Chiropractic is an alternative medical treatment founded in the 19th century by Canadian-born Daniel David Palmer. Palmer believed that misalignment of the bones in the body, mostly in the spinal column, was the underlying cause of all disease. In 1897 he opened the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, and started teaching his techniques.
Palmer believed in spiritualism and claimed that he received the principles of chiropractic from a dead physician named Jim Atkinson with whom he was contact. Here is how Palmer described it:
“The knowledge and philosophy given me by Dr. Jim Atkinson, an intelligent spiritual being, together with explanations of phenomena, principles resolved from causes, effects, powers, laws and utility, appealed to my reason. The method by which I obtained an explanation of certain physical phenomena, from an intelligence in the spiritual world, is known in biblical language as inspiration. In a great measure The Chiropractor’s Adjuster was written under such spiritual promptings.”
Contemporary chiropractors believe that when the spine is in correct alignment as a result of spinal adjustment, the “innate Intelligence” of the body can then act (by way of the nervous system), to heal disease.
Chiropractic is complete bunk, of course. No properly controlled study has ever shown conclusively that chiropractic is effective in treating any condition.
So why is chiropractic so widespread? Chiropractic care is included in most health insurance plans in North America. Such tolerance for a dubious treatment can be explained partly by the gradual acceptance of alternative medicine that Timothy Caulfield has called “the creep of pseudoscience” (http://healthydebate.ca/opinions/naturopaths-and-the-creep-of-pseudoscience)
But it isn’t the uneducated and scientifically illiterate who are seeking chiropractic treatment. I know university professors who swear by their chiropractors. Despite the complete lack of scientific evidence for its effectiveness, chiropractic seems to work, at least in the minds of its devotees.
A friend of mine who is a retired GP has a theory. Nobody (one hopes) goes to a chiropractor to treat a serious, life-threatening condition. People go to chiropractors for minor pain, mostly back pain. It so happens, my GP friend assures me, that most back pain resolves over time. When the resolution of the pain coincides with a series of chiropractic treatments, the sufferer naturally attributes the resolution to the treatments. She tells her friends, most of whom will suffer from back pain at some point, and the chiropractor’s practice grows. The placebo effect doubtless plays a role too.
There is evidence that chiropractic manipulation of the neck can cause a stroke (https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/stroke-death-from-chiropractic-neck-manipulation/). But many legitimate medical treatments also carry some risk.
Magical thinking is an abiding part of the human condition. Makers of amulets like rabbit’s foot keychains exploit magical thinking for profit. Militant New Atheists would say that makers of rosaries do the same. Deepak Chopra has made a fortune exploiting gullibility. Chiropractic is a mostly harmless form of magical thinking, and I am sure most chiropractors are not charlatans but really believe in the efficacy of what they do. Are psychologists, management consultants, and presidential candidates really much better?