The Story of Dr. Clarence Gonstead, D.C.

Dr. Clarence Gonstead redefined the nature of his profession and built a chiropractic Mecca in small-town Wisconsin. He continues to be one of the most influential figures in the history of Chiropractic and the Gonstead System lives as a shining example of the best that Chiropractic has to offer.

Gonstead grew up learning how to repair tractors and automobiles, an interest which foreshadowed his later accomplishments in applying mechanical principles to correction of the human spine.


Gonstead was born on July 23, 1898 in Willow Lake, South Dakota. In his early years the family relocated to a dairy farm in Primrose, Wisconsin. At the age of 19, Gonstead contracted a crippling case of rheumatoid arthritis that left him bedridden for weeks. His aunt sought the help of her chiropractor, Dr. J.B. Olson, and after a course of adjustments he could walk again.

This was a life changing experience for Clarence; he enrolled in Palmer College of Chiropractic and graduated in 1923. During that time he worked as an automotive engineer; it cannot be understated how significant this mechanical experience was in influencing Gonstead to rethink prevailing ideas about the mechanism of subluxation. At the time B.J. Palmer’s theory that the displacement of a vertebrae caused encroachment of the neural foramina was the predominate paradigm in the chiropractic profession. Dr. Gonstead challenged this notion though the application of biomechanical principles and clinical observation in practice. He introduced the Level Disc Theory that subluxation began at the disc where the inflammatory response from damaged tissue created “nerve pressure” resulting in the neurological complications associated with subluxation.

The assertion that the genesis of subluxation arose from disc involvement was indeed a revolutionary one. Dr. Gonstead created an entirely new method of correcting vertebral subluxation centered around this principle, the goal of which was centering the vertebrae on the disc to restore an optimal relationship. In this new system Dr. Gonstead pioneered several inventions to maximize the efficiency of detecting and correcting subluxations. His development of the Nervoscope enabled practitioners to objectively pinpoint the neurological components of a subluxation by measuring bilateral temperature differences in the spine, effectively ‘troubleshooting’ the nerves at each chord level. Also Dr. Gonstead designed the cervical chair and knee chest table enabled chiropractors to gain the necessary ‘lift’ in line of correction to center vertebra back on the disc, using gravity and spinal mechanics to one’s advantage in applying corrective adjustments.

Dr. Gonstead became internationally renowned through determination and constant refinement of his craft. He built his clinic in Mt. Horeb Wisconsin, which at its zenith boasted an airstrip and hotel for patients who literally traveled the world to receive his care. It is said that Dr. Gonstead never went to bed on the same day that he woke up, adjusting patients all day long and often working late into the next morning. And it is a little known fact that during the polio epidemic that swept the United States in the first half of the 20th century, Dr. Gonstead did not lose a single patient to the disease.

Dr. Gonstead was a revolutionary in the way he changed our understanding of the mechanism of subluxation. But also he understood that subluxation was a complex rather than a single entity and therefore expanded a chiropractic system that analyzed a patient’s problem through multiple diagnostic criteria and correlation of findings resulting in the most accurate possible diagnosis of a patient’s specific problem.

“Remember Chiropractic always works. You may question your application, but never question the principle,”

- Dr. Gonstead

Through his legacy the Gonstead System remains the standard of excellence in the chiropractic profession and for all those who seek out Chiropractic.

5 Components of the Gonstead technique

Why make a decision concerning someone’s health with anything less than ALL of the available information? Every patient deserves to have correlated analysis in their clinical picture to ensure the highest level of chiropractic care in South Pasadena. This will insure specificity and ultimately patient confidence in the doctor’s ability with care.

Not one thing is certain which is why we use Visualization, Instrumentation, Palpation, X-Ray, and patient symptoms to determine the exact spot that we need to adjust a patient. When all of these correlate we are more likely to give the patient a specific adjustment. The greater the specificity, the greater the change we will notice in the patient’s health. Dr. Gonstead noted that three adjustments on the wrong vertebral segment could cause a Subluxation; therefore it is extremely important to be as specific as possible.


  • X-RAYS

    In the Gonstead System are Full Spine, both A-P and Lateral views. Film size is 14” x 36” with the patient placed to include ishia to occiput. Full Spine films use less radiation than sectionals, provide an accurate vertebral count, provide full spinal contour representation for posture analysis with axial weight bearing, and show problems other than the chief complaint—all of which are not attainable through the use of sectional films. Full spine X-Rays are essential to Gonstead Chiropractic. They allow us to regard the patient totally in analysis and corrective procedures.


    Both Static and Motion Palpation are utilized in Gonstead Chiropractic to precisely pin point areas of involvement. Static Palpation is the “hands on” part of the examination. This will indicate changes in contour, tone, texture and temperature on the patient. Motion Palpation is used to determine a subluxation and its listing.


    Classically a dual probe instrument (Nervoscope or Delta-T) is used to get a bilateral temperature comparison of the spine to locate areas of inflammation. The readings obtained through instrumentation will show whether or not subluxations are present, if they are being corrected, and when correction has been attained.


    We take into account all the information we can get from the patient by simply looking at them very carefully. In the Gonstead System Visualization starts from the moment the patient walks in the door. Differences in height between the ears, shoulders and hips as well as posture and gait are useful to confirm your X-Ray and Palpation findings.

  • CASE MANAGEMENT (Symptomatology)

    Although never used in a “cook-book” fashion, understanding problems with a patient’s health help us determine the area that a patient needs to be adjusted. Symptoms can help separate the two parts of the Autonomic Nervous System (Sympathetic and Parasympathetic) and aid us in applying a specific adjustment

    In the Gonstead System we apply all the information from these modes of analysis and correlate our findings to determine the most likely cause of the patient’s problem. After Subluxations are found, the use of the proper Gonstead technique is applied to effectively correct problem areas.

    The Gonstead system focuses on the dynamics of intervertebral disc as the underlying cause of subluxations and resulting neurological dysfunction. It could then be said that Gonstead doctors are “disc doctors”.

Dr. Gonstead postulated that when the Parallel Disc relationship is compromised by vertebral misalignment the pivot point of the nucleus pulposus is compressed and puts pressure against the surrounding annular fibers damaging them.

This tissue damage creates and inflammatory response causing the disc to expand, and it is this expansion which puts pressure on the nerves in a given intervertebral foramen resulting in neurological dysfunction.

The Gonstead system says for this reason that subluxations begin at the disc, it is important to understand the stages of degeneration so as to visualize what adjusting direction and force must be applied for correction.

In the spine intervertebral discs act as both a protective cushion allowing for flexibility as well as a supportive coupling between vertebral bodies to insure a normal and healthy range of motion.

The Nucleus Pulposus is the dense central mass which holds fluids and nutrients and functions as a pivot point or “ball bearing” during movement of a vertebral couple. The Annulus Fibrosis is the outlying layers of fibrocartilage and collengenous fibers, much the “rings” observed in a cross section of a tree trunk. The Annulus is anchored to the cartilaginous end plates of adjacent vertebral bodies.

Dr. Gonstead’s Level Disc Theory states that “anatomically and physiologically normal discs will allow the vertebral bodies to assume their optimum relationships”. This is observed when the vertical height of a vertebral couple is uniform 360º around with the vertebral bodies in line. This relationship is known as “Parallel Discs” and allows for equal weight bearing, adequate nutrient supply and optimal joint function and movement in the spine.

Experience the Gonstead System for yourself by visiting your South Pasadena Chiropractor.


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South Pasadena, CA 91030
(626) 219-6999