In Davenport, Iowa, in the early part of the 20th century, a man named D.D. Palmer was piecing together an understanding of human anatomy and physiology to develop a new type of manual therapy: the technique we know today as chiropractic. Palmer theorized that the misalignment of spinal vertebrae directly affected the flow of nerve impulses and that by realigning these vertebrae, it was possible to cure all manner of diseases and disorders. Palmer’s theory became the basis for modern chiropractic, and in 1897, he founded the Palmer School and Cure in Davenport.
Naprapathy: Correction of Suffering
One of Palmer’s first students and early devotees was Oakley Smith. Smith graduated from Palmer’s school in 1899 and spent the next several years studying medicine at the University of Iowa while working alongside Palmer. However, what Smith was observing in his practice did not seem to align with Palmer’s theories—namely that the main reason for pain and dysfunction in the neuromusculoskeletal system could be traced not directly to the spine and its bony structures but to the connective tissue that runs throughout our bodies.
[Read: “Waking Up the Spine.”]
When these tissues are stressed or injured, he noticed, they contract in ways that lead to spinal misalignment, pain, numbness, and other maladies. Smith believed that by manually freeing up these connective tissues, and the surrounding soft tissues, he could relieve pain and dysfunction.
This practice, the manual manipulation of connective tissue, developed into what Smith would soon label naprapathy, from the Czech word napravit meaning “correct” and the Greek word pathos, which means suffering. And while Palmer’s methods of manipulating the spine and other joints in the body quickly gained popularity, naprapathy remained in the shadows.
So, What Is Naprapathy Exactly?
Naprapathy is a type of manual therapy that treats pain and dysfunction in the neuromusculoskeletal system. If you live in the modern world, it’s safe to assume that you’ve experienced this dysfunction in one way or another. Stress, poor sleep habits, bad posture, improper biomechanics, and ergonomically incorrect positions at work and at play (hello, text neck!) can lead to a wide range of aches and pains, many of which trace their origins to the connective tissue that holds the spectacular machine of our human bodies together.
Connective tissue is found throughout the body—it includes tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and fascia, which runs in between and through layers of muscle and covers boney structures, cartilage, and discs. When connective tissues are constricted—the way you might pinch a garden hose by stepping on it—it diminishes the nerve, lymph, and blood flow drainage away from all muscles, organs, and glands throughout the body. The resulting stress can lead to aches, pains, inflammation, and decreased range of motion.
[Read: “Fascial Stretch Therapy.”]
Unfortunately, the standard diagnostic tests to look for broken bones, torn ligaments, or tendons—x-rays, CAT scans, MRIs, myelograms, and electromyography—do not show fascial restrictions. So, if there’s nothing broken, sprained, or torn, many people are left suffering with undiagnosable pain. For many, the solution may lie in the fascia, and this is where naprapathic intervention can play a vital role.
What Do Naprapaths Do?
Most naprapathic practitioners combine gentle, hands-on connective tissue manipulation to help restore myofascial freedom with other therapeutic modalities and nutritional counseling—a whole-health approach to assist the body in achieving optimal health. Naprapaths are connective tissue specialists, but they are also holistic healers. They use different techniques depending on the problem and the patient, to relieve pain and return the body to normal function.
“Naprapaths look at the body as a whole,” explains Dr. Patrick Nuzzo, cofounder and president of Southwest University of Naprapathic Medicine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Neuromusculoskeletal tension goes hand-in-hand with stress, and especially today, we’re finding a lot of people are really suffering from pandemic anxiety and also pain from working in less-than-ideal ergonomic conditions.”
Nuzzo’s school (recently accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission) is recruiting new students and helping raise awareness of the modality and its benefits. He explains that the renewed interest in naprapathy can really be traced to an increased awareness of the downsides of prescription drugs and a desire to find holistic alternatives. “Naprapathy is really a whole-health practice, and people are very interested in this type of solution, instead of turning to traditional medication,” he says.
In a society that is plagued by compound crises of stress and prescription drug addiction, holistic, manual therapies that can alleviate pain without the use of opioids are a welcome alternative. If you think naprapathy might be valuable in treating your aches and pains and would like to learn more, visit nmnm.org.