Answers to Questions about Chiropractic:
Are Hammer and Spark Devices Legitimate?

Samuel Homola, D.C.

Question

I've visited two chiropractors in my life and am wondering about the methods used by each. Most recently, I went to a local woman who said she was manipulating my spine using only a small handheld punch-like tool. (No need to take off any clothing; when I asked her how she knew where the spinal bones were under my shirt, she assured me she "went to school for this.") She punched away in a couple different areas and that was that. My husband continues to see her occasionally for back pain, hence my question.

I've also always wondered about treatment I got more than 30 years ago from a then-elderly practitioner my mother took me to. I had chronic strep throat when I was in 6th grade and he treated me by moving a rounded instrument around my neck and upper chest. The instrument was wired to a machine that made noises like electricity arcing. I think there may have been a vibrating effect also. That chiropractor's treatment seems so strange to me now and I've wondered about long-term health risks from it.

Answer

A hand-held "punch-like tool" used to "manipulate" the spine is popular among chiropractors who believe that the device will realign "subluxated" vertebrae. About 63% of all chiropractors use such an instrument, often an Activator or an Integrator tool. Both deliver a tap to the spine with a spring-loaded stylus or mallet placed over a selected vertebra.

There are a number of different spinal-adjusting instruments being used by chiropractors. One hand-held device called an "Arthrostim" delivers a rapid tapping, much like a jack hammer.

Some chiropractors use instruments to locate what they call a subluxation, a vague condition that cannot be detected or verified medically. Surface electromyography (SEMG), thermography, ultrasonography, and the Insight 7000 Subluxation Station, for example, use electrical or heat recordings to locate signs of a chiropractic subluxation. A new device called "PulStarFRAS" uses a pronged tip to transmit multiple high-velocity impulses (tapping) claimed to locate and correct joint fixations and vertebral subluxations.

The first clue that a device or procedure might be questionable or bogus would be its use to allegedly locate or correct "subluxations" to restore and maintain health, a concept that has been rejected by medical science.

Tapping on vertebrae with an instrument is not an adequate substitute for manual manipulation for treating back pain. Instruments used to locate and adjust vertebral subluxations are not used by physical medicine practitioners.

The "electric arcing" instrument used to treat strep throat 30 years ago was probably harmless as well as ineffective. In the early 20th century, many quacks used ozone generators or other electrical devices that transmitted sparks. Even today, some quacks use small hand-held sparking devices to treat diseased joints.

Quackery continues to flourish in the 21st century; it's just more high tech and sophisticated than in the past, requiring more individual vigilance.

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Dr. Homola is a second-generation chiropractor who has dedicated himself to defining the proper limits on chiropractic and to educating consumers and professionals about the field. His 1963 book Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism supported the appropriate use of spinal manipulation but renounced chiropractic dogma. His 1999 book Inside Chiropractic: A Patient's Guide provides an incisive look at chiropractic's history, benefits, and shortcomings. Now retired after 43 years of practice, he lives in Panama City, Florida.

This page was posted on June 7 2002.