Dr. Alex cradles a woman’s face in his hands. He stands behind her, in a white T-shirt, his scruff covered in a face mask (an atypical look for him, even in a pandemic), the heel of his palms fastened just below her ears. The woman sits, eyes closed, and admits she’s nervous. It’s her first time getting a chiropractic adjustment. Dr. Alex, casual, kind, tells her to relax. Then it happens all at once, in a single, swift motion: Dr. Alex twists the woman’s neck. It sounds like he’s stomped on bubble wrap.
She laughs. “Wow.”
“Just like the videos?”
“Oh, my god. It feels different,” she says. “Better.”
I watch, hunched over my iPhone, my shoulders curved forward, my dowager’s hump growing more irreversible, my spine increasingly resembling the shape and fortitude of a balloon dog with every passing day. As I’ve come to do since mid-2020, I scroll to the next video. And then the next. And then the next.
Dr. Alex is one of the big players of my pandemic-era internet obsession: Chirogram. Chirogram is a subsect of social media sites, including Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, where chiropractors post videos (go with me here) of themselves performing spinal adjustments on patients. The doctors worth following mic up their patients’ backs, capturing that oh-so-satisfying crack-crack-crack of each adjustment. Chirogram videos span anywhere from six seconds to 60 minutes and range from detailed explainers to super-cut compilations.
I promise you I’m not the only sicko logged on to this realm of the internet. Dr. Alex boasts 227,000 followers on Instagram and 2.1 million on TikTok (totals that pale in comparison to “Dr. Cracks,” who has 3.4 million TikTok followers). Here, for example, is a 41-minute back-cracking compilation video that has tallied over 5.8 million views on YouTube. The hashtag #chiropractor has four billion views on TikTok. Chirogram is, in other words, a thing.
Each chiropractic internet persona has their own flair, their own favorite adjustments, their own bedside manner. (Though by and large it’s a mostly male, very bro-like cohort.) Dr. Alex has a casual, flirtatious vibe and specializes in what he calls “the magic hug,” where patients let their skulls hang into the crook of his biceps, and then—crack! There’s Dr. Cody, an American expat in Sydney with a confusing transpacific accent, a gray Weimaraner, and easygoing, best-friend vibes. Dr. Rashad is the down-to-business New Yorker: he makes basically no small talk with patients, apparently relying on the element of surprise to increase their neck rotation by 15 degrees each visit. Personally, I love this Italian man who cracks ankles (something he calls a navicular bone HVLA adjustment? OK!). Dr. Joseph is more of a long-form guy; he straight-up records entire sessions with patients for YouTube, where he boasts 1.8 million subscribers. One chiro I follow adjusts baby spines, slowly, carefully, with basically no audible cracking. And then there’s Jordan Estrada, a.k.a. Dr. Remix, who gives back-relief tips to the tunes of Megan Thee Stallion. Chirogram has everything.
I should mention that I’d never actually been to a chiropractor prior to my descent into Chirogram. Honestly, the whole thing seemed a little scammy to me. And also: What if I go to get my neck adjusted and the doctor, I don’t know, accidentally paralyzes me? That fear isn’t really warranted, but it’s true that chiropractic sits somewhere between standard and alternative health care. Chiropractors aren’t medical doctors, but they’re not acupuncturists, either. (Chiropractors don’t go to med school, but they do become “chiropractic doctors,” thus the use of the title doctor.) This field of complementary care, which deals with manipulating the musculoskeletal system—especially the spine—was developed in the U.S. in the late 19th century. It’s grown increasingly mainstream over the past few decades, and many studies have affirmed chiropractic’s effectiveness in relieving lower-back pain, particularly in tandem with modern medicine.
Some chiropractors today create viral content to promote their businesses—and chiropractic care in general—situating this trend at the bizarre American intersection of health care, capitalism, and social media. Dr. Sayegh (a.k.a. the King of Cracks) told me via Instagram DM (where else?) that he started posting adjustments during the first COVID shutdowns of 2020 as a way to stay connected with followers while his offices were empty. (He posted his first TikTok on April 6, 2020, and created the King of Cracks Instagram account about a month later.) The videos became a way, in the King’s words, to educate the public about chiropractic care and to entertain followers.
I’m a writer, so I spend most of my days looking at my laptop or a notebook, pandemic or no pandemic. But the past year has necessitated an increased amount of screen time, even for me: more time contorting my body so I look slightly better on Zoom, more nights scrolling aimlessly through Instagram because there’s so little else to do. I was primed to fall into Chirogram, and I fell for it hard.
First, there’s the ASMR of it all. For the uninitiated, ASMR—autonomous sensory meridian response—is the soothing, tingling sensation many people get from listening to certain sounds, like whispering and tapping and the crinkling of paper. Chiropractors say producing a loud crack isn’t integral to achieving back relief, nor is it an indicator of an adjustment’s effectiveness. The crack is, however, integral to the virality of Chirogram. The phenomenon hinges on that satisfying, audible crunch of the body and the ASMR response that many viewers (including me) get from it. I’m not big on other, more popular ASMR-inducing sounds. But there’s something about Chirogram that gets me, that generates a calming sensation—even a sense of relief—while watching others get their backs adjusted. Those cracks sound so good that they also feel good.
