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Chiropractic Definition of the Vertebral Subluxation

Subluxation, and its definition, may be the most controversial aspect of chiropractic. Since its inception in 1895, the term subluxation and its definition, have served as a lightening rod for critics and skeptics, both inside and outside the chiropractic profession.



The lack of a precise and universally accepted definition of vertebral subluxation continues to plague the profession. The definitions below reveal both distinctions and commonalities.



Subluxation Definition #1


A popular, yet simplistic subluxation definition limits vertebral subluxation to a purely structural phenomenon:


“A spinal subluxation is a situation in which one or more vertebra of the spine is out of alignment with the vertebra above or below it.”


Most chiropractors would assert that such a definition is far too superficial and perhaps purposely excludes related pathologies that occur when improper position of spinal vertebrae occurs.


Subluxation Definition #2


This definition includes the three components of bone, motion and nerves:


“A mechanical impediment to nerve function; originally, a vertebral displacement believed to impair nerve function.”


The usage of the word “believed” seems to suggest that the relationship between the vertebral column and nervous system function may not be universally accepted.


Subluxation Definition #3


The medical definition of subluxation, regardless of joint, tends to suggest a more gross dislocation and largely ignores the potential neurological component:


“A lesion or dysfunction in a joint or motion segment in which alignment, movement or physiological function is altered, although contact between joint surfaces remains intact.”


This definition is more orthopedic in nature, seems to apply to any joint in the body and ignores the potential involvement of nerves, soft tissues and whole body effects.


Subluxation Definition #4


The Association of Chiropractic Colleges published their definition of vertebral subluxation in the Journal of Chiropractic Education in 2001:


“A complex of functional and/or structural and/or pathological articular changes that compromise neural integrity and may influence organ system function and general health.”


This appears to be a more complete definition because of its mention of function, structure and pathology, but also its reference to the nervous system and its potential whole-body effects peripheral to the spine.


Subluxation Definition #5


In an attempt to define the far-reaching effects of vertebral subluxation, the five-component subluxation model emerged in the early 1980s:


Kinesiopathology – spinal pathomechanics, including alignment and motion anomalies.
Neuropathophysiology – due to compressed (pinched) or facilitated (irritated) nerve tissue.
Myopathology – in the form of muscle spasm, weakness, atrophy and scar tissue.
Histopathology – describes the inflammation, edema and swelling of soft tissues in the area.
Pathophysiology – seen as lipping, spurring and degenerative changes resulting from adaptation to changes in postural alignment to gravity.


While the five-component model helps explain the far-reaching effects of vertebral subluxation, because of its technical nature, this definition is often reserved for use by clinicians and chiropractic researchers.


Which Subluxation Definition Is Correct?


The definition of subluxation and attempts to define its scope are likely to continue in the years ahead. Regardless of which definition you prefer, there seems to be some agreement that…

  • The loss of normal motion or position of individual spinal bones can result in health issues.

  • Spinal misalignments can have a neurological aspect.

  • Organs and tissues controlled and regulated by affected nerves can be affected.

  • Chiropractic is the science of locating vertebral subluxations and the art of reducing them, permitting the body to function more normally and to self heal.

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