Spinal Manipulation Through the Ages

The person who first observed that “there is nothing new under the sun” has probably been with his ancestors for a long, long time. In all fields of human activity we probably progress more through new combinations and reshufflings of knowledge than by so-called flashes of genius. So it was with chiropractic.

To give D. D. Palmer his full due, healing by various forms of manipulation is actually very ancient and close to universal. It was originally known as the “laying on of hands,” and it was practiced not only by the ancient Greeks but also by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Chinese, Tibetans, and Hindus, as well as by the ancient Aztecs and Incas of Central and South America. Such manipulation, however, was a far cry from the specific, localized spinal adjustment developed by Palmer. Moreover, Palmer’s realization that nerve interference, and not some other mysterious derangement, lay at the root of disease was entirely new.

Palmer himself admitted frankly that the spinal manipulation which he developed and expanded had originated with the ancients. He emphasized repeatedly that he was not the first person to replace displaced vertebrae, and that the art had been practiced “for thousands of years.” However, he did insist that he was the first, both in ancient or modern times, to adjust displaced vertebrae by using the protruding processes as levers for the purpose of removing pressure from nerves. And he asserted that from this “basic fact” he had created a new science “destined to revolutionize the theory and practice of the healing art.” To this day localized spinal adjustment to remove nerve disturbance has remained the basis of chiropractic although there have been vast improvements in both techniques and the body of knowledge available.

The closest ancient approach to modern chiropractic was probably developed by the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates, the Father of Healing and the greatest clinician of all time, stated flatly that “physical structure is the basis of medicine” and went into great detail concerning the importance to health of a well-adjusted spine.

“One or more vertebrae of the spine may or may not go out of place very much,” Hipprocrates warned. “They might give way very little, and, if they do, they are likely to produce serious complications and even death, if not properly adjusted . . . It appears to me that one ought to know what diseases arise in man from the powers, and what from the structures. By powers I mean intense and strong juices, and by the structures, whatever conformations there are in men.

The spinal marrow would suffer if from the displacement of a vertebra it were to be bent even to a small extent, for the displaced vertebra would compress the spinal marrow if it did not break it; and, if compressed and strangled, it would induce insensibility of many great and important parts. Many diseases are related to the spine.”

The average layman is amazed at even a partial listing of the ailments in which pronounced benefit and cure have been achieved through chiropractic. It is difficult for him- to grasp the paramount importance of the spinal cord and spinal nerves in the control of disease, although he can understand readily enough what happens when an electrical circuit is shorted or grounded. Hippocrates, although he did not know the “electrical” nature of the nervous system, was well aware of the multitude of diverse. illnesses that result from spinal distortions, and he prepared a very long list of them which strikingly parallels modern findings. On this Hippocratic list were:

Abnormal bodily development, especially in youth; difficulty in breathing (dyspnoea), pharyngitis, laryngitis; tuberculosis of the lungs and bones (Pott’s disease); nephritis and inflammation of the kidneys and bladder, also purulent abscesses; incapacity of sexual functional activity; in advanced age, crises in diseases that are present; quinsy, catarrh, and head colds; bladder inflammation and retention of urine; involuntary urination and evacuation of the bowels; poor circulation of the lower extremities, numbness in the lower limbs, overall debility and torpor; emaciation and hypertrophy.

The Greeks used a multitude of devices for stretching the spine. Some of these resembled medieval instruments of torture. One, for instance, was a tall, upright affair in which the upper part of the patient’s body was hauled upward by means of a windlass while the legs were securely restrained by means of a cable secured around the thighs and fastened to the base of the machine. Another consisted of a ladderlike frame suspended vertically from a pulley; the patient was tied to the rungs of this affair and shaken violently up and down. A common practice was to hold newborn babies by the heels and shake them up and down.

Not all the early Greek spinal therapy devices and procedures were as crude as these. Hippocrates, for example, wrote of the use of spinal manipulation tables upon which the patient lay face downward. And he described a method of manual manipulation of the spine : “The operator must be well versed and capable. The physician or anyone else who is strong and not ignorant should place the thenar (palm) of the one hand upon the protuberance and the thenar of the other hand upon the former, to force the vertebra, by a quick jerk, to slip back into its former place.”

Centuries after Hippocrates, Galen re-emphasized the importance of spinal manipulation, and gave this astounding advice, “. . leaving the affected parts alone, you will reach the spine from which you will treat the disease.” Yet his findings, too, were largely ignored by orthodox medical science.

Nevertheless, spinal manipulation of various crude sorts was very widespread throughout the centuries preceding Palmer. An important ritual of Oriental ancestor worship was for children to tread back and forth on the weary spines of their parents. Treading upon the spine has also been a long established therapeutic measure among the Maoris of New Zealand, the Amerindians, and various African tribes. In Mexico the native Indians even today stretch the spines of the sick by a method called abrazo del ranchero (the rancher’s embrace). Until fairly recently the Hawaiians practiced a form of vertebral adjustment known as lomi-lomi.

All these, however, are but hit-or-miss beginnings and experimentations compared with the highly specialized, highly scientific chiropractic that was discovered by D. D. Palmer and has since been consistently improved both by himself and others. The story of the developments in chiropractic has many dramatic moments and is worthy of a chapter in itself.