In chiropractor influencer videos, the sweet cracking sound of relief

NEW YORK — There’s a recurring theme in the comments of Instagram video posts starring Justin Lewis, a blond Manhattan chiropractor with broad shoulders and a boyish smile: Sprinkled in alongside comments marveling at the crispness and volume of his patients’ joints clicking into alignment are expressions of unconcealed longing.

“I need it,” one of Lewis’s approximately 165,000 followers writes about a post where Lewis adjusts a lower back, the crunching and cracking noises amplified by a clip-on microphone.

“I need some of that,” a woman comments on a video of Lewis adjusting a female patient’s neck with a loud series of pops.

“Ugh I NEED this, right in this exact spot,” one user writes below a video of Lewis scraping the shoulders of a young woman in a workout top with a metal Graston tool before he sinks his fingers deep into the crevice between spine and shoulder blade. This is the “scapular release,” a specialty of Lewis’s that aims to relieve shoulder pain and increase range of motion.

After watching enough videos of Lewis cracking backs and loosening scapulae, one learns (read: I learned) that just observing his patients’ gasps and groans at the sensations can quickly draw attention to the stiffness in one’s own lumbar, and that hearing their mic’d-up pops and cracks incites both a yearning for all-at-once bodily release that borders on the indecent and a secondhand sense of relief.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Lewis is just one of a number of friendly, photogenic male chiropractors turned influencers who have risen to prominence in the past few years, largely through algorithms that simply keep offering more and more chiropractors to people who have ever watched one chiropractor. On TikTok, where Lewis has nearly 3 million followers, Alex VanDerschelden (the “OC Chiropractor,” based in Southern California) has amassed around 4.5 million, and a practitioner known only as “Dr.Cracks” has upward of 6 million. On YouTube, pages such as CrackAddictz serve people compilations of the most satisfying chiropractic adjustments, to be mainlined in much the same way as pimple-popping videos: obsessively, parasocially, one after another.

Humans have long sought help restoring our bodies to some vague idea of their natural, divine working order — an overall sense of well-being that targeted, specialized medical care often doesn’t offer. And for better or worse, practitioners have always stood at the ready, prepared to intervene when our chakras seemed blocked; when our humors seemed unbalanced; when our meridians surely became constricted; when our orgone levels were all out of whack. The search for relief, in other words — for a quick, efficient factory reset, an erasure of the daily toil we put our bodies through — is as universal as the solutions on offer are endless. In 2023, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a world full of laptop workers, connected globally by the internet, is finding such relief vicariously through videos online.

Lewis, 35, started posting videos to Instagram in spring 2020, with the help of a social media-savvy friend, after the lively stream of visitors to his just-opened chiropractic office suddenly ground to a halt. Three years later, he now posts three to five clips per week among his assorted pages on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Pinterest, which include adjustment videos, usually made in partnerships with influencers or athletes, plus occasional songs or memes tailored to chiropractic care. Lewis’s fan base has blossomed accordingly.

“We get messages from people as far away as Africa, as Europe. We’ve had patients flying in from Italy,” Lewis tells me. Often, visitors “are like, ‘Oh, we’ve seen hundreds of your videos.’ Like, that’s nuts,” he adds with a laugh.

Michael Rowe, a chiropractor in St. Joseph, Mich., with almost 2.8 million subscribers on YouTube, has seen his popularity online inadvertently threaten the stability of his real-life office. “I’m just a small-town chiropractor, but we have to deal with people calling from all over the world now, just wanting to talk to me, to come to see us. We have to explain that what I do in the office is no different than what you would get at your local chiropractor,” Rowe tells me. “I feel for my receptionist.”

Like most other internet fixations, chiropractic videos have a natural escalation built into them; that is, at a certain point, one starts looking for more intense stuff. Which may explain the popularity of the Y-Strap — a tool that fastens under a supine patient’s chin and is then yanked away from the body to “release pressure from the vertebrae along the spine from top to bottom,” according to the manufacturer’s website.

Caroline Smith, a 27-year-old waitress in Columbus, Ohio, who frequently shares chiropractic videos via direct message with her sister, jokes that she’ll block the accounts of any chiropractors whose videos don’t feature the Y-Strap — for wasting her time. Smith, who has lived with back pain since a basketball injury in her adolescence, tends to fantasize about what life would be like without it. “I just want my spine to be decompressed,” she tells me. “That’s what the Y-Strap does, and I wish I could experience that.” Smith particularly likes to watch VanDerschelden’s popular Y-Strap adjustment videos.

VanDerschelden, quite possibly the most marquee idol of all the internet’s dreamy chiros, is also famous for his “magic hug” videos, in which he stands on the table, leans in close to his patients, and cradles their heads and necks in his arms until he finds the right stiff spot — at which point he suddenly pulls inward. A microphone picks up sounds crunchier than a brick being dropped into a bowl of potato chips. (The cracks and crunches, for what it’s worth, are created by pockets of gas escaping from between joints — not bones colliding.)

It is the Y-Strap, though, that perhaps most intensely transfixes real aficionados of the genre — and most alarms expert observers. VanDerschelden did not respond to my request for an interview, but Joseph Cipriano, a chiropractor with offices in Tampa, Atlanta and Greenville, S.C., and a YouTube channel with more than 2 million subscribers that touts him as the “Y Strap Doc,” told me that he swears by it. Patients feel “lighter, taller and looser” after use, he says. Many even swear that they “breathe, smell, hear and even see better.”

That said, other chiropractors — Lewis included — have their reservations. “When I adjust somebody’s neck, I’m feeling their neck. I put my hand on that spot and I can adjust that one area,” he told me. A Y-Strap, by contrast, uses a much blunter force. “So you’ll definitely feel cracks on your back, but it’s not specific. In my opinion, to be as safe as you can be in this industry, specificity counts.” (William Zelenty, a spine surgeon at New York’s acclaimed Hospital for Special Surgery, watched a few Y-Strap videos for this story. Disconcerted, he remarked when we spoke on the phone: “There’s very little difference between what you’re seeing with these straps and, like, a noose.”)

Cipriano estimates, though, that some “99.9 percent” of his patients come because they’ve seen his clips online, and “everyone says that the Y-Strap is the main reason they’re coming.”

For many in this line of work, the videos are a form of marketing — and have rapidly become part of the job. Lewis films for at least a few hours every day that he’s in the office, and he estimates that 80 percent of his clientele book with him after encountering his videos. Cipriano aims to post new content every other day on YouTube, and he offers a discount to patients who let him film their adjustments for his social channels.

One has to wonder, of course, whether being adjusted by one of the viral chiros offers the same satisfaction as watching it happen to someone else. So when I visited Lewis in his office on a warm Friday, on the eighth floor of a nondescript gray building near Penn Station, I asked for a full-body adjustment, complete with the scapular release; the latter, I said, looked lovely in all the videos. Lewis warned me: It didn’t exactly feel lovely while it was happening.

Indeed, the Graston tool scraping across my skin, rubbing it red, felt like getting a rug burn, not a massage; soon, I was forcing my breath out through pursed lips while Lewis steadily, painfully contorted my elbow back behind my torso. “Just a couple more seconds,” he assured me each time. My brows knitting in like an accordion, I could only nod in response.

Even the back-cracking, the fabled back-cracking, felt surprisingly akin to my brother body-slamming me into the couch when we were kids. The crunch was audible. The relief was muted.

The next day, though, when I stretched my arms out into angel wings doing a Saturday-morning yoga-class sun salutation, I felt them extend longer and farther back than they had in years. And that was transcendent.

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