How Chiropractic Sells Itself at Patient's Expense

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Originally Published in October 1979

Once upon a time there was a grocer who thought had found a wondrous way to cure the sick. "Press the backbone, " he declared, "and all disease will vanish. Others clamored for his secret. For a fee, he taught the m. Soon, backbone pressers spread throughout the land making wild claims they could cure everyone.

Does this sound like a fairy tale? It's not—it's the story of chiropractic. Although chiropractors are licensed in all 50 states as doctors, most still believe spinal difficulties are the underlying cause of disease.

Chiropractic began in 1895 when Daniel David Palmer restored the hearing of a deaf janitor by "adjusting" a bump on his spine. Palmer thought he had helped the man by releasing pressure on the nerve to his ear. A grocer and "magnetic healer" by profession, he did not know that the nerve from the brain to the ear is not connected through the spinal column. Shortly afterward, he opened the Palmer College of Chiropractic teach his "discovery" of the cause of disease.

Although today's 20,000 chiropractors are known best for their treatment of backaches, pamphlets currently sold by Palmer College claim an important role for chiropractic in a wide variety of conditions – including appendicitis, bronchitis, tonsillitis, epilepsy, liver and kidney disease, and diabetes. The liver pamphlet says:

Chiropractic is the only science which seeks to find the basic cause producing the abnormally functioning liver. The kidney pamphlet concludes: "If you are suffering from kidney disease, the logical course is to visit your chiropractor. He will examine your spine to see where your trouble exists. A chiropractic adjustment will have you feeling better in no time.

Selling Themselves

A chiropractor's income depends not only upon what he treats but on how well he can sell himself. Top chiropractic salesmen can make a fortune. Intensive selling advice begins in chiropractic school (there are 16 in the U.S.), and continues after graduation, with seminars and management techniques.

The largest practice-building firm is the Parker Chiropractic Research Foundation in Fort Worth. A 1977 advertisement for its "Professional Success Seminar" claimed over 50,000 chiropractors had at-tended previous seminars, more than 20 million "extra patients" had been served as a result, and increaser income for chiropractic was "into the billions."

Parker's basic course is built around the 335-page Textbook of Office Procedure and Practice Building for the Chiropractic Profession, which suggests that patients be offered a "free consultation" but led into an "examination" that costs money. It notes: "One adjustment for each year of age is a rough thumbnail-guide of what people will willingly accept and pay for, but if in doubt about the payment or the patient's return, take only the smaller x-rays on the first visit but ostensibly x-ray fully."

Share International, Parker's sales organization, sells a variety of practice-building aids, including a chart of more than 100 diseases supposedly related to nerve pressure at the spine.

Another leading promoter, Sid E. Williams, D.C., was shown recently on 60 Minutes adjusting the neck of an infant girl. The child's mother said the adjustments, which began at three days of age, were "preventive measures to keep her healthy."

His practice-building course textbook recommends a three-part patient contact: consultation, examination (including x-ray), and report. "Every step of your procedure," Williams says in the book, "should be thorough enough to convince the patient that you are not overlooking anything. The sophisticated age in which we live prevents the simplicity of chiropractic from being understood by the average . . . . The examination procedures are not diagnostic; they are to emphasize to the patient that a weakness exists in his body . . . caused by spinal fixations."

Sick If Not for Chiropractic

Williams recommends that the doctor feel the spine for tender spots, "predict the conditions that might occur underneath," ask whether various symptoms have yet occurred, and if the patient answers no to any of them, say:

Well, Mrs. Jones, it certainly is a wonder. I must say you have a strong constitution to stand up under the nerve problems that you have. You have trouble in many areas, but you don't have many symptoms as of yet. But I would make the prediction that if you hadn't turned to chiropractic, you'd be a very sick girl shortly.

Williams suggests convincing the patient to continue "preventive maintenance" once a month for life. ("Once the patient has experienced relief through chiropractic adjustments, he will accept almost any reasonable recommendation.") If the patient asks, "But will I have to continue with chiropractic care as long as I live?" the recommended reply is:

(chuckling) No ma'am, you won't have to continue it as long as you live. Only as long as you want to stay healthy. Every spine needs some maintenance, Mrs. Jones. My family and I are checked regularly on a monthly basis, and more often when we think that it is necessary. Yes, if you want to continue to stay healthy, you will have to continue some chiropractic care.

Every Month

How often should people have their spines checked and adjusted? Parker and Williams suggest monthly checkups. Thirty five chiropractors were asked how often people who felt well should have their spines checked: Almost all recommended at least one checkup per year; the majority answered in the range of four times to 12 times a year.

A few years ago, the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud, in Pennsylvania, sent a healthy four-year-old girl to five chiropractors for a checkup. The first said the child's shoulder blades were "out-of-place" and found "pinched nerves to her stomach and gallbladder." The second said the child's pelvis was "twisted." The third said one hip was "elevated" and spinal misalignments could cause "headaches, nervousness, and equilibrium or digestive problems." The fourth predicted "bad periods and rough childbirth" if her "shorter left leg" were not treated. The fifth not only found hip and neck problems, but gave her painful adjustments—without permission.

Chiropractic has been described as the "greatest tribute to applied public relations that the world has ever known." Its ultimate goal is inclusion in national health insurance. Unless concerned citizens can find ways to organize and protest, our tax dollars will wind up paying for D.D. Palmer's fairy tale.

This article was posted on December 2, 2019.