In what was probably a self-referential moment, Saul Bellow, Chicago’s Nobel Prize winning novelist, once remarked that Chicagoans rarely acknowledge their heroes. Well today I bring you a new candidate. Beyond a small circle of naprapathic physicians, it’s unlikely many of us have ever heard of Dr. Oakley Smith, who, as a young chiropractor in the early 20th century first formulated the principles of naprapathy, a homegrown bodywork therapy.
The Chicago History Museum credits Chicago with the first blood bank, heart bypass surgery, deep dish pizza, and Tootsie Roll, but its search engine draws a blank on Dr. Smith. And yet it’s virtually impossible to live here without having seen someone’s name on a store or office window followed by the initials DN (Doctor of Naprapathy). You may have been curious, wondering what the initials meant. You also likely mispronounced it–it’s “nuh-PRAH-pa-thee.”
The forgotten Dr. Smith cobbled together an entire system of health and illness, combining the Czech word naprapavit (to correct) and the Greek pathos (suffering) to produce a term that means “to correct the cause of suffering.” At chiropractic college years ago, he’d learned that all illness was caused by misalignment of the vertebrae, the bones in the spine. If you had chronic heart disease, for example, a misalignment of the vertebrae at the level of your heart blocked not only the blood and nerve pathways to the heart, but also your body’s own subtle energies. These are the same energies the Chinese call qi, Indian Ayurvedic physicians call prana, and a variety of US and European practitioners manipulate through Reiki and Healing Touch.
Smith disagreed with the spinal misalignment theory (chiropractic history refers to this event as “Smith’s Schism”), believing the real source of chronic illness to be comparable blockages in the body’s soft tissues (muscles, fascia, ligaments, and tendons). A naprapath, or someone trained in myofascial release therapy, feels these blockages as chronic muscle contractions. They occur as a result of old but unhealed injury, psychological conflict, poor nutrition, or poor posture.
I expect to receive some irritable comments from naprapaths with this comparison to myofascial release, but in both therapies the practitioner gently palpates connective tissue, feeling for areas that are contracted, rigid, and painful. Then, using a series of rhythmic manipulations, the contraction is stretched and released. Once the tension is cleared, there’s restoration of proper nerve and blood flow, healing energies travel without obstruction, and the body begins to function again.
The difference between a naprapath and a myofascial release therapist is an important one. First, the correct term for a naprapath is naprapathic physician. And as a physician–similar to a chiropractic physician–he or she is licensed to diagnose and treat symptoms. On the other hand, myofascial release therapists are usually specially trained massage therapists or physical therapists who rely on their client’s physician to make a correct diagnosis and prescribe therapy.
Smith would go on to establish the first of two schools of naprapathy, the Chicago College of Naprapathy on Milwaukee Avenue. A rival school formed across the street a couple of decades later, the Illinois College of Naprapathy, and then, finally, bygones being bygones, the two merged into the National College of Naprapathy, still on Milwaukee Avenue. (I mean, Milwaukee and Belmont, how “Chicago” can you get?)
The problem naprapathy faced during its 100+ years is the same threat all alternative practitioners have endured—the medical establishment. Interestingly in the case of naprapathy, opposition came not only from the usual suspects, including medical doctors (MDs and DOs), but also from chiropractors (DCs), who resented Smith’s apostasy, and physical therapists, who routinely side with the establishment.
The result of this many-fronted assault is that after all these years, naprapaths are officially licensed in just two states, Illinois and New Mexico. Curiously, naprapathy was exported decades ago to Sweden, where naprapaths now outnumber chiropractors. Interested readers residing in those vast areas where no naprapaths practice should look for a myofascial release therapist. The commonest remarks I hear after a patient has experienced a session of myofascial release from our own Helen Streitemeier and Samson Wong: “That’s like no massage I’ve ever had before. It was amazing. My muscles feel like they’ve opened up.”
Exactly. Whether you call the session naprapathy or myofascial release, what it definitely is not is a massage.
One compelling offshoot of both naprapathy and myofascial release therapy centers on the emotional issues that can be trapped in locked and contracted muscles. This has its origin in the “muscular armoring” theory of Wilhelm Reich, a colleague of Sigmund Freud. In fibromyalgia, for example, patients often have unconsciously locked memories of a dreadful childhood event literally into their muscles. Releasing the muscles releases the memory and the patient can start on a fast track to getting well. I discuss muscular armoring at length in my book Healing Fibromyalgia.
Now you know something about naprapathy’s Chicago history that has eluded our otherwise excellent Chicago History Museum.
David Edelberg, MD