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A Bit of Chicago Medical History: Naprapathy

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.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD


Leave a Comment

  1. John Pearson says:

    Thanks. Great info, and always fun to learn a lost bit of Chicago history. I’d seen the word Naprapathy over the years and never knew what it was. Now you have me interested in learning more and maybe seeing one!

  2. Dr. Edelberg
    Thank you for you positive informative article on naprapathy. I have been practicing naprapathy since 1983 and would love to share with you how I have woven AK, MAT, acupressure, MIT, and reciprocal inhibition with naprapathy into a signal technique.
    I would be delighted to meet you at your center.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Edelberg, for this spotlight on my profession and it’s founder, Oakley Smith. It’s very rewarding for me to read the feedback about naprapathy I hear from my patients every day. The napapathic alignment and released trapped emotional issues are part of the whole opening and healing process. What a wonderful acknowledgement.

  4. Thank you, Dr. Edelberg, for your kind endorsement of our profession. Coming from you, this is truly a very special honor.
    I also want to take this opportunity to thank you for all your wonderful newsletter writing. It is a great continuing education resource for me, one I very much look forward to receiving. And when a patient presents with a particularly challenging health condition, I ask myself “What would Dr. Edelberg do?” If still stumped, I refer them to you.

  5. Thank you, Dr. Edelberg, for your positive and informative article on my profession. So many people aren’t quite sure what we do and now they may be interested in finding out.

  6. Dear Dr. Edelberg,

    You mentioned that you may be getting some comments from irritable Naprapaths, but I feel you will only get a huge thanks and praise from us.

    Our small profession has a lot to offer. Many of us practice a variety of bodywork techniques – not just the Oakley Smith Method. Still, it is sad that we cannot figure out how to market ourselves other than when a renown holistic-based MD highlights our profession. Thanks for all you do for the health care industry and your patients alike.

    As you may know, my office is a block away from your office for the past 5+ years and I have recommended many people to you for the same reason that you have highlighted Naprapathy – because you care more for the healing of people than anything else.

    Thank you for your wonderful review of our history! We greatly appreciate it. By the way, I will no longer be your next door neighbor as we are moving to 2731 N Lincoln this Saturday, but will always refer people down the street to your practice!


  7. Dr. Jacqueline DeBerard, D.N. says:

    Dr. Edelberg,
    I love how you captured the true essence of our
    wonderful profession. It is very rewarding to get recognized and endorsed by you.
    Thank you,
    Dr. Jacqueline DeBerard, D.N.

  8. Ulf Henricsson says:

    Dear Dr. Edelberg,
    Long time no see. Hope you are doing well!
    Just wanted to thank you for your nice words about our profession. We need al the help we can get.
    Very nice of you, thank you so much.
    All the best, Ulf

  9. Dr. Krasna Kuoch D.N. says:

    Dr. Edelberg thank you for writing an article about our profession. Wonderful, informative to the public. Thank you so much!

  10. Thank You Dr. Edelberg for your ackowledgement of the Naprapathic profession. Your view is very refreshing. I myself see overlap and consistancies of other professions with our own. It really comes down to what works best for the patient. Thank you again and good health to you.
    Dr. Barbara Keck

  11. Alan Cochin says:

    Good Job Dr. Edelberg. you are both thorough and informative, as well as objective. Thank You. Alan Cochin, D.N., M.Sc.

  12. Dr. Barbara J. Schriver, D.N. says:

    I am delighted that the practice of Naprapathic Medicine is becoming more known. My patients count on me and others in my profession for relief of their suffering. It is way beyond time that people become aware that surgery and drugs are not the only avenue to persue for their health and pain issues. Thank you for getting the message out.
    Dr. Schriver, D.N.

  13. Wonderful article Dr. Edelberg and many thanks for recognizing this professions contributions and struggles through the decades. I’m hoping our profession here in NM is welcomed and enduring as it has in IL.

  14. Kay Duncan says:

    My grandfather was a naprapathic physician in Chicago practicing in the ’50s, possibly earlier. As a child I remember his office in his home with charts on the walls depicting muscles, tissues, etc.; his massage table looked immense at the time. His patients had various conditions and I remember seeing some walking out normally when they previously had difficulty moving. I think he studied on a part time basis while working full time, and naprapathy became his second career when he retired. I wish I had his posters. He passed away at the age of 97, still practicing naprapathy with family members.

  15. dr jay kaufman says:

    wonder full article about a wonderfull healing work

  16. pl says:

    “combining the Czech word naprapavit (to correct) and the Greek pathos (suffering)”

    the Czech word is “napravit”

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