Story: Alternative health therapies

Page 2. Chiropractic, osteopathy and massage

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Chiropractic concentrates on the relationship between the spine and the nervous system. Chiropractors look for abnormal spine movements and positions (known as ‘subluxation’), which they correct in a process called adjustment – mainly through the application of pressure to the affected area by hand, though instruments can also be used. Once adjustments are made, the body is believed to heal itself. Chiropractic is used to treat a range of ailments in addition to spinal problems, and also assists general well-being.

The first chiropractor in New Zealand, Tom Giles, practised in Dunedin from about 1910. The New Zealand Chiropractic Association was founded in 1920 to represent chiropractors, and a code of ethics was adopted in 1928. After decades of lobbying, the Chiropractors Act was passed in 1960 to officially regulate chiropractic. Only appropriately qualified people could call themselves chiropractors.

Attempts to have chiropractic treatments subsidised by the government and funded by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) led to the Commission of Inquiry into Chiropractic in 1978. Despite efforts by the New Zealand Medical Association to portray the therapy as disreputable and unscientific, the inquiry concluded that it was effective and safe, and successfully recommended that it be subsidised.

In the 21st century chiropractors were regulated by the Chiropractic Board of New Zealand under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. Chiropractors were represented by the New Zealand Chiropractors' Association and trained at the New Zealand College of Chiropractic in Auckland, or overseas. In the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey 5.4% of adults had seen a chiropractor in the previous 12 months.

A doctor in the house?

In New Zealand, alternative health practitioners like chiropractors and osteopaths (along with vets and dentists) sometimes use the title ‘Dr’. In doing so, they have to distinguish themselves from registered medical doctors. Under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003, people may only use names, titles and words that state or imply they are health practitioners if they are registered with the relevant regulatory authority.


Osteopathy is concerned with the relationship between the different parts of the body’s structure (bones, ligaments, muscles and organs). Imbalance between these parts is believed to cause physiological problems. Osteopaths gently manipulate the body with their hands to correct imbalances. They believe this allows the body to heal itself. Cranial osteopaths concentrate on the skull. Like chiropractic, osteopathy is used to treat a range of health complaints and to assist general well-being.

Osteopathy started in New Zealand in the early 1930s. Early practitioners were often qualified doctors. A professional association called the New Zealand Register of Osteopaths was established in 1973. Practitioners could only be registered if the committee deemed them suitably qualified.

The government recognised osteopathy as a legitimate health therapy in the late 1970s. The passing of the New Zealand Register of Osteopaths Incorporated Act 1978 meant that only members of the register could call themselves osteopaths. Osteopathic treatments were funded by ACC from 1986.

In the 21st century osteopaths were regulated by the Osteopathic Council of New Zealand under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. Osteopaths were represented by Osteopaths New Zealand and trained at UNITEC in Auckland or overseas. In the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey, 4.4% of adults had seen an osteopath in the previous 12 months.

Massage, or …?

From the 19th century onwards, massage had dubious connotations, because brothels were euphemistically described as massage parlours. In 1894 a reporter from the Observer newspaper wrote: ‘I shall keep my eye on our Auckland masseurs, or rather on the frauds who pretend to a knowledge of massage with a view to getting respectable women and girls into their clutches.’1 Among older people at least, 'massage parlour’ remained synonymous with brothel in the 21st century.


Massage is the manipulation of soft tissue by hand. People typically visit massage therapists for relaxation purposes, but also for specific ailments like muscle aches and strains.

Therapeutic massage emerged in the late 19th century. Official training courses started at hospitals in Auckland and Dunedin in 1913. Trained therapists treated wounded soldiers during and after the First World War, as well as children suffering from polio.

Therapeutic massage as a part of conventional health care evolved into physiotherapy, but people could still become massage therapists without training as physiotherapists. Massage is unregulated. The representative organisation Massage New Zealand has a code of conduct and maintains a register of members. In 2020 about 400 of the country’s 2000 massage therapists belonged to Massage New Zealand.

Massage is a popular form of alternative therapy in New Zealand. In the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey, more than half the respondents who had used an alternative therapy in the previous 12 months had visited a massage therapist.

  1. Observer, 8 December 1894, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Alternative health therapies - Chiropractic, osteopathy and massage', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 6 Apr 2018