to apply less force in the actual adjustment while amplifying the effect.

Activator method

A mechanical force manual assisted (MFMA) instrument, an activator is sometimes used as an alternative to manual manipulation. The small, handheld device delivers a specific percussive impact to the area of the body being adjusted.


Low-level laser light treatments (aka cold laser therapy) are used in conjunction with manual adjustments to reduce pain and inflammation while stimulating the body’s natural healing ability.

Rapid release therapy (RRT)

This is another instrument-assisted chiropractic technique approved by the FDA. It uses a hand-held vibrational device to treat nerve issues and soft tissues like ligaments, muscles and tendons.


The sacro-occipital technique (SOT) was developed by Major Bertrand DeJarnette in the 1920s. He realized there was a significant relationship between the sacrum (the large, triangular bone at the base of the spine formed by the fusion of the five vertebrae holding the pelvis and spinal column together) and the occiput (the cranial bone at the back and base of the skull). Consequently, the technique includes manual adjustments of the cranial bones as well as the components of the sacral area.


The bio-energetic synchronization technique, developed by Dr M. T. Morter Jr. over 45 years ago, is a gentle touch-point system that addresses short-circuited neurological patterns caused by emotional and physical trauma. Practitioners “talk” to the brain and prompt correction by touching certain points around the head and body in a specific pattern or sequence.

The Gonstead method

This method focuses on the pelvic girdle—a circular bony structure at the base of the trunk that connects trunk and legs, and supports the intestines, bladder and internal sex organs. If the pelvic girdle or any of the vertebrae in the lower spine move out of their proper position, it affects the body’s entire structural foundation, causing dramatic changes in the body. In addition to manual adjustments, the Gonstead method employs a wide variety of exercises to release energy and tension from a problem area through motion.


Case study: Cathy Christiansen, 73, Hancock Park, CA

In her twenties, Cathy was a commercial model. Life was rosy until she ended up getting a blood disease called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, aka immune thrombocytopenia or ITP. A disorder of the spleen characterized by an abnormal decrease in platelets—cells in the blood that stop bleeding—it caused Cathy to become a “bleeder.”

“I had red dots of blood coming through my skin,” she says. “And yet all the medical doctors were saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. It must all be in your head.’ They kept sending me to different places. Finally, I hemorrhaged and lost nine pints of blood, and they put me in the hospital.”

Between transfusions, the doctors gave her massive amounts of prednisone to try to heal her spleen. Then reactions to the transfusions set in, and she developed autoimmune issues.

“My body shut down—my kidneys shut down. My liver. They couldn’t get my body to stop reacting to everything that was being done. I got down to 62 pounds. I lost all my hair. I hadn’t walked in three years. I couldn’t go outside. I couldn’t do anything but look at bird feeders outside my window.”

Fortunately, Ed Wagner heard about Cathy through a prayer group at his church and started to treat her at home every day, often instructing her husband on what to do.

“I was so out of it, I don’t remember any of the details,” she says. “But every day he’d recommend some little thing, a pinch of this herb, a certain supplement in some water, homeopathy, essential oils, a change in diet, an adjustment. Bit by bit, I got better.

“It took about three months before I could get up and learn to walk again. And it took a couple years to come completely back to life again.”

Case study: Timothy Herndon, 42, Los Angeles, CA

“When I was about six or seven, I had really bad seizures, usually at night,” says Timothy. “The first time one hit, the ambulance came and took me to the hospital. When I got there, the doctors didn’t know what it was. No one could figure it out.”

In addition to the seizures, he had an inexplicable lump in his neck that refused to go away. He was also unable to run in any sort of coordinated way.

His mother was into alternative therapies, and a friend referred her to Ed Wagner. For about a year his mom drove him to Wagner’s practice several times a month.

“I don’t remember any of the exact treatment details,” he says. “I know he used a combination of adjustments, supplements, and herbs and things. And I do recall that he related a lot of the seizure issues to some emotional family patterns that I’d inherited. But I don’t remember any other causes.”

Within a year, the seizures had stopped, the lump in his neck had disappeared, and he was a typical little boy, running around with no problems of coordination at all.

“I was fine after that,” he says. “But then in 2012, my mother was diagnosed with lupus. She went to Dr Wagner once a month for about a year, and at the end of that year she had no symptoms at all.”




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