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A bonesetter is a practitioner of joint manipulation. Before the advent of chiropractors, osteopaths, and physical therapists, bonesetters were the main providers of this type of treatment.[1] Traditionally, they practiced without any sort of formal training in accepted medical procedures.[2] Bonesetters would also reduce joint dislocations and "re-set" bone fractures.


The practice of joint manipulation and treating fractures actually dates back to ancient times and can be traced to having roots in most countries.

The earliest known medical text, the Edwin Smith papyrus of 1552 BC, describes the Ancient Egyptian treatment of bone-related injuries. These early bonesetters would treat fractures with wooden splints wrapped in bandages or make a cast around the injury out of plaster-like mixture. It is unknown if they also performed amputations as well.[3]

In the 16th century, many monks and nuns with some knowledge of medicine went on to become healers and bonesetters after the dissolution of monasteries in the British Isles. However, many bonesetters were non-religious and the majority of them were self-taught. These skills were then passed on from generation to generation created families of bonesetters. Famous families include the Taylor family of Whitworth and the Matthew family of the Midlands.[4]

With the advancement of modern medicine beginning in the 18th century, bonesetters began to fall into a new category. At the time there were the practitioners who were considered legitimate and then the self-taught healers who were considered to be "quacks". In Great Britan, the most famous of quacks was the bonesetter, Sally Mapp. Known as "Crazy Sally", she was highly successful in her time. Coming from a family of bonesetters, Sally was known for her arm strength and ability to reset almost any bone. Though she experienced great wealth and flaunted it at every opportunity, popular culture supported that idea of "Crazy Sally". So while she was good at her trade, she was never considered to be a real practitioner due to the jokes and negative portrayal of her in the public eye. This example showcases the contradictory perception society had of the role of the bonesetter – they were necessary for health but they weren't good enough to be seen as a part of true medical practice.

Furthermore, bonesetters treated the majority of the common people since they were cheaper than licensed physicians. Even the royal families would employ bonesetters when the court physicians were inadequate or inefficient.[5] So in reality, bonesetters were being recognized for their efficiency in treatment but they were not getting the praise or status a physician would have.

The Apothecaries Act 1815 in Great Britain called for surgeons to take courses similar to physicians – a move that would raise the status of surgeons to be more inline with that of the elite physician. This allowed for some bonesetters to transition into the medical profession and encouraged interest in bone and joint surgery. As a result, surgical instruments and tools for bone-related injuries were then developed.[6]

Later years[edit]

In Japan, bone-setting is known as sekkotsu. In China, it is known as die-da, and is practiced by martial artists.[7][8]

In developing parts of the world, traditional bonesetters are widely popular and often the only access to treatment for these kinds of injuries. Most often it will be the case that there is a shortage of orthopedic doctors and surgeons in the country and so the two practitioners coexist in the same setting. In parts of South America, Asia and Africa, traditional bonesetters treat musculoskeletal injuries in general, not just fractures and dislocations.[9] Traditional bonesetters are also known to offer cheaper services and allegedly faster treatment options.[10]

In the Media[edit]

Author Evelyn Waugh, in his 1934 novel A Handful of Dust mentions the term in the following passage: "If Brenda had to go to London for a day's shopping, hair-cutting, or bone-setting (a recreation she particularly enjoyed), she went on Wednesday, because ..."[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pettman, E (2013-08-12). "A History of Manipulative Therapy". The Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy. 15 (3): 165–174. PMC 2565620Freely accessible. PMID 19066664. doi:10.1179/106698107790819873. 
  2. ^ Agarwal, A; Agarwal, R. "The Practice and Tradition of Bonesetting". Education for Health. 
  3. ^ Phillips, S-A; Biant, L.C. (2011). "The Instruments of the Bonesetter". The Bone & Joint Journal: 115–119. doi:10.1302/0301-620X.93B1.25628. 
  4. ^ Phillips, S-A; Biant, L.C. (2011). "The Instruments of the Bonesetter". The Bone & Joint Journal: 115–119. doi:10.1302/0301-620X.93B1.25628. 
  5. ^ DiGiovanna, Eileen (2005). An Osteopathic Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. pp. 75–76. ISBN 978-0-7817-4293-1. 
  6. ^ Phillips, S-A; Biant, L.C. (2011). "The Instruments of the Bonesetter". The Bone & Joint Journal: 115–119. doi:10.1302/0301-620X.93B1.25628. 
  7. ^ Aries MJ, Joosten H, Wegdam HH, van der Geest S (2007). "Fracture treatment by bonesetters in central Ghana: patients explain their choices and experiences". Trop Med Int Health. 12 (4): 564–74. PMID 17445148. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3156.2007.01822.x. 
  8. ^ Huber BR, Anderson R (1996). "Bonesetters and curers in a Mexican community: conceptual models, status, and gender". Med Anthropol. 17 (1): 23–38. PMID 8757711. doi:10.1080/01459740.1996.9966126. 
  9. ^ Nwachukwu, Benedict (2011). "Traditional Bonesetters and Contemporary Orthopaedic Fracture Care in a Developing Nation: Historical Aspects, Contemporary Status and Future Directions". The Open Orthopaedics Journal. 5. PMC 3027080Freely accessible. 
  10. ^ Agarwal, A; Agarwal, R. "The Practice and Tradition of Bonesetting". Education for Health. 
  11. ^ A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Back Bay Books,New York, 1999. p.47.