Health

'Cracked Like a Glowstick': How Chiropractic YouTube Hooks Obsessive Fans

The tear-jerking, spine-cracking videos are racking up millions of views, and sending more people to one of alternative medicine’s most controversial practices.

by Hannah Smothers
Dec 12 2019, 3:49pm

The woman lying face-up on the padded table looks like she’s about to be tortured. There’s a black strap wrapped around the back of her neck. Two hands that belong to someone off-camera grip the other end of it, winding up for a big yank like someone steadying to throw a dart. After a few seconds, the hands pull the strap and the woman’s entire body jerks up off the table, led by her head. There’s a loud crack and a moment that sounds like pain. Then, the thing that happens in almost every video like this one: She raises her hands to her face, and starts crying.

She isn’t in pain; for the first time in a long time, she says she’s finally not in pain. Some invisible tension in her back has been relieved, and it’s all so overwhelming that she can’t help but cry. This moment of release is exactly the sort of thing people love to see in chiropractic adjustment videos, a rapidly growing genre on YouTube that ranges from satisfying tactility to full-on body horror. More than a million people have watched this specific video of the woman crying, plus lots of others like it, on Joseph Cipriano’s chiropractic YouTube channel. In less than a year, the amateur videos he shoots and edits with his wife, who isn’t involved in his practice, have amassed over one million subscribers.

Over the past few years, chiropractors have carved out their own corner of YouTube— something the platform has definitely noticed. Some, like Cipriano, are transparent about YouTube being an incredible marketing opportunity; others say they simply love showcasing their skills and spreading the word of chiropractic care. You can now watch just about any type of person (or even animal) get cracked in any type of way. The videos range in levels of gruesome: Cipriano’s Y-strap technique (the one that always makes people cry) is actually relatively tame; others, like the “Ring Dinger” videos posted by a guy in Houston, look like consensual murder.

Chiropractic YouTube is first-cousin to the wildly popular pimple-popping genre, though it’s less gory, in that there isn’t any blood or guts. But unlike pimple popping, which might be unadvisable but is generally harmless, chiropractic is extremely contentious. By the NIH’s definition, chiropractic is “a licensed health care profession that emphasizes the body’s ability to heal itself,” which sounds like wellness drivel, something masquerading as medicine. Even that definition is even a bit gentle. A key tenet within chiropractic care is a bizarre belief that the body can be healed via the spine.

Chiropractors routinely make claims that spinal manipulation can heal a variety of medical conditions, despite a total lack of evidence. Despite living under the umbrella of “medicine,” many chiropractors attempt to undermine some of medicine’s strongest-held beliefs, like the necessity of vaccines. Science Based Medicine, a website dedicated to evaluating medicine’s scientific integrity, has an entire section dedicated to debunking false claims made by chiropractors and the chiropractic industry. And then there are the cases where people have suffered traumatic injuries or literally died after having chiropractic adjustments. In spite of all this, adjustment videos on YouTube are only becoming more popular.

It’s not up to YouTube to dictate what people do or don’t do with their own joints, but chiropractic YouTube is definitely pushing more people onto adjustment tables. Fascination with chiropractic YouTube might be the best marketing tactic the discipline has ever had: Cipriano said his practice—high up on the 11th floor in a business building in Greenville, South Carolina, so it has no curb appeal—is entirely built upon his channel. Every person in his appointment book is there because they saw his videos first. “Look at Justin Bieber,” Cipriano said. “He started his entire career from YouTube videos; 100 percent of my practice is based off social media.”

The main reason why Cipriano thinks chiropractic YouTube is so popular is a simple one: the United States is rife with back problems. This is a country of people who sit too much, don’t exercise enough, and have a lot of chronic back pain as a result. “People like seeing other people get some kind of relief,” Cipriano said. “You get people who are truly interested in some type of pain relief, [searching for] something to help them.”

