Please Break My Back
a Journey to the Center of Chiropractor YouTube, from guest contributor Jacob Dysart
Thank you to Ritam and Nabeel for having me on. My name is Jacob and I love YouTube. It is a sludge factory staffed by 1 million beautiful auteurs. I believe that YouTube is at the cutting edge of storytelling, culture, and film aesthetics- and that all of these things are being pushed into brave, uncompromising territory by people who, for the most part, have no idea they are doing it. There are also great gaming tips.
I would like to start a bi-weekly newsletter about the strange and interesting parts of this site that dominates so much of our time and attention, and I’m honored to debut it here on a newsletter that I have loved for a long time. There are many exciting YouTube phenomena to discuss, but we’ll start in a very specific place. Today I’d like to dive deep into a subject that is very near and dear to my heart- the *ODDLY SATISFYING* world of YouTube chiropractors.
Chiropractor content on YouTube is a genre that’s part wish fulfillment, part ASMR, part softcore, and part living for the drama. A quick survey of the online space will show you a bustling scene of chiropractors providing necks, backs, and pelvises with cracks so loud, crunchy and ~LIFE CHANGING~ that you’ll check to make sure your own bones are firmly in place. Big channels in this corner of YouTube have hundreds of uploads, hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and popular videos with views in the millions.
There is the slick, hot LA guy who cracks the backs of huge YouTubers and porn stars. There’s the guy who uses ASMR mics and writes 5,000 word tone poems in his video descriptions. There’s the guy who adjusts dogs, horses, and infants. And there’s Your Houston Chiropractor, Doctor Gregory Johnson, who will lay you on a table, lock your pelvis in place with a special contraption, and yank your head off the table so hard that your entire spine cracks all the way down to your tailbone. All in the name of pain relief.
You might be asking, who would want to watch this? and how am I allowed to watch this? Well it all has to do with the interesting history of chiropractic medicine and the unique place that it occupies in our society. Doctors of medicine, or “real doctors” as they are sometimes called, do not record patient visits and upload them to YouTube. Chiropractors do not hold medical degrees, but are instead Doctors of chiropractic medicine, which is a totally different thing.
Daniel David Palmer, the founder of chiropractic medicine, was a proponent of magnetic healing, and opposed vaccinations on the grounds that all diseases originated in the spine. He believed in an innate intelligence within the body, and based much of early chiropractic in mystical beliefs- at one point considering declaring it a religion. He and his followers fought a sort of legal turf war with traditional medicine for many years, which resulted in the arrests of many chiropractors for practicing without medical licenses. Until 1983, the American Medical Association classified chiropractic medicine an “unscientific cult". But chiropractic has surged since 1987, when the AMA was found to have unlawfully suppressed the profession under trade laws in a landmark court case.
Since that time, this kind-of-medical-but-not-really field has aligned itself politically with a sort of pro-business, “freedom of choice” line. In the free market they can peddle their cures, pretty much any way they want. Some chiropractors pride themselves on being “evidence-based”, and work within the more grounded aspects of the field, while some go all in on the stranger stuff, and post on YouTube with clickbait titles about patients for whom traditional medicine has failed.
I can’t make any definitive statements on the effectiveness or validity of chiropractic medicine as a whole. In my experience, the field is an incredibly broad umbrella that covers everything from common-sense sports medicine to outright energy healing quackery. Just know that if you see a chiropractor in scrubs, it’s technically stolen valor. One thing is for sure—the wild west vibe of this entire profession opens the door to… creative innovations in the field, like Dr. Gregory Johnson’s previously mentioned spinal final smash.
This signature move, the back-shattering, literally trademarked “Ring-Dinger”, is Dr. Johnson’s specialty, and seems to be a source of limitless controversy within the YouTube chiropractor scene. One time, chiropractor to the stars and Certified Daddy Dr. Jason made a 3-minute video throwing the lightest bit of shade on the clearly insane technique, saying that it “lacked specificity”. This prompted an epic, 35-minute response video from Johnson titled “Real Ring Dingers Specifically Help Real Patients With Real Problems”, where he played the offending video on his work computer, and put tape across the monitor to express his distaste.
In his videos since then, Johnson has adopted a clearly defensive tone. His kingdom is constantly being threatened by haters, and he is always talking to the camera mid-appointment, dropping little barbs as he prepares to suplex another patient for their health and well-being.
Yet the comments section barely registers Johnson’s preoccupations- they are here for their own. Gregory has affectionately named his fans “crack addicts” because of how they beg him for loud, properly mic’d pops from cervical spines, ribs, and shoulders. The spectacle of the pop is what keeps this whole machine moving- it is the uncut dopamine moment that every chiropractic video promises, and which lets the YouTube algorithm shovel these videos into the eyes and ears of millions of viewers, some of whom profess to go on hours-long binges.
According to the CDC, around 20% of people in the United States live with some kind of chronic pain. I think that’s probably low-balling it. Our lifestyle really grinds you down, and our medical system is unfriendly, opaque, and time-consuming. It makes sense that some of us might self-medicate with the tiny empathetic thrill of seeing someone studied, held, and healed- mapping our own pain onto the bodies we see and hear being transformed in front of us.
