Ancient Greek philosophers were among the first to understand that the spine is involved in health and wellness, and that manual manipulation of the spine with the hands can be a source of healing. This is why the word “chiropractic” very fittingly has Greek roots: cheir (meaning “hand’) and praktos (meaning “done”), or rather “Done by Hand.”
This term “chiropractic” was coined in the late 19th Century when the philosophy, art and science was codified based on extensive study of anatomy and physiology by Daniel David Palmer, an American healer and self-educated teacher.
Since its inception as a modern medical practice, chiropractic care has been surrounded with attacks and challenges. These came both from chiropractors themselves as they struggled to define chiropractic's path and from those outside whose intent was to suppress its contribution to the evolution and growth of American healthcare. It is now widely accepted and it is used in interdisciplinary practices all over the world…but how did we get here?
From Ancient Understanding to the Modern-Day Adjustment
Spinal adjustment was not an unknown treatment in the late 1800’s, but modern chiropractic practice was really born in 1895 when the first spinal “adjustment” on a patient was performed in Iowa by Daniel David Palmer.
Palmer made no attempt to claim to be the first to use spinal adjustment as a source of healing and curing disease. He did claim, however, to be the first to use specific contacts as short-leverage points for making more specific spinal “adjustments”—and with these adjustments, modern chiropractic practice began.
The First “Adjustment”
The patient: Harvey Lillard, a janitor working in Palmer's building.
The problem: Lillard had lost his hearing many years before after an incident when he was bending over and felt a "pop" in his upper back; he was nearly deaf afterwards.
Palmer’s prognosis: Palmer, being well read in medical journals of his time, had great knowledge of the developments that were occurring throughout the world regarding anatomy and physiology and was a practitioner of magnet therapy (a common therapy of the time). His understanding of anatomy led him to believe that the two events—the "popping" in Lillard's back and his deafness—must somehow be related.
The remedy: Upon examining Lillard’s back, Palmer found a problem with one of Lillard’s vertebra and thus manipulated this misplaced vertebra with a crude “adjustment” in the upper back.
The outcome: Lillard’s hearing was restored after the adjustment!
This was the first official “adjustment” of the misalignment of vertebrae and Palmer realized these problems with the vertebrae—now called chiropractic subluxations—can be the cause of many illnesses in the body. Palmer had discovered that adjustments to these subluxations could relieve patients' pain and other symptoms. He began to use these "hand treatments" to treat a variety of ailments, including sciatica, migraine headaches, stomach complaints, epilepsy, and heart trouble.
Palmer knew that although various forms of manipulation had been used for hundreds if not thousands of years, there had been no philosophical or scientific rationale to explain their effects. So in 1898, he opened the Palmer School & Infirmary of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, and began teaching his chiropractic techniques to others. Since its inception, it has continued to be one of the most prominent chiropractic colleges in the nation.
A Slow-Growing Consensus: To License or Not to License
As with many new theories and philosophies, Palmer’s ideas and techniques were not immediately embraced. In fact, the medical community called him a “quack”, refusing to acknowledge his accomplishments. Palmer was even indicted for practicing medicine without a license and spent time in jail for his offense—this was quite common for chiropractic practitioners of the time.
But after his first adjustment, Palmer continued to develop chiropractic. Many people, including members of the older healing arts of medicine and osteopathy, became more and more interested in this new science and healing art. And thus, despite the fact that chiropractic's earliest years witnessed a great deal of tension, in 1913, the United States passed its first state law licensing chiropractors.18 years later, 39 states had followed suit and given chiropractors legal recognition.
Today, chiropractic is officially recognized as a health care profession in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are more than 60,000 active chiropractic licenses in the United States alone. Many other countries around the world recognize and regulate chiropractic practice, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most European countries; and despite its North American roots, there are now many chiropractic educational programs outside of North America.
Chiropractic has continued to receive recognition and respect because of its record of beneficial results and ongoing research, leading to a wide acceptance by the medical, legal, and patient communities.
The Future of Chiropractic Care
The history of chiropractic care is an intriguing one. While initially there was discord between chiropractic and conventional medicine, the future of chiropractic care is imminently promising, as recent years have yielded interdisciplinary practices in a variety of settings. Cooperation and the collaborative care of patients are now quite common. Chiropractors, medical doctors, physical therapists and others are now working as partners in occupational health, rehabilitation centers and sports medicine teams—so we are likely to see the number of chiropractors and chiropractic patients grow as time goes on. Together, we are honoring the words of Hippocrates, the work of Daniel Palmer, and other chiropractic pioneers.