Professional Sports and Chiropractic: A Home Run History

Picture this: The year is 1911.

Marie Curie has received her second Nobel Prize for discovering radium and polonium.

Ernest Rutherford just described the structure of an atom.

There are reports of Chicago Cubs pitcher Mordecai Brown receiving chiropractic treatment.

These events seem unrelated, but what they have in common lies in the next hundred years as the knowledge concerning all of these topics grew and evolved.

Today we’re going to break down the expanding role chiropractic has played in the realm of professional sports.

A History Lesson of Professional Sports and Chiropractic

Following initial accounts of Mordecai Brown receiving chiropractic care, by 1920, other baseball heroes, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gherig, and Joe DiMaggio, were reported to be chiropractic recipients.

Babe Ruth was even photographed with his chiropractor several times!

Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Babe Ruth
Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Babe Ruth

This may have just been the beginning of chiropractors being recognized as beneficial to athletes – and as the profession grew, so did the caliber of athletes being treated.

Beyond professional baseball, decades later, chiropractors were introduced to Olympic athletes (1,2).

Treating Olympians as recognized members of the sports medical team marked a massive accomplishment for chiropractors by expanding their role in integrative medicine and showing the value of conservative spine care to athletes.

In response to the increasing number of chiropractic clinicians interested in treating athletes, the Fédération Internationale de Chiropratique du Sport (FICS) was formed.

Identifying themselves as international leaders in the sports chiropractic realm, FICS remains an integral part of bringing top-tier chiropractors to athletic events worldwide.

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Integrated Sport, Spine and Rehab

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Professional sports and chiropractic history continued to be made three years after the formation of FICS when Joe Montana, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was treated by his chiropractor before their impressive victory against the Denver Broncos.

Not only did he receive chiropractic care, but he did so in front of a live audience during the pre-game show broadcast on national television.

It must be something about the Bay Area because following the Superbowl media coverage, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice openly endorses chiropractic care to his viewers.

Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Jerry Rice
Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Jerry Rice

Since then, hordes of athletes have touted the benefits of chiropractic care, including Olympic gold medalist Dan O’Brien, boxing icon Evander Holyfield, and the MLB’s Barry Bonds.

The Giants outfielder has been quoted as saying, “I think it should be mandatory for athletes to see a chiropractor.”

Flash forward to today.

Household names like Tiger Woods and Tom Brady are known for their outspoken use of chiropractic care to improve their performance and maintain optimal health.

Reports of professional athletes taking advantage of the benefits chiropractors can offer may not get us a Nobel Prize like Marie Curie.

Still, it may be helpful in other ways.

Increasing awareness is the first step to increasing access.

While chiropractic is useful for professionals, it’s also beneficial for the average Joe to alleviate aches and pains.

Growing Use of Chiropractic in Professional Sports

It’s great that so many professional athletes encourage the use of chiropractic care.

Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Arnold Schwartzenager
Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Arnold Schwartzenager

Of course, to avoid an ‘ad populum’ argument, let’s get to some evidence that shows the increasing utilization of sports chiropractic.

While more research is always needed, some ‘then vs. now’ comparisons can be made from what is currently published.

A great example being a 2002 report noting that 31% of NFL teams employed a chiropractor on their sports medical staff (3).

Comparing this statistic to the present day, we know that not only do all 32 NFL teams have an official team chiropractor, but so do 90% of MLB teams and almost every NHL team.

Another study that evaluated intercollegiate athletes reported over half of the participants routinely used complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and 29% of respondents specifically utilized chiropractic care (4).

This study adds to the growing body of evidence, further demonstrating the widespread acceptance of conservative care clinicians in diverse athletic settings (5).

Sports chiropractors have been shown to offer some of the best care for musculoskeletal injuries that professional athletes sustain, and evidence supports their role on a sports medicine team (6).

Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Michael Jordan
Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Michael Jordan

Chiropractors are being recognized by team members as assets to athletes and are now considered an essential piece of the puzzle when getting professionals ready for their game.

In 2008, a chiropractor was even appointed as the medical director of the US Olympic Team.

It’s no wonder we see more and more chiropractors on the sidelines of sporting events providing care!


The Science of Professional Sports and Chiropractic

Before we dive into more research, here’s the bottom line: we know that chiropractic helps athletic performance.

Chiropractors are experts in the musculoskeletal system.

We spend years learning about the anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics of the body so that when something goes wrong, we know what to do.

When our bodies endure stress during athletic activity, especially for professional athletes, we want to ensure injury prevention is at the forefront of the care plan.

Many studies now support a variety of functional improvements resulting from chiropractic care which can be linked to better athletic performance.

The direct effects of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) are still being studied; however, indirect mechanisms may be at play.

Some of those studied include activation of inhibited muscles, muscle strength improvement, and increased motor reaction time (7).

The applicability of these benefits is wide-ranging, and it’s easy to see why professional golfers to boxing champions seek out sports chiropractors.

Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Barbara Bunkowsky
Professional Sports and Chiropractic: Barbara Bunkowsky

Athletes also note improvements following spinal manipulation regarding both pain severity and athletic performance (8,9).

These are just a few specific examples of how chiropractic can help athletes be their best, and research continues to be done to determine what underlying factors are at play.


Professional Sports and Chiropractic Today

The formation of FICS in 1987 was a massive step for the sports chiropractic community, and it seems today there are governing bodies for almost every professional sport.

Notably, the American Chiropractic Association’s Sports Council has student chapters at chiropractic colleges and hosts a yearly educational symposium.

Additionally, organizations like the Professional Football Chiropractic Society are known throughout the United States to direct all NFL teams.

Arguably, the most crucial part of professional sports and chiropractic in the modern era is the credentialing process.

To be a sports chiropractor, additional education is required.

Licensed chiropractors with specific qualifications are eligible for several sports certifications depending on their particular goals.

For example, FICS offers the International Certificate in Sports Chiropractic which requires completion of online educational modules, in-person training, and other documented experience to provide care at international sporting events.

However, this certification is not recognized in the United States.

The American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians governs the credentialing process for doctors of chiropractic seeking sports certifications in the United States.

American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians
American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians

These include the Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician and the more advanced Diplomate American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians.

The difference here is essential if a sports chiropractor wants to travel with a team internationally.

Until a few years ago, laws limited sports chiropractors to treating athletes within state lines.

In 2016 sports chiropractic got another win when the ‘Travel to Treat‘ bill was finally passed, allowing a team chiropractor to travel with their respective teams and remain insured.

Professional sports and chiropractic have come a long way in the past 110 years, and evidence is continuously emerging supporting the chiropractor’s role within professional athletics.

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