The Safety Pin Cycle

West Edmonton chiropractor description of nerve flow or body function through a metaphor of the safety pin closed and open

For about 100 years, chiropractors have used “the safety pin cycle” to describe chiropractic.

The historical record is unclear who developed the safety pin cycle analogy. Most believe it is based on the “normal complete cycle’ pioneered by B. J. Palmer. There is evidence to suggest that it was Palmer’s student R. W. Stephenson who penned the term “safety pin cycle.” That was in his 1927 text entitled The Chiropractic TextBook. It captured many of Palmer’s models, theories and practices.

The safety pin seemed the perfect analogy, since everyone is familiar with its simple operation. It has four elements. Each part representing an aspect of chiropractic model of health and healing:

  • The Clasp – This represents the brain.
  • The Spring – This represents tissue cells of the body.
  • The Efferent Side – One side represents nerve impulses leaving the brain.
  • The Afferent Side – One side represents nerve impulses returning to the brain. 


More Simply Explained. 

(Holding the CLOSED safety pin in front of the patient)
Health is possible when there is clear nerve communication between the brain and body. (In both directions). That’s represented by the safety pin clasped. The body is best able to adapt to its environment. Tissue cells of the body function as they were designed. The brain can properly control and regulate the body. There is a sense of ease and well-being.

(now OPEN the safety pin)
Ill health is represented by the unclasped safety pin. This represents a partial loss of nerve connection between the brain and the body. Impaired nerve messaging can be on the efferent side of the loop (leaving the brain) or the afferent side (returning to the brain). In either case there’s a loss of “ease” or dis-ease. If left uncorrected disease may result. At this early stage the body has lost its ability to comprehend itself, its environment or both.

(then you can use examples here if you like):
Consider the stomach. At first glance, acid reflux, indigestion or other stomach symptoms appears to be a stomach problem. More likely? It could be a brain-to-stomach or a stomach-to-brain nerve communication issue. It simply manifests as a stomach problem.

The moving bones of the spine are a common cause of nerve interference. The resulting nerve impairment is represented by the unclasped safety pin.
Chiropractors refer to this as a vertebral subluxation.

Vertebral, meaning of the spine. Sub, meaning less than. And luxation, meaning a dislocation. So, a condition of less than dislocation in the spine.

Or, Sub, meaning less than. Lux meaning light. And ‘ation’ meaning condition. So, a condition of less than full light.

Chiropractors use the term subluxation in a more nuanced way than medical practitioners. Even the slightest spinal misalignment can have neurological effects. Yet disregarded as “normal” by an emergency room physician.

Three types of stress can produce the nerve interference of vertebral subluxation.

  1. Trauma stress. A whiplash injury from a car accident is an obvious source of physical stress. As is a slip or fall. Repetitive motions or improper lifting. A lack of sleep or overexertion can take its toll. Among children, the birth process, learning to walk, contact sports or heavy backpacks are common causes of physical stress.
  2. Toxic burden. Common sources of chemical stress include poor nutrition, sugar, refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. Alcohol, drugs, preservatives, tobacco and a host of other substances can affect the nervous system. Which in turn influences muscle tone and spinal alignment.
  3. Thoughts/Emotions.  Fear, grief, anger and other emotions can affect our entire body. Frustration, or a sense of powerlessness at work, is an all-too common form of emotional stress. Notice the posture of someone who is sad or depressed. Our mind affects our body. And our body affects our mind.

Stress exhausts our reserves. Chronic stress reduces our adaptive capacity. Then, something as trivial as tree pollen or cat dander can put us over the edge. Chiropractic care helps restore your adaptive capacity.

What should be done when there is a loss of neurological integrity? Locate the source of interference and reduce it. This is what the chiropractor does with an adjustment.
(now CLOSE the safety pin)

This is achieved by adding energy at the right time and place along the spine to help the body “right itself.” This is called a chiropractic adjustment. The chiropractor’s hands, or a hand instrument is used to direct the energy.

The terms adjustment and spinal manipulation are often used interchangeably. But there is a difference. It’s like the difference between murder and manslaughter. The result may be the same, but the intent is different.

The intent of the chiropractic adjustment is to reduce nervous system interference. The intent of the manipulation is to improve spinal joint biomechanics. The former attempts to permit a more normal whole-body expression. The latter attempts to bring about a preconceived idea of structural integrity.

Regardless of the intent, reclasping the safety pin is life-affirming. But that doesn’t necessarily make the vertebral subluxation a bad thing. At least not at its initial onset.

It’s helpful to think of vertebral subluxation as a defense mechanism. Consider another metaphor to compliment the chiropractic safety pin cycle. The electrical panel in your garage.

Attempt to draw too much current through an electrical circuit and breaker trips, interrupting the flow. It’s a creative survival strategy that helps avoid a greater calamity. In this way, vertebral subluxation has some similarities. But it’s a symptom.

Longstanding, uncorrected vertebral subluxations can prompt all manner of disease.

It usually takes a series of repeated chiropractic adjustments to produce spinal changes. Each visit builds on the ones before. By the time many people consult a chiropractor they have had their spinal misalignments for some time. This delay permits supporting muscles and soft tissues of the spine to atrophy or develop scar tissue and breakdown. This makes correction more challenging.

Your body will always do better when the safety pin is closed – where the brain can talk to the body and vice versa. Our goal here is to keep that connection, to give you the best chance at health and healing.

The chiropractic safety pin cycle comes close to portraying the physiology of the nervous system. Metaphors and analogies such as this one are important. Why do metaphors work?
Because it is easiest to learn something new in relation to what we already know. That means a safety pin should be in the communication arsenal of every chiropractor. 

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