Crack addicts are turning YouTube chiropractors into huge viral stars

Aroon Phukeed / WIRED

The Y-Strap is a black, mostly fabric harness that looks like something from an S&M dungeon. In Joseph Cipriano’s YouTube videos, it’s placed behind the necks of prone patients who, in the moment before the crack, typically tense as if bracing for a crash.

Cipriano, a chiropractor based in Greenville, South Carolina, has become a YouTube sensation in the past 18 months, taking his channel from inception last March to more than 850,000 subscribers.

Every video follows the same arc: a patient describes their malady to a chiropractor with a great bedside manner, who then cracks them at different body points before the patient reveals they feel much better. “I literally watched every video I could find on the Y-Strap first,” says Xavier, a patient of Cipriano’s. “It’s pretty daunting to think you’re allowing someone to pull apart your spine like a Lego.”

“Coowaa,” goes the sound as Cipriano yanks the Y-Strap and patient’s skull away from their body: a mix of them being dragged and cracks that ricochet down the spine, caused by bubbles forming in the synovial fluid around joints. The noise is followed by either laughter, a grimace, or an emotional release that can include crying. “I feel like I just grew two inches,” says one woman.

In July alone, Cipriano gained over 150,000 subscribers, racked up 22 million views, and earned tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenue. What’s more, his three-day work schedule is booked out weeks in advance, with patients from all over the world drawn by the channel’s success.

Though chiropractors are not medical doctors, and the practice has been widely derided as unscientific, Cipriano treats people with ailments such as back pain, scoliosis, fibromyalgia, migraines, numb hands, and bad digestion, who are charged $200 (£158) a pop – or $100 if they consent to filming. And he isn’t alone: on YouTube, there are eight chiropractors with six-figure subscriber counts, while endless others play catch-up, and compilation videos with stolen clips get millions of views.

“The channel went viral, and people started calling from all over the country and emailing from all over the world,” says Brent Binder, a Pennsylvania-based chiro with 220,000 subscribers. “Then people just started showing up from hundreds of miles away.”

The predictability of these videos creates a hypnotic escapism which some viewers use as a sleep aid. Some are drawn to the sense of infallibility that the chiropractors project – they believe their techniques can cure anything, with a confidence that more scientific strains of medicine don’t have. Others just love the cracking sounds – in what is a new ASMR-style craze – while many identify with the pained patients.

The chiropractors themselves are endlessly compelling. With giant beard, elaborate hair, and Yeezys, Cipriano is kind of a hipster. Jason Worrall, a Los Angeles-based chiropractor with 750,000 subscribers, speaks with such enthusiasm that it’s hard not to admire it, fist bumping patients and using the word “brother” as much as the wrestler Hulk Hogan. Perhaps most compelling, though, is Gregory Johnson, a white-haired Houston-based chiro who moves liquid-like around his patients muttering “there we go” after a really loud crack.

A pioneer, Johnson was the first to find YouTube fame several years ago, though his numbers are now being smashed by Cipriano, Worrall, and others. Johnson also popularised the Ring Dinger: seemingly the same adjustment as the Y-Strap but using a towel to violently torque the head. Among “crack addicts” (those who love these videos), much discussion exists over which method is better, leading some chiros to aim passive-aggressive clips at each other to try and settle it.

As Johnson is decades older than other YouTube chiros, age may play a role in him no longer being the most popular, but studying the accounts reveals a bigger reason: nowadays the most popular clips usually feature women being pulled into unnatural positions, often in revealing outfits, and the chiros who seem to have copped this, posting that kind regularly, are now top of the pile. Cipriano and Worrall appear particularly deft, adjusting women in yoga pants and dresses before thumbnailing the video with a risqué still and including things like “Asian Model,” “Instagram Model” and “SUPERMODEL” in the title. “I’ve seen some less than professional videos,” says Binder, “which is unfortunate.”

In a world where a woman in see-through pants having her back cracked gets 50 million views, and one in a short dress and heels having her tailbone pressed gets 30 million, a feedback loop has been created: prominent influencers like Amanda Cerny, Jordyn Jones and Ayla Woodruff pop up in these videos frequently – along with less-prominent ones, replete with social media handles and completely legitimate ailments.

