There’s a Good Chance Your Neighborhood Chiropractor Isn’t Vaccinated

Are they just smarter than all the other medical experts in your life? Not exactly.

February 15, 2022 7:18 am
There’s a Good Chance Your Neighborhood Chiropractor Isn’t Vaccinated
Joyce McCown/Unsplash

In the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Josh Gad plays a chiropractor with tattered underwear. After catching multiple eyefuls of the ripped drawers, Larry David decides it’s his civic responsibility to step in. He tells Gad’s character that the briefs look like “they’ve been to war,” and that patients don’t want a man to take care of them who can’t even take care of himself. Hence the always-empty waiting room.

The episode wraps up in typically-Curb fashion (Larry initially injured his back because he wouldn’t let a chauffeuse carry his bags; later on, now letting her carry them, everyone thinks he’s a scumbag). The underwear bit is low-stakes fare, but it makes for a convenient, incidental metaphor around our expectations for a modern medical professional. What would it take for you to turn your back on a chiropractor? A pair of has-been undies? How about a refusal to take the COVID vaccine?

It’s unclear how prevalent the former is amongst chiropractic, but the latter is an unfortunate reality. Chiropractors are some of the most vaccine-skeptical “doctors” in America. Late last year, the Associated Press identified the group as a “rising force of misinformation,” which has negatively impacted the country’s ongoing push for vaccination. (According to the latest figures, just 64 percent of the U.S. is considered “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19.)

Their anti-vax approach has manifested at both the local and national level. After all, neighborhood chiropractors have the ears of concerned citizens in their communities; as one vaccine experts told AP, “You go because your back hurts, and then suddenly you don’t want to vaccinate your kids.” Meanwhile, high-profile chiropractors have built followings in the millions online, fueled mostly by the public’s perverse love of seeing patients get their necks and backs “cracked.” It’s the less-messy cousin of pimple-popping videos, and has inspired paeans from reputable publications. That’s harmless enough, only many of them claim a dedicated Twitter-base, too, where they can retweet “my body, my choice” content.

Earlier this year, when Center for Countering Digital Hate revealed that the proliferation of false statements made online about COVID-19 could be traced back to just 12 people (the “disinformation dozen“), the list included Ben Tapper, a chiropractor based in Omaha, Nebraska. When pressed on why he and so many other chiropractors are actively against the vaccine (the Chiropractic Society of Wisconsin, for instance, hosted a rally last fall called “Vax Con ’21: The Uncensored Truth), he replied: “We’re trying to defend our rights … we’re defending our scope of practice.”

But what rights are those? And what does the act of fixing someone’s neck have to do with the mRNA vaccine? Why are so many chiropractors reluctant to take the vaccine, while a few within their ranks are militant that nobody does? Why should they, more than any other medical vocation, feel so strongly about this?

Has chiropractic care ever really moved on from its pseudoscientific roots?
Denver Post via Getty Images

Over 35 million Americans visit a chiropractor annually — which is saying something, considering how many adult American men refuse to see any type of doctor. Those patients are split between a total of just 70,000 fully-registered chiropractors, which keeps appointments high in demand. That demand has only soared as chiropractors have made inroads into Instagram and TikTok. Sign-up sheets are generally available in bios, right below some catchy branding. An Orange County chiropractor refers to his sessions as “magic hugs.”

Chiropractors are in a booming business, considering 65 percent of Americans can report a recent episode of back pain. They treat that pain (plus other problems areas in and around the spine) with hands-on “manipulations.”

Does it work? Yeah, sort of. It’s neither magic nor the satisfying quick-fix that social media is leading Gen Z to believe, but the American College of Physicians supports spinal manipulation as a first defense before a patient turns to opioid pain medications or surgery. Plus, depending on the severity of your condition, seeing a chiropractor in addition to attending physical therapy has its benefits. The latter really emphasizes exercises and stretches, which can help you put whatever musculoskeletal adjustments your chiropractor made to good use.

Let’s be clear: the majority of modern chiropractors support that sort of multi-pronged approach, where spinal manipulation can work in tandem with physical therapy, dietary decision-making, frequent massages, quality sleep and ice therapy. These chiropractors are called “mixers.” But there’s another group, currently the motor behind all the misinformation coming out of chiropractic, which subscribes to a stricter (translation: batshit) interpretation of how a body could or should heal. These chiropractors are called “straights,” a reference to their core belief that dislocated vertebra (also known as vertebral subluxations) are the ground floor ailment for everything that can possibly go wrong in the body.

There’s an odd disconnect between Americans’ casual acceptance of chiropractic and the practice’s bizarre, pseudoscientific past. After all, the original chiropractors were “straights.” It’s rare that you see an origin story give Scientology a run for its money, but chiropractic did its best. The practice was established by a man named D.D. Palmer in the 1890s, who repeatedly referred to himself in the third person (“D.D. PALMER gave CHIROPRACTIC to the WORLD”), called chiropractic a religion, claimed he received his inspiration “from another world,” really wanted people to buy his book (“It is STRANGE TO ME WHY EVERY CHIROPRACTOR DOES NOT WANT A COPY OF MY BOOK”), and firmly believed in something he called the body’s “innate intelligence,” which more or less means it knows how to heal itself and should be left alone to do so, save for some firm presses in the back once in a while.