ASMR isn’t a sexual thing (for the most part) and neither is Chirogram, but there’s certainly something pseudo erotic about the whole subgenre. Many, many patients call their adjustments “orgasmic” in videos. “Does anyone else have a VIRGIN SPINE that you’d love to let me get my hands on?” Dr. Cody asks in one caption. One YouTube video, titled “*College Girl* Gets Her *BACK CRACKED* for the *First Time*,” sounds particularly pornographic, but I promise it’s just 11 minutes of a routine chiropractic appointment.
As a marketing strategy, Chirogram seems to work. The King of Cracks’ TikTok account has gained 2.4 million followers in less than a year, and Dr. Sayegh tells me his practice has gotten “much busier” since he started posting adjustment videos. He’s not alone in having hyperenthusiastic followers. Posts on popular chiro accounts are littered with comments from users declaring, “I NEED THIS!!!” Random Instagram users threaten to buy flights to Australia on nearly every one of Dr. Cody’s posts. Patients in videos (including one six-year-old in a Dr. Alex clip) often cite TikTok or Instagram as their means of discovering this new chiropractor, or for inspiring them to get their first-ever chiropractic adjustment. I mean, it worked on me.
After about three months, I’d watched so many chiropractors adjust so many joints on so many strangers that my body ached for adjustments of its own. First I bought a laptop stand to bring my screen parallel to my face while working. Then I realized I needed a Bluetooth keyboard to help unscrunch my shoulders. Then a mouse, a mousepad, a big blue exercise ball. Then I asked my girlfriend to tell me to roll my shoulders back whenever she noticed me hunching over. I started doing yoga—a lot of yoga. And finally, after watching so many Chirogram adjustments that my eyes nearly dried out, I bit the bullet and scheduled an appointment with a chiropractor. My insurance didn’t cover it, but no matter. I longed for the relief I saw in those videos. I knew that the satisfaction of watching viral crack content was just a sliver of the relief I’d feel. It was like I had a song stuck in my head, and if I just listened to it, I’d be free of its grasp.
My chiropractor, Dr. Matt, had major Dr. Cody vibes, minus the Weimaraner. I explained that I’d experienced pain in my lower left back for years now, a hang-up from an old track injury, and that it often flared up after working out. He popped my midback and twisted my lumbar spine—the whole dang thing, just like I’d seen on Chirogram. Yet the most cathartic release of the visit wasn’t when Dr. Matt cracked me like a glow stick. It happened at the top of the session, as he laid a heating pad on my lower back. Glancing at my car keys, which I’d tossed on a chair in the corner, Dr. Matt asked, “Do you like your Subaru?”
“I do,” I said. “It’s great. My girlfriend and I drove it cross-country this summer, to North Carolina and back.”
Several seconds passed, and I could see Dr. Matt weighing whether to make The Joke. I knew it was coming. I always know when it’s coming. “Kind of a cliché, being a lesbian who drives a Subaru, eh?” he said.
I laughed politely, like I’d never heard that observation before. But of course I had: the main thing about being a lesbian who drives a Subaru is fielding jokes about being a lesbian who drives a Subaru. Still, in the middle of a pandemic, it felt so fucking good to be roasted by a gay stranger for being a lesbian who drives a Subaru. It was like he was a friend’s friend at Akbar, half drunk and grasping for something easy to laugh over, treading water until his crush came back from the bathroom.
Appointments with people who work with bodies feel so magically, instantly intimate. Chiropractors fall into this category, as do masseuses, personal trainers, and physical therapists. It’s not just the feeling of an unfamiliar hand on your body, but that the hand understands why you walk and ache the way you do. It’s startling to meet someone for the first time, exchange a few words, and then have them read your body like a book. Such experts can make assumptions about our unique aches and pains based on such little information: When I move your elbow like this, does your shoulder hurt? If I twist your hip like this, is it easier to lift your knee? So few people know the ins and outs of our bodies—we often don’t even know them ourselves—that it’s easy to mistake this immediate knowledge for connection. But really, they’re just trained professionals who didn’t flunk organic chemistry and are paid to know how human bodies work.
The thing I’m so drawn to in Chirogram isn’t the crunch of bones but the casual intimacy between doctor and patient. These aren’t just videos of people getting their spines adjusted, but footage of two people who don’t really know each other having a nice time together. God, it’s so satisfying to watch! Remember casual intimacy? Remember clicking with a friend of a friend at a party, or joking with someone in line for the bathroom, or seeing a friend’s full face from less than six feet away? In the past year, my social circle has dwindled. I have maybe, maybe two social engagements per week, all of which are outside, the vast majority ending by 9 P.M., and very rarely do they include anyone I’ve never met. On the occasions I opt for in-store shopping instead of curbside pickup, masks make it hard to spark natural chitchat with strangers in stores. All of these restrictions are necessary, minor inconveniences in the scheme of the past calendar year. But the midwesterner in me misses talking to strangers. It isn’t musculoskeletal manipulation that I need, but feeling like I know someone I’ve only just met. And also, maybe a deep-tissue massage.
I haven’t been back to Dr. Matt for a few months. (My last appointment was on my birthday; I got cracked as a treat.) Not because my spinal adjustments didn’t feel phenomenal, or because my lower-back pain has fully gone away, but because out-of-pocket chiropractic care ain’t cheap—on average, it’ll run you around $ 65 per session. I do, though, still regularly donate hours of my precious, one-time-only life to Chirogram. Only now I’m begrudgingly aware that the relief I’m looking for isn’t going to come all at once, with a swift crack of the neck. It’ll happen more slowly, vaccination by vaccination, reopening by reopening. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing yoga. And fine, I’ll try to cut back on screen time.