In scientific healthcare, subluxations are unambiguous occurrences. In medicine, the word means partial displacement of a bone in a joint. In dentistry, it usually refers to an abnormal loosening of teeth without displacement. However, the typical chiropractic subluxation is imaginary.
The World Chiropractic Organization’s “Practice Guidelines for Straight Chiropractic” (1993) defines “vertebral subluxation” as “a misalignment of one or more articulations of the spinal column or its immediate weight-bearing articulations, to a degree less than a luxation [dislocation], which by interference causes alteration of nerve function and interference to the transmission of mental impulses, resulting in a lessening of the body’s innate ability to express its maximum health potential.” It further states:
The professional practice objective of straight chiropractic is to correct vertebral subluxations in a safe and effective manner. The correction of subluxations is not considered to be a specific cure for any particular symptom or disease. It is applicable to any patient who exhibits vertebral subluxation(s) regardless of the presence or absence of symptoms or disease.
The nature of the chiropractic subluxation is slippery, even to many chiropractors. While some chiropractors depict subluxations as “bones out of place,” others describe them quite vaguely. The December 1986 issue of the Journal of Chiropractic includes a perspective by Vincent P. Lucido, D.C., called “The Dilemma of ‘Subluxation.'” Lucido, who later became president of the American Chiropractic Association, stated: “There is no consistent, widely accepted definition of subluxation within the profession.” He offered six definitions. One describes subluxation as “a complex biomechanical neurophysiological disrelationship” that predominantly affects the spine and is usually not structural — that is, not demonstrable with an X-ray photograph.
According to the ninth edition of “Introduction to Chiropractic: A Natural Method of Health Care” (1988), chiropractic’s premise is that “many ills come about as a result of improper (too much or too little) nerve supply.” This “patient education” book says that chiropractors endeavor to restore proper nerve function by “adjusting” vertebrae — usually by hand — in areas that exhibit “derangements (subluxations).” The author, Louis Sportelli, D.C., is a former board chairman of the American Chiropractic Association.
In the September 1988 American Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, Joseph C. Keating, Jr., Ph.D., a research professor at a chiropractic college, stated:
Subluxation has become a holy word in chiropractic. Chiropractors, although unable to reach consensus on its definition and clinical significance, by and large accept that subluxations are real, that they can be detected, adjusted (reduced or eliminated), and that the patient’s health will improve as a consequence.
Because subluxation theory wanders far from knowledge of human physiology, the scientific community has long rejected it. In 1968, for example, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare concluded in a major study: “There is no valid evidence that subluxation, if it exists, is a significant factor in disease processes. Therefore, the broad application to healthcare of a diagnostic procedure such as spinal analysis and a treatment procedure such as spinal adjustment is not justified.”
A few years later, Yale anatomy professor Edmund S. Crelin, Ph.D., D.Sc., physically demonstrated that chiropractic subluxations do not occur. In “Examining Holistic Medicine” (1985), he recounted his classic experiment:
I dissected out the intact spines or vertebral columns, with their attached ligaments, from three infants and three adults a few hours after they died. I carefully exposed the spinal nerves as they pass through the intervertebral openings or foramina. I placed the spines in an ordinary drill press. A fine wire was then wrapped around the spinal nerve and another was placed against the sidewall of the intervertebral foramen. I then applied a measured force to both the front and back of each vertebra. I also twisted and bent the spines with a measured force. If the intervertebral foramen became reduced in size to the point that its walls merely touched the spinal nerve passing through it, the wires would also touch and cause a volt-ohm-microampere meter to register it. The forces applied to the spine reached the level where the spine was about to break. In not one instance did the walls of the intervertebral foramina impinge on the nerves passing through them. In order to have that happen I had to break the spine.
Crelin added that spinal pressure on nerves is less probable in living bodies because of the counteractive response of powerful spinal muscles.
Despite such findings, Palmer’s theory appears entrenched in state and federal laws. Medicare authorizes payment for the treatment of “subluxations demonstrated by X-rays to exist,” and many states license chiropractors to treat subluxations, free impinged nerves and remove “interference” with the “transmission” or “expression” of “nerve energy” or “nerve force.” For example, North Carolina law defines chiropractic as “the science of adjusting the cause of disease by realigning the spine, releasing pressure on nerves radiating from the spine to all parts of the body, and allowing the nerves to carry their full quota of health current (nerve energy) from the brain to all parts of the body.” South Dakota law permits chiropractors to perform “meridian therapy” but does not define such treatment.
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