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The Pettibon System

How the Pettibon System Works

The Pettibon System is a spinal rehabilitation system developed 30 years ago by a chiropractor named Dr. Burl Pettibon, who was still a student when he developed the system. Today, Pettibon practitioners can be found worldwide. The system involves wearing weights on the body to re-align the spine.

The basic idea of chiropractic care is that much of our health depends on proper alignment of the spine. Dr. Pettibon was motivated to develop his system because he noticed there was no generally-accepted model to use as a point of reference for spinal alignment. Pettibon practitioners today work under the assumption that a human’s functional spinal environment is “gravity”, and that gravity is the absolute environment to which the upright spine and posture must develop and relate to.

Here’s how Dr. Pettibon explained his system:

“The nervous system always wants us to hold our heads upright. And the nervous system will do this at the expense of displacing the lower spine.”

Renew Chiropractic Service The Pettibon System

In other words, gravity plays a crucial role in the development of abnormal spinal forms. This is the fundamental idea behind the Pettibon System.

Other fundamental concepts behind the Pettibon System include:

  • Gravity is an absolute environment to which the upright spine and posture of humans must develop and relate.
  • Gravity is an absolute, which means there has to be an absolutely optimal posture for the upright spine.
  • The skull is a vertebra, and it’s the only vertebra that knows its neurologically optimal position and has the ability to establish and maintain that posture
  • The normal human spine is composed of six opposing lever-arm units, with units divided based on muscle attachment and function
  • The spine’s position relative to gravity is more important than its units or its segments
  • Individual spinal vertebra (aside from the skull-atlas vertebra) do not move out of normal position and become displaced without compromising soft tissue
  • Our brain controls our posture; righting reflexes and the cerebellum regulate the upright position of the skull, keeping the skull upright even when it displaces the lower spine
  • A less than optimum lateral and A-P spine and posture will compromise spinal function

Ultimately, the Pettibon System relies on the idea that the skull will keep itself upright even when it negatively affects the rest of your body – including your lower spine. Using gravity as an absolute, Pettibon practitioners will try to find the optimal alignment of your spine, perfectly aligning your spine in its upright position relative to gravity. Keep reading to discover some of the methods chiropractors use to find your optimal spinal alignment.

The Pettibon Weighting System

The Pettibon Weighting System consists of specially-designed head, shoulder, and hip weights that patients wear for up to 20 minutes per day until their spinal alignment is corrected. The amount of weight and the placement of weights will depend upon the spinal displacement that needs to be corrected.

The weights all work in a similar way: when you wear the weights on your body, it alters the center of mass for your head, your thoracic cage, and your pelvis. This causes your brain’s righting reflex to send spine-correcting sensory inputs to your nervous system. The nervous system’s innate organizing energy will cause some spinal muscles to relax and others to contract. The long-term result is the repositioning and re-alignment of your spine relative to gravity. Weights also have another effect: they make the targeted muscles do isometric exercises that restore strength, endurance, and balance.

The Pettibon System and Isometric Exercises

Our musculoskeletal system is made up of two kinds of muscle fibers, including:

  • Fast-twitch phasic muscle fibers
  • Slow-twitch postural muscle fibers

Our body has “muscle bundles” that include both types of fibers. However, each muscle group is typically dominated by one type of fiber. Our postural muscles, for example, mostly consist of slow-twitch muscle fiber.

When you lift weights at the gym, you’re activating your fast-twitch muscle fibers or phasic fibers. However, you’re not activating your postural muscles nearly as much. That’s why exercises that strengthen your phasic muscles don’t typically improve your posture.

Phasic muscles can fatigue or become injured. When this happens, these muscles go flaccid and collapse. Postural muscles, however, do not go flaccid or collapse when injured or fatigued. Instead, they spasm. This is where problems can occur, because postural muscles rarely spasm evenly. They don’t spasm an equal way up or down or side to side, for example. This can lead to poor posture that distorts your appearance and forces your spine out of position.

Isometric exercises counteract this activity. Isometric exercises involve pushing or pulling against a force that moves very slowly – or doesn’t move at all. This can eliminate postural muscle spasms, leading to long-term rehabilitation while also correcting your balance and improving your strength and endurance.