Cipriano estimated that 90 percent of the 60-75 patients he sees each week agree to be filmed and potentially put on the channel. In exchange, they get half off their adjustment price, paying $100 instead of $200 for their 25-minute appointment. He started his channel after his sister, who has her own slot machine channel called Lady Luck HQ, on which she films herself playing the slots at casinos, suggested he should film his adjustments. The channel is his only form of marketing; he doesn’t advertise or hawk his services at conferences.

Jinx Lierre, who’s in her late 20s, said she looks for people in chiropractic videos who look like her, and have back problems like she does, as if she might be able to imagine herself in their place. “The sound of the cracking is really fascinating to me, and, like, the idea that there is a quick solution to chronic pain is very appealing, as somebody with chronic pain,” Lierre told VICE. “Like, I want that to be me, and I want it to be accessible to everybody who deals with chronic pain.” Lierre has been adjusted once, back when she was on her mom’s health insurance and before she knew chiropractic YouTube was a thing. She said she’d like to go again, but for now, the videos suffice.

"We are at the tipping point where chiropractic is about to go mainstream and be widely accepted, and all these videos are a part of that.”

Having joints cracked (or cracking them yourself) might feel nice in the moment (though even that could just be because cracking often coincides with stretching), but there’s no scientific evidence that adjustments have any healing properties. The big belief within chiropractic is a misinterpretation of the term "subluxation,” which, in the actual, anatomical sense, is a real misalignment of the vertebrae. Chiropractic takes this concept and overapplies it, asserting that these spinal “misalignments,” real or imagined, are the cause of any ailment you might have. Google any ailment along with “chiropractic adjustment,” and you’ll find a chiropractor arguing that spinal cracks can help treat it. Adjustments, chiropractors say, can help relieve acid reflux, migraines, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and asthma, just to name a few.

All of the most popular videos, which are monetized via advertisements, steer clear of promoting chiropractic as a method of healing. Doing so could potentially put their channels—and ad revenue—in jeopardy. YouTube’s terms of service prohibit content that encourages “dangerous activities that have an inherent risk of physical harm or death,” as well as “claims that harmful substances or treatments can have health benefits,” a YouTube spokesperson told VICE. “Dangerous activities” refers to things like drinking Miracle Mineral Solution or using black salve to cure cancer, and also to promoting anti-vaxx content, which YouTube cracked down on earlier this year.

Chiropractic videos that only show adjustments—that exist for the thrill of the cracks, the emotional release, et cetera—without advocating for their healing properties don’t violate any guidelines, but the line is a bit murky. In October 2019, the YouTube Twitter account tweeted something seemingly innocuous about the videos (“let's give chiropractic YouTube the recognition it deserves. could listen to those skeletal cracks for HOURS”) and the backlash was swift: “I love the sound of non-medical, pseudoscience quacks giving people strokes,” reads one popular reply. Others link news stories about YouTube’s promise to demonetize anti-vaxxers, pointing to the overlap of chiropractic and anti-vaxx beliefs.

Brent Binder, another popular chiropractor with more than 250,000 subscribers on YouTube, maintains that his channel isn’t a marketing tactic for his practice in Pennsylvania, but still argues that the entire genre is creating a beautiful, cultural shift toward believing in the power of adjustments. “We are at the tipping point where chiropractic is about to go mainstream and be widely accepted,” he said. “And all these videos are a part of that.”

Binder’s explanation for why people like to watch other people get adjusted is much more complicated than Cipriano’s. He pointed out several distinct reasons why people are flocking to chiropractic YouTube: Some people come to feel relaxation and ASMR, or just to have something on while they fall asleep. Others come to learn something about chiropractic and maybe feel a sense of secondhand relief from watching someone who looks like them get tweaked and adjusted. And others still simply want to see hot people get cracked. Binder gets a little stuck on that last category.

“There’s absolutely a population of people watching because there are beautiful women choosing to participate in these videos, which I think is really important for two reasons,” he said via FaceTime call, while skateboarding around what appeared to be a strip mall parking lot. “Number one, it allows the message to be broadcast further. The other thing is that people will be like, ‘You know, I started watching these videos because there are cute girls in yoga pants, but now I’m so fascinated, I just keep watching!’ I feel like that’s a really beautiful thing.” (Binder’s most popular video is titled, “Tiny Ballerina ~ Massive Neck Crunch ~ A+ Relax & Cracks Chiropractic ASMR.”)