Cecilia – a patient of Cipriano’s following two car accidents – features in a clip that now has 2.7 million views. “That’s actually insane to me,” she says. “I never would’ve thought in my life it would be viewed that many times. And somehow people found my Instagram and now I receive hundreds of DMs.”

The appeal of these clips is complex. For every admirer of their artistic monotony, there are probably a thousand just after accidental nipple shots, if the comments are any indicator. Similarly, for every ASMR junkie, an equal amount seem to desire their own chiropractic adjustment.

In 2016, 35 million Americans received chiropractic treatment, compared to 17 million a decade earlier. Despite not being a form of medicine, chiropractic attracts those, like Xavier, who’ve exhausted other options.

Daniel David Palmer, the Canadian who invented chiropractic in 1896, believed that the body was self-healing, and that his treatments removed lesions that affected the nervous system, which he called “subluxations”. Far from a cure for just back pain, he professed that chiropractic could solve everything as subluxations caused 100 per cent of diseases.

In England, strict regulations prevent chiropractors from being able to claim to help things beyond musculoskeletal pain and headaches. But in America these deterrents don’t exist, letting Los Angeles-based Rahim Salehmohamed – the third most-popular YouTube chiro, with 675,000 subscribers – write on his website that subluxations may cause, and chiropractic may help, ailments like asthma, ADD, autism, blindness, cancer, deafness, infertility, and multiple sclerosis. But at best, it’s only slightly better than a placebo, and at worst it can be actively dangerous.

“Chiropractic spinal manipulation lacks plausibility,” says Edzard Ernst, a doctor and emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter. “Contrary to what many chiropractors are being taught and believe, they don’t correct subluxations for the simple reason that such subluxations are a myth.”

According to a 2017 clinical-trial review, spinal manipulation is roughly ten per cent more effective than nothing as a low-back pain cure, the same as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen. This benefit must be weighed against chiropractic’s risk: hundreds have been documented as being seriously injured by it, while around 30 people are known to have been killed. American model Katie May died in 2016 when a chiro severed an artery in her neck, inducing stroke.

“The simple truth is that chiropractic manipulations fail to do more good than harm,” says Ernst. “Watching videos of chiropractic might be amusing to some, but in reality, they send out a wrong and dangerous message.”

Palmer dubbed the body’s self-healing ability “innate intelligence” – a manifestation of God’s intelligence in the individual. Traditionally, chiros fall into two groups, “straights” and “mixers”: straights believing what Palmer believed and mixers being more open to science. YouTube chiros are rarely explicit – and some chiropractors have distanced themselves from God over the last century. But in 2019 he isn’t hard to find: on Cipriano’s website, God is mentioned three times in a 172-word bio, and Gregory Johnson’s YouTube banner carries a Bible quote.

Religious faith is often combined with a distrust of conventional medicine – videos feature people being cured of surgical pain and complaining about incompetent doctors and the need for medication. Often, by the time someone sees a chiropractor, they’ve been through a bevy of medical tests, propped up a waiting list or two, and been told nothing is apparently wrong. “Doctors had me do so much you wouldn’t believe,” says Xavier about the migraines he suffers. “Anti-seizure meds, antipsychotics, Imitrex, Depakote, Topamax – such a long list. I’d been hurting so long I’d about given up.”

There’s also an alarming overlap with the anti-vax community. Andrew Wakefield – the struck-off physician who falsified the study linking the MMR vaccine to autism, which birthed the modern anti-vax movement – is a semi-regular speaker at chiropractic universities and conferences. A 2014 video on Jason Worrall’s YouTube channel includes a quote deriding antidepressant drugs from Joseph Mercola: described in The Guardian as an “anti-vaccine propagandist”. In the same year, Worrall tweeted that he didn’t believe in vaccinations. “I believe in true health,” he wrote.

The extreme beliefs of some YouTube chiropractors are hidden by the empathy, humour, and arguable creepiness of their videos, yet considering chiropractic still runs on the subluxation theory – for which no proof exists – this sleight of hand shouldn’t surprise.

Chiropractic is the latest in a long line of scientifically questionable things to become hugely popular on social media – a trend that also includes crystal healing, astrology, and CBD (about which many claims are unproven).

With Cipriano and Worrall both nearing a million subscribers, their rise shows no signs of slowing down. Chiropractic operates on the principle that something is always wrong and nothing is ever psychosomatic – add an audience of millions, and you have a viral craze with very real consequences.

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