By 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, the beleaguered patients—their bodies creaking and popping, their central nervous systems aflame—have packed a cramped waiting room in an office building overlooking the traffic-clogged Sam Houston Parkway.
Old and young, white and brown, wealthy and working class, they are a quintessential assemblage of twenty-first-century Houston. And yet, many of the patients at Advanced Chiropractic Relief have arrived here from far away.
Among them is Sergio, a bulky, thirty-year-old construction worker suffering from excruciating back pain, who has made the seven-hour drive from Oklahoma City. Shekynah, a 23-year-old flight attendant with a herniated disc so painful she lost consciousness at 30,000 feet, flew in from her home in Boston. Professional athletes are fixtures here, as are worn-down roughnecks, bodybuilders, and tattooed military veterans referred by the local VA medical center. Svelte Instagram influencers are regulars, as are a race car driver, Vietnam veterans, and a former Miss Texas USA. In recent months, patients have journeyed to this understated office decorated with religious quotes and homeopathic paraphernalia from places as distant as China and Australia, each with their own horror stories of bodily breakdown.
But for almost all of them, the road to this office began even earlier, when they logged on to YouTube and found themselves mesmerized by videos showing a lively, silver-haired man in blue scrubs violently tugging on people’s necks—unleashing loud pops and even louder profanities. The man doing the pulling is Dr. Gregory Johnson, a magnetic, 61-year-old Houston chiropractor whose unorthodox methods and folksy charm have made him a YouTube phenomenon, with 387,000 subscribers and more than 111 million views. He has given his signature spine realignment—a technique resembling some combination of exorcism and medieval torture that online audiences can’t seem to get enough of—an official title: the “Ring Dinger.”
Johnson claims his wildly popular footage is strictly “educational.” But in an era in which YouTube is turning ordinary people into homegrown celebrities who can pocket hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in ad revenue each year, some critics see a problem. They allege that the content is merely a money-making scheme from practitioners of a profession marred by fraud and pseudoscience.
Johnson dismisses these claims as the age-old bias of establishment medicine. An evangelical Christian with a strong Southern twang who races Corvettes and claims to have a black belt in tae kwon do, he considers himself a tool of healing whose hands are divinely directed. But his primary goal, he says, is more earthly in nature: to spread the gospel of chiropractic medicine to the uninitiated masses.
“I’m showing people everything that I do as a chiropractor,” Johnson said, referring to the transparent nature of his video content. “But I’m most passionate about changing the world’s perception of chiropracting, because for too long we’ve had that alternative, cultish type of label.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Johnson struck gold in Houston, of all places. Tens of thousands of foreign patients already travel to the Texas Medical Center for health care each year, a multibillion-dollar practice known as “medical tourism.”
The city’s reputation as a health care destination, particularly for specialized treatments, has been bolstered by popular television shows like TLC’s My 600-lb Life, which follows morbidly obese patients as they travel from across the country to Houston to lose weight under the direction of Younan Nowzaradan, the Iranian American surgeon better known as “Dr. Now.”
Houston’s latest twist on the medical reality TV show is happening in Johnson’s office. In 2013, he began posting videos of his everyday work on YouTube, treating his office like a studio despite having no video experience. The idea to experiment with social media first came from his son, who was then a college student studying business at the University of Houston.
“My son said, ‘Hey Dad, you should do YouTube,’ and I said, ‘What’s YouTube?” Johnson said. “He said, ‘People like to know what they’re buying. What you’re selling is you and your hands, but you just need to show people.’”
Seven years later, he says he is pulling in around $20,000 each month from YouTube ad revenue. Unlike some successful YouTubers who plow some of their earnings into more sophisticated equipment and sets, Johnson’s video-making tools remain the same: an iPhone attached to a selfie stick and a confident on-camera persona that mixes humor with forthright health advice. If Johnson isn’t filming himself, his wife Renae, who also serves as office manager, typically steps in. The videos are published in their unedited form.
Johnson has hit upon a formula that works: digestible, ten-minute videos that appear to show patients undergoing significant pain relief after a series of spine-crunching adjustments. In the reality show that is Johnson’s office, a new patient is a new character, each with their own medical backstory. Discovering how that character will react to the chiropractor’s invasive adjustments—and whether those adjustments will result in some identifiable form of healing—is the mystery that keeps viewers hooked.
The pain relief is not limited to the patient. Judging from the enthusiastic comments below the videos, viewers savor each pop, click, and blasphemous shriek.
“That girl’s neck crack was some of the best I’ve heard. Deep and crunchy,” one commenter wrote under a video of a young woman with particularly noisy joints.
Like raucous fans at a concert shouting for the band to play their favorite songs, they also leave requests, and demands, for particular procedures in future videos. “Bring back the Turbinator!” one commenter demanded, referring to a loud, deep tissue massage tool resembling a power drill that Johnson has used on patients in the past.
“Give the kid some laxatives and RING DING him doc,” another commenter wrote under a video of a little boy suffering from severe constipation.
Johnson has a name for his online acolytes, whom he believes were delivered to him by God: “crack addicts.” The name is a reference to the sound of stiff joints being adjusted, but also the addictive pleasure the noise offers his most diehard fans. Those fans are not just commenting on his videos, they’re also making real world appointments at his clinic, where they’ll pay $500 for their first visit and $250 for each follow up.
