What is a Subluxation?

By Tedd Koren, D.C.

A kind of super-intelligence exists in each of us, infinitely smarter and possessed of technical know-how far beyond our present understanding"
Lewis Thomas, M.D. The Medusa and the Snail

"A new medicine is in the making -
one in which mind, consciousness, meaning and intelligence play key roles."

Larry Dossey, M.D. Space, Time and Medicine

"Life is the center where the material and the spiritual forces of the Universe seem to meet and be reconciled."

Edward Sinnot, renown Yale biologist

"Chiropractic corrects the hidden distortions within man."
Cash Asher, Mrs. Civilization's Children

What exactly is the chiropractic vertebral subluxation? There is something there, no doubt with nearly 300 terms for this elusive entity in the chiropractic and bio-medical journals (1) and yet it defies precise definition. We still can't say, "It is exactly this."

Most people agree that the VS affects the skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems. But why stop there? Studies in psychoneuroimmunology reveal that it's impossible to restrict our nervous system to our brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves and plexuses. Our nervous system is entwined with our immune, endocrine, cardiorespiratory and digestive systems (among others). But why stop even there? Over a hundred years of clinical observation and research shows the VS affects our psychological health as well.

By why should that surprise us? The VS is not only a tangible condition, it has non-physical qualities: it interferes with the transmission of "mental impulses," which our Innate Intelligence (the wisdom of the body, the organizing principle of the body) uses to govern an organism's physiology.

This "thing" we call the vertebral subluxation is ultimately an information disorder. The subluxated individual's lines of communication are interfered with and he/she is less connected to their Source, less responsive to its commands, less able to comprehend and adapt to their environment. The result is altered body/mind function (symptoms) and altered ability to maintain homeostasis.

How can we prove the VS exists and causes dis-ease or disease? On the surface this seems an impossible task. How can you prove the existence of a disorder that has a physical and a non-physical component, and cannot be precisely defined?

The vertebral subluxation is really an abstraction. It is a term used by chiropractors, chiropractic researchers and educators, to explain the success of the chiropractic adjustment. No one has ever seen a subluxation. It is quite possible no one ever will.

Consider the electron or gravity. Apples fall from trees so we invent the concept of gravity. No one has seen gravity, no one knows how it works or if it is the best way to describe the force that attracts bodies with mass. Their existence is inferred by observation. In the same way we have electrical phenomena so we hypothesize that electricity is flowing "electrons" to explain this phenomena.

Isn't life no different? No one has seen "life." No one can isolate life and put it in a test tube. As Nobel Prize laureate Albert-Szent Gyorgy, M.D., Ph.D. says in his beautiful essay (appropriately named), "What is life?":
Life in itself does not exist. No one has seen or measured life. Life is always linked to material systems; what man sees and measures are living systems of matter. Life is not a thing to be studied; rather, 'being alive' is a quality of some physical systems. (2)

Similarly, the VS has never been observed. It is linked to material systems. Being part of a living system the VS cannot be studied in isolation. In removing it from the body (if we could) we would denature it just as we do to cells when we stain them and shine light (or x-rays) through them for observation. We must be very careful in studying this condition in isolation. Dr. Gyorgy experienced this in his own career:

As scientists attempt to understand a living system, they move down from dimension to dimension, from one level of complexity to the next lower level. I followed this course in my own studies. I went from anatomy to the study of tissues, then to electron microscopy and chemistry, and finally to quantum mechanics. This downward journey through the scale of dimensions has its irony, for in my search for the secret of life, I ended up with atoms and electrons, which have no life at all. Somewhere along the line life has run out through my fingers. So, in my old age, I am now retracing my steps, trying to fight my way back...(3)

We observe not the subluxation, per se, but its effects; not the adjustment but it's effects. We cannot study the subluxation or adjustment independent of the physical, emotional, spiritual person in which it resides. If we spend our resources in this manner we will discover that what we are looking for "has run out through [our] fingers." The famous pathologist William Boyd, M.D. bemoans our unfortunate tendency to reduce biological processes to things we can comfortably measure and see:

Medicine can never be purely a science; it contains too many immeasurables. The patient with heart disease is not just an internal combustion engine with a leaking valve but a sensitive human being with a diseased heart. Disease in man is never exactly the same as disease in the experimental animal, for in man the emotions come into play. It may be the man or woman rather than the disease that needs to be treated. There is always the psyche to be considered as well as the soma. (4)