To truly understand Palmer though, and gain an immediate understanding of why some among chiropractic’s are going rogue right now, just read some of the man’s best humdingers:

  • On smallpox: “It is the very height of absurdity to strive to ‘protect’ any person from smallpox or any other malady by inoculating them with a filthy animal poison.”
  • On disease: “”The kind of dis-ease [sic] depends upon what nerves are too tense or too slack.”
  • On fixing brains: “Chiropractors correct abnormalities of the intellect as well as those of the body.”
  • On himself: “… We must have a religious head, one who is the founder, as did Christ, Muhammad, Jo. Smith, Mrs. Eddy, Martin Luther and other who have founded religions. I am the fountain head. I am the founder of chiropractic in its science, in its art, in its philosophy and in its religious phase.”

Here’s the problem. Palmer didn’t say these things hundreds of years ago. He only died in 1913. His son took up the manic mantle right after. That might explain why until 1987, the official stance of the American Medical Association was that chiropractic was an “unscientific cult.” The practice has come a long way in the last five decades or so — there are now 19 schools in the United States, and most Americans don’t bat an eye that chiropractors call themselves doctors, despite the fact that they don’t have actual medical licenses — but can any institution so easily shake off such a willfully chaotic past? Can you really reject germ theory, and the fluoridation of water, and the estimated 200 million people saved since the smallpox vaccine was invented, and not expect a vein of unearned dubiety to become customary within your ranks?

Pseudoscience like “innate intelligence” walked so “health freedom” could run. Even before the advent of the pandemic, chiropractors were lobbying against bills that wanted to end belief exemptions for vaccines. (In 2019, in fact, a chiropractic expo presented Robert F. Kennedy, an anti-vax advocate, and yet another member of the “disinformation dozen” with a check for $500,000. The signature line read “Chiropractic Rebels.”) These rebels may not be strong in numbers, but they’re good at convincing people to give them money, and know how to write angry tweets. And it’s possible that they’re speaking up for thousands of quieter chiropractors — some of whom may have “caved” and gotten vaccinated against COVID-19, to continue living as normal a life as possible — who are naturally drawn to homeopathy (some contend the chiropractic is self-selecting), or learned to love it at school.

Dr. Rodrigo Imaña, a New York-based chiropractor, offers some context: “At school we learn about the expression of life manifested via the human body. It’s what separates a corpse and a living human. Our foundation focuses on what can naturally assist this life expression as naturally as possible. The human body has the potential to heal. So if there’s a modality, pill, procedure, surgery or shot that artificially alters this life expression, our natural instinct will always be to question it. Perhaps not always oppose it, but always question it. Especially when politics and forceful mandates are involved. So its not so much that we call ourselves ‘anti’ these procedures, but perhaps more ‘pro’ natural healing, and ‘pro’ choice when it comes to dealing with our own bodies.”

Whether you agree with Imaña or not, you’re probably detecting a more elegant entry-point to the anti-vax debate than you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s rare for anti-vax Americans to have any sort of medical professional on their side (96 percent of American physicians are vaccinated against COVID). Commentary from a dubious chiropractor is the next best thing. It’s seductive. It sounds just reasonable enough. It can potentially flip those who’ve been on the fence about whether they should get the shot.

There are some Americans who think it’s obvious that we shouldn’t go to chiropractors for medical advice outside their purview. In a response to the Los Angeles Times, one reader wrote: “I wouldn’t go to a chiropractor for treatment for an infectious disease, nor would I go to an infectious disease physician to get my back adjusted … Why, oh why would anyone listen to a chiropractor (they are not physicians) on vaccines anyway? I continue to be awed by the stupidity around me.” Fair enough. But some adults clearly felt overwhelmed by the competing messaging of the last two years, a and decided to accept advice from whatever semi-credible place they could find it.

(Or, perhaps, the loudest message is the one that’s easiest to remember. As The Guardian reported, one North Carolina chiropractor has long taught his patients that flu shots are poison.)

Besides, chiropractors often do impart medical advice outside of spinal manipulation. Imaña says so himself: One of the first statements that I tell my people I take care of is ‘I am not here to fix you, but rather increase your body’s potential to heal itself’ … More than 60 percent of my people come to me to improve many other areas of their lives, this can be their digestion, their brain’s function, their respiratory function, their urinary system and on and on. But I make sure to tell them that I don’t ‘treat’ any condition, medical doctors do that. I only keep their spine healthy which helps their expression of healing, thats all.”

Imaña may make sure to remind his patients that medical doctors have final say on internal medicine, but that clearly isn’t the case for all chiropractors. If these men and women are publicly working to influence vaccine-related legislation and policy in 24 states, why should we expect them to privately play fair, and remind patients of the limitations of their medical powers? We’re well past the slippery slope stage here. This has been going on for a while, and the stage was set even before the pandemic arrived.

Considering more, larger pandemics are a statistical inevitability, it’s time we started learning from the one we’re still trying to beat, and patching up the dinghy’s problem-holes, however micro they may seem. For his part, Imaña is wary of the online “popping” craze; he says it’s similar to a blooper video and hinders the profession. The bigger issue, though, is how those videos will continue to normalize the profession and create potential platforms for people who A) don’t believe in science, and B) don’t care whose lives get in the way as a result.

We only have official vaccination data for licensed chiropractors in one state: Oregon. As of fall of last year, they came in at 58 percent immunized. Their assistants came in at 55 percent. Seriously? In the words of the great D.D. Palmer, “Ye, Old Dad always has something new to give to his followers.” Chiropractic has some New Dads now. Here’s hoping someone reaches their followers, before it’s too late.

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