The Basis of Chiropractic (1932)

Morris Fishbein, M.D.

The explanation offered by the chiropractor to account for all disease is simple, and hence well calculated to attract the minds of those who like to think for themselves in the absence of facts. When the chiropractor tells his patient that the brake pressing on the nerve as it emerges from the spinal column keeps the nerve from transmitting the energy that makes the wheels of the body go round properly, the victim is impressed by what he calls “reason.” Unfortunately for this “reason,” the fundamental facts will not support it. A brake and a wheel are material objects that can be observed; the spinal column and the nerves that emerge from it are also material objects, but they cannot usually be observed. A man tries the brakes on his car and finds that they catch hold and the wheels stop. But let something go wrong under the hood of his car, in some of the internal workings that are beyond his ken, and he will have to take the word of an expert for the fact that the thing is wrong that the expert says is wrong. There have been, as we all know, motor mechanics who were not above taking a little advantage of the car owner’s ignorance of its internal mechanism. There are also body mechanics who do not appear to be above taking advantage of the layman’s ignorance of the anatomy of his spinal column.

The nerves that emerge from the spinal column are much smaller than the holes between the bones of the column from which they emerge. The space about the nerve is padded with fat and soft tissue. The back may be bent into all sorts of angles and postures — everyone has seen the acrobatic dancer of the stage assume such angles-and yet these nerves are not squeezed or damaged because of the padding with which nature has protected them. Professors of anatomy have dissected thousands of dead bodies and have been unable to find any spinal nerves pinched or compressed in the manner which chiropractors allege is responsible for disease. The X-ray has been used to search for the dislocations which the chiropractors assert are present, but those dislocations cannot be found. Indeed, substances opaque to the X-ray have been injected into the canal within the spinal column, and photographs taken later have shown the fluid passing around the nerves in a manner that would be impossible if these nerves were impinged on by the bony structures with which they are surrounded. Today this method is used to locate accurately tumors of the spine. Moreover, experiments conducted in California have shown that a force of 1,200 to 1,300 pounds, while it will fracture one of the spinal bones, will not dislocate it or cause it to press on the spinal nerves. Thus the fundamental dogma of chiropractic, that disease is caused by dislocations or subluxations of the bones of the spinal column, pressing on nerves, is simply a complete misrepresentation of the demonstrable facts. Any chiropractor who tells an invalid that he is ill for that reason is either willingly deluding the patient or deluding himself.

The action in the chiropractor’s office is usually something like the following:

Patient: Are you the doctor?

Chiropractor: I am the doctor. And what’s the little difficulty today?

Patient: Well, doc, it’s this rheumatism I’ve been sufferin’ with.

(Of course it may be a cold, or a sore throat, or diphtheria, or diabetes, or almost anything else that has already been diagnosed, or that the patient, in his rough and ready manner, has essayed to diagnose.)

Chiropractor: Well, strip off your things and get into the kimono.

Patient: How much are the treatments, doc?

Chiropractor: Two dollars.

Patient (Stripped, so far, of clothes only): All right.

Chiropractor: Well, I should say so. (Rapidly runs fingers up and down patient’s back.) Why, here’s a subluxation of the third, fifth, and ninth, and almost a lateral curvature. (The figures might just as well be first, seventh, and, twelfth.) Get up here.

(The patient mounts a leather-covered board with pillows at each end, that depresses the spine. The patient is already beginning to feel depressed. Then the chiropractor gives the patient a push in the back, using one hand, two hands, and sometimes the knee, according to what he thinks the system will stand. There are court records of fractures of the bones brought about by this gentle manipulation, known as the Chiropractic Thrust.)

Patient: Go a little easy there, doc.

Chiropractor: We’ve got to get these little dislocations back into place. Now turn over on your back. (The chiropractor now jerks the patient’s head until his neck cracks or pulls his leg, depending on the particular school of chiropractic in which he was instructed.)

Patient: Doc, I heard that crack. I think I feel better.

Chiropractor: Well, yours is a pretty difficult case. Those bones may slip out again. It may take a series of treatments. Lessee, this is Chuesday; come in about Thoisday. Yeh, make it Thoisday an’ bring a kimono. I’ll give you a locker for it. Yes, two dollars for the treatment an’ a dollar rental for the locker.

Thus chiropractic diagnosis and treatment. Disease is caused by certain bones of the spine impinging on certain nerves. Disease is cured by pushing those bones off those nerves until by some unknown mechanism of physiology they are persuaded to stay off.


Dr. Fishbein, who served for 25 years as editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, was probably the most vigorous crusader against quackery who ever lived. The above passage appeared in 1932 in the chiropractic chapter of his book Fads and Fallacies in Healing: An Analysis fo the Foibles of the Healing Cults, with Essays on Various Other Peculiar Notions in the Health Field, published by Blue Ribbon Books, In New York City.

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