When I visited Johnson’s office, an overwhelming majority of his patients said they’d discovered the doctor via YouTube. Christian patients repeatedly told me that God was influencing the video-sharing platform’s algorithm, bringing Johnson’s videos to the top of their queue.
“I feel like I was led here,” explained Diane, a middle-aged woman suffering from daily headaches. “This is how the Lord heals.”
Dr. Chandler George, a longtime Dallas chiropractor who helps others in the profession learn how to market themselves online, said the industry has struggled to connect with prospective patients, primarily because chiropractors were left out of insurance booklets that listed health care providers. Ironically, he suspects, being pushed to the margins of health care shrouded the profession in a mystery that is now fueling online curiosity—and clicks.
“Chiropractors are still an oddity for many folks in the mainstream,” George said. “You combine that curiosity with the popping and clicking and videos that make you wonder if someone’s head might pop off and, yeah, people want to see it.”
“YouTube,” he added, “has changed everything for this profession.”
The medical profession has been slow to grapple with the growing number of chiropractors using YouTube, but some experts are troubled about the mixing of patient care and advertising profits. After watching Johnson’s videos, Rebecca Lunstroth, who is the associate director of the McGovern Center for Humanities & Ethics at UTHealth in Houston, said it was impossible to separate the videos’ marketing element from their alleged public service. Blurring those lines, she said, makes it more likely that viewers will naively try to mimic Johnson’s techniques, injuring themselves in the process.
Johnson is aware that he may be encouraging copycats. After online commenters noted they were replicating his techniques at home, he now includes disclaimers at the beginning of some videos urging viewers to leave musculoskeletal adjustments to trained professionals.
In recent years, Lunstroth said, medical schools have begun exploring how social media can be used to enhance public health through education. While Johnson says his videos are educational, Lunstroth thinks whatever education they offer is outweighed by the inherent conflicts of interest they create.
“By monetizing something like these videos, one would have to ask whether Dr. Johnson is compromising his commitment to act in his patients’ best interest with the promise of making more money.”
As long as chiropractors demonstrate proper technique and don’t claim superiority over competitors, their YouTube videos don’t violate the Texas Board of Chiropractic Examiners’ administrative rules, according to Patrick Fortner, the state agency’s executive director. The rules allow the board to do everything from submitting a formal warning to a misbehaving chiropractor to revoking the individual’s license.
The agency has taken no administrative actions on Johnson, according to its records. Fortner said he was unaware of any incidents involving amateur copycats and rebutted the notion that the videos pose a danger to the public.
“We’ve seen examples on television for years where someone says, ‘I’m a professional, don’t try this at home,’” he said. “This is no different.”
A coveted silver plaque celebrating Johnson’s first 100,000 YouTube subscribers hangs on a wall in his office. It’s been placed just a few feet away from the electronic table where Johnson performs the Ring Dinger, the technique that appears to drive the most views—and advertising dollars—to his YouTube account.
The name, Gregory says, references the moments after someone has been hit over the head and is “seeing stars.” More precisely, patients say, the powerful jolt of sensation accompanying the Ring Dinger feels more like an ecstatic shock that fuses pain and pleasure, a deliberate rebooting of the human computer that clears the mind of temporary data.
For some, the shock is accompanied by a euphoric fog that emanates from deep within the nervous system. For others, online evidence suggests, it’s just plain terrifying.
Three days a week, about 35 to 40 people a day end up on Johnson’s black mechanical table, their bodies clamped tightly between two foam pins, ready for the chiropractor to reset their spine by using little more than a white gym towel and brute force.
On the day I visit, one of his biggest fans—a 35-year-old “crack addict” named Gabriel Jackson who has been pouring over Ring Dinger videos for months—finds himself in Johnson’s office for the first time.
Jackson, a Navy veteran from Pearland, has been suffering from severe pain for more than a decade. His suffering began after he jumped off a platform wearing eighty pounds of equipment while responding to a possible attack on a military base in Iraq, where he was stationed at the time. The fall ripped several tendons and turned his feet to mush. Back in Texas several years later, Jackson was thrown off a horse, injuring his hip.
Today, he says, the agony begins in his feet and travels up his legs and spine before eventually settling just below his shoulders, making sleep nearly impossible. To Jackson’s dismay, the upper back is exactly where Johnson begins aggressively prodding, unleashing tortured cries from the veteran as he lies facedown on a padded table, his eyes filling with tears.
A short time later, Jackson finds himself lying on his back with a white towel wrapped around his neck and the chiropractor’s fingers gripping his jawline.
Despite the clinical setting it’s an undeniably ominous scene, made worse by the next statement that rolls off the chiropractor’s tongue with a hint of sadistic glee.
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Johnson warns a split second before leaning his full weight back and pulling Jackson’s neck with a sudden force that brings to mind a man trying to pull a large couch across shag carpeting.
The distorted howl that explodes from Jackson’s mouth appears to begin as the word “Nooooooo” before transforming into a “woooooooow” that eventually settles into uncontrollable laughter. A look of relief, the kind you’d expect from someone whose turbulent flight has just touched down, spreads across his face.
“Is that different than what you saw on YouTube?” Johnson asks his patient.
“I guess it’s the same,” Jackson replies, “but you never expect that!”
A few moments later, Jackson turns to the chiropractor with a question of his own: “Can I get a selfie with you?”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the technique is called the “Ring Dinger,” not the “Ringer Dinger.”