Soft Tissue Physiology and the Pettibon System

Pettibon practitioners view the spine as a closed kinetic system consisting of hard and soft tissues. The soft tissues – including muscles, discs, and ligaments – hold the spine upright in its optimum position for function relative to gravity, all while moving it through its expected range of motions. That’s why when correcting the spine, a chiropractor will target the entire spine instead of just one segment or vertebrae. If you tear ligaments in your lumbar spine, for example, the torn part will allow aberrant motions that cause pain and dysfunction in other areas of the spine and neck. This pain and disfunction won’t disappear until the torn ligament and aberrant motion are treated.

Our spinal system can be injured by three different types of forces, including:

  • Sudden applied force
  • Repetitive force
  • Cumulative force

Sudden applied force includes injuries like whiplash. Repetitive forces or cumulative forces, meanwhile, are similar motions repeated over a long period of time – like the motion of your spine while typing at your computer, reading a book, or watching TV. Pettibon practitioners seek to understand how your soft tissues respond to all of these activities in relation to your spine, leading to permanent spine and posture correction.

Dynamic Stretch Reflex & Static Stretch Reflex

Our muscles have something called a dynamic stretch reflex. This reflex occurs when a muscle – especially a muscle that hasn’t been warmed up – is suddenly stretched. This is our body’s natural way to protect the positioning of its parts.

Dynamic stretch reflexes are typically followed by static stretch reflexes. This reflex continues the muscle contractions that oppose the stretched muscle. These contractions can last hours.

Some Pettibon practitioners view this as a problem with traditional chiropractic care: they believe traditional chiropractors deliver high-velocity, low-amplitude thrusts into the spine to induce joint movements. This temporarily realigns the spine, but the dynamic stretch reflex forces your spine back into its original displaced position, and then the static reflex continues that movement. That’s why Pettibon practitioners sometimes disagree with traditional chiropractors.

How Stretched Muscles React to Movement

Stretched muscles have five different physiological properties and functions, including deformation, visco-elastic stretch, plasticity, creep, and hysteresis:


Deformation is a change to the form of your spine. All changes to the spine’s form are considered to be a deformation. Deformations can be good or bad – displacement deformations are bad because they move the spine away from its normal, optimal position, while corrective deformations are good because they work the opposite way.

Visco-Elastic Stretch: This is a spring-like deformation. Fibers in spinal ligaments and discs have visco-elastic stretch. This reflex is what causes vertebrae to deform back to their displaced position after the force of the adjusting thrust is removed.

Plasticity: Plasticity refers to the property of a material to permanently deform when it’s loaded beyond its elastic range. Think of it like a spring: if you load the spring and stretch it beyond its elastic range, then it becomes permanently elongated. Similarly, if you subject a ligament to more than 40% of its ultimate load, then it can also become permanently elongated. This is what we call a torn ligament. Whiplash is one of the most common ways to tear a ligament.

Creep: “Creep” is the reason you’re shorter at the end of the day than you are in the morning. Over the course of the day, forces like gravity will compress the nutrition-filled fluids in your inter-vertebral discs and ligaments. Over time, this can cause discs and ligaments to “creep” out of alignment. Creep can be arrested and reversed daily. If not, then it can lead to dysfunction, spinal joint pathologies, nerve compression, and chronic pain, among other issues. These conditions are considered to be a natural part of aging, and some practitioners believe they’re “inevitable” and impossible to correct. That’s not true! Soft tissue creep can be arrested and reverse daily if hysteresis is produced in the ligaments, discs, and tendons.

Hysteresis: Hysteresis refers to the energy loss of visco-elastic materials when they’re subject to progressive loading and unloading cycles over time. Your ligaments, discs, and tendons hold energy. You load and unload cycles through compression and traction. This leads to the temporary loss of energy – also known as hysteresis. Hysteresis alters the nucleus pulposus of the discs from hydro-gel, which is a Jello-O like resistance to motion, into hydro-sol, which is a water-like solution with limited resistance to positional changes. When the soft tissue’s resistance is significantly reduced, the joints can easily be repositioned before the holding energy is regained. Holding energy is typically regained after 15 to 20 minutes of inactivity.

Certain types of Pettibon equipment will produce hysteresis. This is how the weighting systems work: they retrain your muscles to hold a more proper alignment.

Another benefit of the Pettibon System is that the patient is encouraged to actively participant in treatments, both in the clinic and at home. While waiting for the therapist, the patient can use specialized equipment to warm up and stretch their muscles, for example. The chiropractor will also provide follow-up exercises for home care.

Call or visit our office to learn more about the Pettibon system and how it could realign your spine to its optimal position relative to gravity. Call 720-493-5885 for a free consultation from the leading chiropractor in Lakewood, Colorado.