When you first dive into it, chiropractic YouTube is packaged a lot like porn, with video titles packed with keywords like “INTENSE” and “first time.” The aesthetic—fluorescent lighting, low-quality handheld cameras—and number of people lying supine on a bed in the thumbnails doesn’t help, either. There are definitely some channels that cater to this, playing royalty-free smooth jazz over the joint-cracking noises, and showcasing videos of models wearing full faces of makeup to get their joints popped. But those videos are in the minority. Most of chiro YouTube is wholesome—strictly about the cracks.

“They all seem like snake oil salesmen to me, I doubt the adjustments have the medical impact they’re claiming.”

Binder tries to cater his videos to people who watch adjustments to feel ASMR, which he believes is the biggest audience for chiropractic on YouTube, despite a limited, unknown percentage of the population actually being able to feel ASMR’s characteristic brain tingles. He started shooting videos at his practice in June 2018, after patients had been telling him for two years that he should watch other chiropractors on YouTube, he said. “My thought was always, very politely, Why the fuck would anyone watch a chiropractor on YouTube?” Binder said. The first time he watched an adjustment video with over a million views, and read all the comments beneath it, he changed his tune: Why *wouldn’t* people watch this?

The pinned video on Binder’s page captures his whole vibe. In it, he wears suspenders and a tie and whistles sporadically (something his ASMR-heads love and request in the comments) as he rubs a female patient’s back before sending a series of cracks rippling down her spine. Afterwards, she cries, saying, “It just made me emotional, really randomly.” He hands her a box of tissues and says, “Nothing in life is random, everything in life has a purpose.” Throughout the video, fancy microphones Binder bought with his YouTube revenue capture all the cracks at their highest possible quality.

Julie, 33, initially got hooked on chiropractic videos for the cracking sounds, but stuck around for the sense of relief those sounds give her. She said hearing the series of pops up a stranger’s spine feels like “a release of anxiety,” even though she’s nowhere near the table herself and has no interest in getting adjusted. (A bad experience with a Groupon chiropractor a few years ago left a bitter taste.) “They all seem like snake oil salesmen to me,” she said. “I doubt the adjustments have the medical impact they’re claiming.” She’d rather just watch.

You could make a supercut of a certain scene that appears in most of Cipriano’s channel. It would be extremely emotionally charged, like the emotional equivalent of a looping, roaring chorus. There’s a few moments after he finishes his adjustment where the patients put their hands on their faces and start crying, and he gently removes whatever strap or apparatus he was using to jostle their joints around, and says something like, How are you feeling? The overwhelmed patients mutter something incoherent, sounding like a kid stumbling off their first roller coaster.

This moment, Cipriano thinks, is why most people keep coming back to chiropractic YouTube. People want to see an expression of relief, to see someone go from feeling bad to feeling good in the matter of a few minutes. It’s miraculous, which perhaps hints that it can’t be lasting or real; nothing that good can be honest. Lierre and Cipriano both see the booming popularity of adjustment videos as commentary on the healthcare system in the United States. “It’s pretty telling that, in the U.S., there's people watching other people get medical procedures that a lot of us probably need and can't afford,” Lierre said. “We're like, Oof look at that; envy after this healthcare that most of us don’t have.”

Even at $200 per visit (or $100, if you opt to be filmed), having your joints professionally popped is a lot more affordable than going through the proper diagnostic channels for a chronic back issue that may never be resolved. Disheartened by traditional (read: science-backed) medicine, people seek alternatives. This is the entire thesis of the wellness industry.

“Nowadays, people are trying to seek out alternative ways to deal with pains they're having,” Cipriano said. “People see these videos who never thought to try a chiropractor, and they’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, people are actually getting relief… from a chiropractor?!’ So many people thought of our profession—I hate to say—as a joke.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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