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Chiropractic began as a practice of mystical medical principles that early chiropractors claimed could cure any disease. In modern times, limited applications of chiropractic method not only actualy work, but work better than medical alternatives.

One hundred years ago, people seeking healthcare could be forgiven for thinking chiropractic was just a pile of hooey.

The founder of chiropractic medicine, a Canadian-born healer named Daniel David (D.D.) Palmer (1845-1913, had moved from his native Ontario to Davenport, Iowa in 1865. He studied all the fashionable theories of healing of his time, including Spiritualism (consulting the spirits of the dead for their advice in health treatment, Palmer claimed his spirit guide was a deceased physician named Jim Atkinson) and magnetic therapy.

Setting up shop in Davenport, Palmer happened to notice that his building's janitor, Harvey Lillard, suffered a visible lump in his back, as well as deafness. Palmer claimed that he used magnetic therapy to cure the misalignment of Lillard's spine with the unexpected result that Lillard regained his hearing. From this experience Palmer was able to convince thousands of people, including students at his new chiropractic school, that manipulations of the muscles to straighten the spine could cure diseases. 

Chiropractic As A Cure-All

In fact, Palmer came to teach that chiropractic could cure all diseases. Borrowing from the then-young discipline of osteopathy, Palmer told his first doctors in training in the late 1890's that the body was a machine, and that mechanical changes in the "machinery" of the body was all that is needed for perfect health.

Palmer concluded that misalignment of the bones is the sole cause of disease elsewhere in the body, and that not only did most of these misalignments occur in the spine, manipulating the spine could treat other kinds of misalignments.

More specifically, he taught that subluxation, excessive range of motion or what we could call "floppiness" of a joint was the cause of disease, and reducing the range of a joint, putting the tips of bones into alignment, could cure disease — any disease.

The medical establishment that was later to evolve into the American Medical Association did not want Palmer's disciples infringing on their business, and in 1906 Palmer was prosecuted under a new medical arts law for practicing medicine without a license. He chose to go to jail, rather than pay the fine. This necessitated selling the school to his son, B. J. Palmer, for $2,179.96 and a small library with bone specimens.

After 17 days in jail, Palmer decided he would prefer to pay the fine, but his son would not rescind the sale. The elder Palmer then left Iowa and established competing schools of chiropractic in Oklahoma, California, and Oregon, setting up a conflict that would last until the end of his life.

Chiropractic As Religion

Isolated from his family, D. D. Palmer became grandiose. In 1911 he wrote a friend:

"(W)e must have a religious head, one who is the founder, as did Christ, Mohamed, Jo. Smith, Mrs. Eddy, Martin Luther and other who have founded religions. I am the fountain head. I am the founder of chiropractic in its science, in its art, in its philosophy and in its religious phase."

Palmer's self-assessment was undiminished in the years leading to his death.
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  • Bronfort G, Evans R, Anderson AV, Svendsen KH, Bracha Y, Grimm RH. Spinal manipulation, medication, or home exercise with advice for acute and subacute neck pain: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Jan 3
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