Chiropractics, Space Shuttles, and Dancing: A Conversation with Dr. Michael Johnson
Designing technology used in the space shuttle and helping dancers achieve peak performance seem to not have much in common at first glance. A conversation with chiropractor Dr. Michael Johnson, however, says otherwise.
Dr. Mike, as the local dance community knows him, practices in Saint Paul, Minnesota at Cathedral Hill Chiropractic, where dancers from across the city make the pilgrimage to see him and prepare for upcoming competitions.
Chiropractic work wasn’t always the plan, though. Dr. Mike received an undergraduate degree in environmental studies, spent 13 years in the Air National Guard, and was soon after offered an engineering contract with NASA. He spent much of the next five years developing a filtration system for use on the space shuttle, where much of his technology is still being used today.
After leaving NASA, he went on to chiropractic school to pursue his love of anatomy and human body mechanics. Although at the surface level this may seem like a peculiar change, the structure of the human body has more in common with advanced engineering than many would think.
“People think engineering isn’t related,” Dr. Mike says. “But if you look at the body, it’s an engineering design. I could relate that to my practice by looking at the body as a whole.”
Say your foot is misaligned. In many cases, that misalignment will travel up the body, creating instability in your knee, asymmetry in your hips, and increased muscle tension in your low back, causing pain. You can have your back adjusted as many times as you want, but until the underlying structural problem is corrected, the pain will keep returning.
Unfortunately, that engineering-style interconnectedness of the body is often unrecognized in the chiropractic industry.
“I was taught, if you’ve got back pain, it’s gonna come from your back. I shadowed a chiropractor who would set up 15 or 20 appointments ahead of time and keep doing the same thing. And yeah, it would help people for a while, but he wouldn’t really get to the source.”
Back pain is often caused by asymmetric muscle strength in the glutes or calves, dropped arches in the feet, or asymmetric structure in the hips, as Dr. Mike describes. His success as a chiropractor has come largely from his understanding of human body mechanics in this way and having an almost superhuman ability to identify the root cause.
“If you’ve got back pain, it’s not just back pain,” he says. “The whole body is connected from the feet to the head, and so if you don’t look at the whole body, you’re doing the body a disservice.”
Despite this whole-body focus, an adjustment with Dr. Mike is incredibly efficient. In a typical session, he’ll watch a patient walk into his office, observe how they stand, and in about 25 seconds have a good idea of both what is bothering them and what the source of the discomfort is. In the next three to seven minutes, he’ll realign the body, fix the structural problem, give them instructions on how to maintain this alignment, and send them on their way. If all goes well, he may only need to see them three or four more times, if at all.
“I base my patients’ visits on functional output, not time. Once that joint is functional and their body is functional, they’re done.”
This philosophy of functionality is exactly what draws dancers from across the city to Dr. Mike. In the collegiate scene, he is seen as the unofficial team chiropractor for the University of Minnesota Ballroom Dance Team. Amateurs in the area make regular visits as well, where many, myself included, will see Dr. Mike before any important competition.
He says many dancers will come in not because of pain, but misalignment problems. “For my average patients, I’ll get their shoulder to move and they’re gonna be happy,” he says. “However with dancers, they’re very picky -- if their shoulder symmetry is off just a bit, that’s gonna show up in their dancing.”
For non-athletes, many slight imperfections in body structure will cause no pain or inconvenience and thus be fine going unnoticed. Dancers, however, are graded on their body movement. They come to Dr. Mike to improve functionality and stabilize their body as a whole, which, in turn, improves their dancing.
He mentions that with dancers, he’ll look further than the big joints and big problems. In order to improve that functionality, his focus is on the smaller ligaments, joints, and muscles that work together.
“Stability for dancers is very important. Without it, you’re gonna look unstable and not as natural or beautiful as you could be on the floor, so I work on dancers a bit more with a fine-tooth comb.”
Like any athlete going to their full range of motion, dancers may run into more recurring problems than the average patient. Common problems he sees in dancers are structural imbalances in the knees, a lack of flexibility in the hips, and noticeable issues with shoulder extension. More common still are problems in dancers’ feet. If one or both feet are off, that has the potential to misalign the knees, hips, back and neck, offsetting the entire body.
Any of these issues can be a hindrance on the competition floor. He mentions, “I see a lot of patients that need to work on hip rotation or hip flexibility, and that can lead to lumbar or shoulder lack of motion. If you have that, you’re not gonna score the big points.”
Dr. Mike has never been a dancer himself, but when attending dance competitions, his eyes still go to body mechanics. In fact, seeing his patients perform is often a good indicator as to what he needs to work on in their bodies.
“You know, it’s funny. I am clueless about dance moves, but I am an expert in ergonomic stability of the body.”
But just as the dancing doesn’t stop when competitors exit the floor, Dr. Mike’s treatment isn’t finished with a simple adjustment. There’s a lot of focus put on lifestyle choices and how dancers and any other patients behave post-adjustment.
“Chiropractics just isn’t based on one adjustment and you’re done, it’s based on diet, exercise, rehab -- it’s the full thing,” he says. “I give people the tools to use to minimize inflammation, to minimize joint subluxation, and to minimize pain by incorporating nutrition, exercise, rehab, strength training, and postural awareness in their life.”
Helping people develop these good health practices has extended far beyond chiropractic adjustment. With nutrition, Dr. Mike is the inventor of a probiotic health drink inspired by his time at NASA. It was a nationwide bestseller and stayed on the shelves of Whole Foods for nine years.
His nutritional expertise alongside his structural understanding of the human body leads Dr. Mike to take a holistic approach to his practice. “I didn’t want to chase one approach to health, I wanted to encompass physiology by diet, by working out, and by making the body more structurally sound and stable to get people through the pain they’re experiencing.”
As interconnected as the body is, it only makes sense that the healthy habits used to maintain it are interconnected as well.
Whether you’re located in Minnesota or not, finding an expert to help guide you on this path is important. Per Dr. Mike’s advisory, “It’s important for any athlete to seek a practitioner that deals with the whole body holistically, then ask them for follow-up on how to maintain that mobility on their own.”
This could be in the form of chiropractics, massage, acupuncture, or any number of disciplines. The key is that they understand and respect the engineering of the human body as one interconnected unit and use this understanding to guide you towards a more functional, higher-performing, and overall healthier lifestyle.
“I think what is important to remember is you should always be supplying your body with healthy nutrition, healthy ranges of motion, and maintain a healthy lifestyle with diet and exercise,” he says. “The body is continually changing, and you need to adapt and change with it.”
(This article was written for publication in Sheer Dance Magazine, November 2020)