We may never fully understand the mechanism of the subluxation, but adjustments got people better in 1895 when our understanding of the mechanism was terribly limited compared to today and gets people better today even though today's understanding of the VS will be dwarfed by what we learn tomorrow. Should we stop adjusting until we know more of the mechanism? Of course not. Knowing the mechanism is no more than a head trip when compared to the true test of a healing art - is the patient better connected to their source of life? "Even the wisest of doctors are relying on scientific truths, the errors of which will be recognized within a few years time." Marcel Proust

So how do we "prove" the VS? The "proving" is best done using vitalist, Empirical procedures, which are best suited for our profession, rather than mechanistic, reductionist ones which modern medicine is so infatuated with. By that I mean we learn about the nature of the VS, what it causes and how it affects human physiology by observing subluxated patients before and after adjustments. We scientifically prove a subluxation every time a baby no longer has colic, vision or hearing improves, digestion or elimination gets better or depression or low back pain resolves. We have over a century of such observation that is more useful than the methodologically grotesque and wasteful controlled clinical trial and animal studies.

We must continue to do what every great scientist does - gain insight into the laws of life by objectively observe living patients. We have many tools today to aid us: leg checks, x-ray, MRI, CT, PET scans, blood pressure, pulse, heart rate variability, ECG, respiration, skin radiation, body balance, subjective and objective symptoms, posture, gait and range of motion, palpation, EEG, biofeedback, vision and hearing, craniosacral rhythms, meningeal and CSF analyses, blood/urine analyses, autonomic function, neurologic and orthopedic tests, applied kinesiology and perhaps even psychological tests, among others, to assess the changes in physiology before and after an adjustment.

The Chinese and Ayurvedic medical systems have many subtle tools to analyze a patient which may be useful to us. For example, in those systems each person has many pulses in each wrist that correspond to meridians of life energy associated with internal organ systems and emotions. Each pulse has many qualities that are significant. Such a system makes western medicine look primitive by comparison. These systems also analyze a patient's voice, body odor and face color among others.

Other possible tools may include studying the location of energy cysts which are believed to be pockets of trapped or unresolved physical or emotional energy caused by trauma that can be detected and released. (5) Auras or energy patterns that only highly skilled, trained or naturally sensitive individuals can detect may prove valuable in subluxation research since the subluxation is partially immaterial - the interference with the transmission of mental impulses. The science of energy medicine may help us understand this intangible aspect of the subluxation.

Are we getting too "way out" for you? Remember, what is laughed at today may be the dogma of tomorrow. Let us keep an open mind and not get too locked into intellectual thinking or our profession risks becoming as sterile and arrogant as medicine. As Bernie Siegel, M.D. author of Love, Medicine and Miracles says, "If you think your path in life must be logical, then you are path-o-logical."

Robert Becker, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon, has written one of the most powerful "chiropractic" passages I've ever come across, reminding us of the intangible nature of life, disease and health.

The healer's job has always been to release something not understood, to remove obstructions...between the sick patient and the force of life driving obscurely towards wholeness...The gulf between folk therapy and our own stainless-steel version is illusory. Western medicine springs from the same roots and, in the final analysis, acts through the same little-understood forces as its country cousins. Our doctors ignore this kinship at their-and worse, their patients'-peril. All worthwhile medical research and every medicine man's intuition is part of the same quest for knowledge of the same elusive healing energy. (6)

Healing is magical, mysterious, wondrous. It is a physical, emotional, spiritual journey that both doctor and patient are on. Dr. John Upledger, the developer of craniosacral therapy, once told me, "Every patient has something to teach us." Empiricists or vitalists listen and learn from their patients. Unrestricted by intellectual dogma or scientism, we discover the laws of life by studying living things functioning in health and disease, subluxated and unsubluxated knowing that test tubes and experimental animals are not the same as humans. As DD Palmer learned from his patients so we too may make wondrous discoveries from ours, to further understand and connect to the life, love, healing and happiness that is our birthright.

1. Rome PL. Usage of chiropractic terminology in the literature: 296 ways to say "subluxation": complex issues of the vertebral subluxation. Chiropractic Technique. 1996;8(2).
2. Gyorgy A. "What is Life?" In The Physical Basis of Life. Del Mar, CA: CRM Books, 1972.
3. Ibid p.5.
4. Boyd W. A Textbook of Pathology. Seventh Edition. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, p. 5.
5. Upledger J. Somatoemotional Release and Beyond. Palm Beach Gardens, FL: UI Publishing Co, 1990.
6. Becker RO, Seldon G. The Body Electric. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985;.29.

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Karl R.O.S. Johnson, D.C., F.I.C.P.A., L.C.P.

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