Viewers don’t necessarily care about the detailed medical background or emotional stability of the practitioner they’re relying on. They most likely have very limited avenues to real pain relief in their own lives, will jump at the chance to dissolve into a predictable, pleasing haze of satisfying cracks, pops, and catharses—living vicariously through whichever Australian model Dr. Jason is seeing today.
I’ll watch pretty much anything on YouTube, and I try to go in anthropologically. I try to understand the worldview of who is making the video, the intended audience, and the community supporting or ignoring the video. A lot of the time I can stay at a pretty cool remove- like when checking out a community of older women who obsess over unnervingly lifelike silicone babies. But after a few months of coming back to these chiropractor videos over and over, I realized that, like a spy falling in love, I had gotten involved.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a horrible back. Depending on how stressed and un-stretched I am, it can sometimes hurt to breathe too deeply because it feels like my ribs won’t expand far enough. When I move my left shoulder, stuff clunks around in a way that it definitely shouldn’t. And if I don’t stretch every morning and night, my hips will get so tight that I feel the pain down to my knees. I’ve tried yoga, exercise, and several chiropractors, with limited success. The relief that these patients were getting on YouTube seemed pretty nice. The videos were funny and weird, and I loved tracking the beef between Dr. Johnson and seemingly everyone else on the planet, but a part of me was hypnotized in exactly the way I was supposed to be.
I wanted to be in the video.
Dr. Doug Willen has two separate YouTube channels. One for his videos with human clients, and one for his videos with animals. After seeing him put out the call for video participants on instagram, I emailed. He wrote back almost immediately.
I met Dr. Willen early on a Sunday, at his Manhattan office. His office staff had become a sort of miniature production crew, adding a filming release to their stack of normal office paperwork and steering me to the waiting room/talent pen. Sat next to another patient/aspiring YouTube star, I wrote down all the stuff that has just killed me for basically my whole life on Dr. Doug’s intake forms.
I have had chiropractors relieve searing back pain, albeit temporarily, and I’ve had chiropractors insist they were re-setting my brainwaves by clicking a pen on the back of my neck. I was ready for anything Dr. Doug was going to throw at me, just thrilled to be witnessing the process. He was on a tight schedule, shooting multiple videos, and there was a palpable hurry to get everything squared away with cameras and paperwork, but once we were in the room, he couldn’t have been nicer. He made me feel at ease and talked over everything he’d be doing.
He entreated me to “give into my feelings” during filming. If I felt something, some substantive crack of moment of relief, I should vocalize it instead of hold it back. Of course he was not coaching me to give dishonest reactions—he would never do that—he simply wanted me to get out of my own way. If I held back, my video wouldn’t be good enough for the YouTube channel, and that would be a shame. As an art school graduate I understood perfectly. I fucking love acting.
Forgive my pit stains. Once I got used to the camera hovering around me, I had a lot of fun. As a connoisseur of the genre, I knew exactly what to conjure for my performance. Deep satisfaction, unexpected relief, exuberant testimony. I swung for the fences. I wanted this to be the best chiropractor video of all time, and in the eyes of at least one person, I succeeded.
I enjoyed the adjustments as well. I’m not sure if it was the cracking or the adrenaline that came from getting gently body-slammed, but I felt great afterward. Overall, a wonderful experience.
I’m sad to report that my body was not fixed by this chiropractic adjustment. An encompassing critique of even the more scientifically grounded chiropractic modalities is that the fix is very fleeting. Your bones aren’t holding you in a painful position, your muscles are. So having your skeleton jostled around doesn’t change where you hold tension most of the time. Many chiropractors insist that consistent sessions can produce a change, but at Dr. Doug prices, it wasn’t gonna happen for me.
I had lived the dream, and ultimately found it wanting. No adjustment I could ever get is as good as the one I imagine myself getting while watching these videos. The earth-shattering spine twist that allows me to breathe the fullest breath of my life, that guides my shoulder into perfect harmony with my neck, can only exist in my head.
If we accept the premise that chiropractic doesn’t really do much physically, then we can at least see its power as a ritual of trust, and a tool to narrativize your life. You release your body into the hands of a healer who promises to, through special knowledge and trained touch, correct your imbalances and care for you. The cracking—the audible, tangible proof of a change in your own body—is proof of a change within you. You trust the chiropractor, you trust the sound and the feeling, and so you can trust that a change has happened.
In this modern iteration of the ritual, the video, some parts remain intact. You can trust the healer, you can trust the sound, but you’re not changing- someone else is. It’s a temporary, fleeting relief made even more fleeting. But if it’s all you’ve got, then queue up the compilation.
Isn’t it strange—any time someone with another profession starts putting their profession on YouTube, they eventually just become a YouTuber who acts like they do the other thing.
I’m pretty sure this is more work than I’ve ever put into any one of these newsletters, let alone anything else in my life in general. Godspeed, brother.