For the past 15 years, Dr. Jonathan Donath DC has been helping thousands of patients avoid surgeries and recover from back and neck pain as well as other musculoskeletal issues. Dr. Donath DC is also President and Co-Founder of the non-profit organization Daily Giving. He took some time from his busy schedule to talk about his work, dispel misconceptions about the chiropractic profession, and more. For more information about his practice and his charitable organization, please click on the links at the end of this interview.
Did you always want to be a chiropractor?
When I was little, I wanted to be a sports broadcaster. In my 8th grade yearbook, I said that I wanted to be Chris Berman from ESPN. I come from a family in which there are a lot of doctors, so something along those lines was definitely in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t clear until I actually worked as a counselor for Camp HASC (Hebrew Academy for Special Children), an amazing camp for children with special needs. The whole summer there you’re taking care of kids, who range from having more high-functioning Down Syndrome and slight autism to severe muscular dystrophy, and some are very rare cases. It was during that time that I decided I wanted to help people, and from there, it was a quest to decide what kind of doctor I want to become.
How does one go through school to become a chiropractor?
It is a four-year program after college. In college you have to be pre-med and take the four major sciences: biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. The first two years in chiropractic schools are similar to med school, you do all the “ologies” like microbiology, histology, neurology, embryology, and much more; then we have four years, and in your fourth year, half of the day you’re in school and the other half you’re seeing patients. During the summers I worked with different chiropractors, and that shaped me, so I was one of the few who started their practice from scratch right out of school.
Dr. Jonathan Donath DC treating a patient at Joint Effort Chiropractic.
What do you think makes you successful as a chiropractor?
Well, if you’re not someone who genuinely cares about people, then you’re not going to be successful in this profession or any profession treating people. I think it’s the combination of my knowledge and the skills that I’ve acquired, and the fact that I care about my patients deeply; I want to help them function at their best. A lot of my patients have my cell phone number. Sometimes they’ll call me or text me for an emergency during the weekend. I call them back and they appreciate that so much. My belief is, if you’re in pain and I can at the very least give you some advice to help you sleep tonight, then why wouldn’t I call you back, weekend or not.
I read that you suffered from herniated discs yourself, which almost ruined your career. Tell us more.
About eight years ago, I hurt my neck and felt electricity shoot down my left arm, and at that moment I was pretty sure I had just bulged or herniated a disc in my neck. An MRI confirmed that I had 2 severely herniated discs pressing up against my spinal cord. I was told to go to a neurosurgeon right away. I said, thank you but no thank you! And I told my other doctor: let’s treat me as I would any other patient. I put myself through a strict regimen of spinal decompression therapy and I got fantastic results. I’ve been pain-free ever since.
Are there moments when you could actually hurt yourself when you treat others?
Yes, and I’m blessed to have another doctor who works with me, and we can treat each other. What happens is that I treat a lot of professional athletes and some of these guys are enormous. I’m not a big guy and treating some professional football or basketball or soccer players takes a lot of oomph out of you.
“The Neck & Back Pain Solution” book by Dr. Jonathan Donath DC
So, you learn how to protect yourself…
You try the best you can, but things happen. Sometimes you have to move a patient if they’re in a lot of pain. You know, I actually treat more nurses than people from any other profession, by far. I treat triple the number of nurses than the next closest profession, which is probably teachers. It’s because of the sometimes-awkward lifting. At times, nurses have no choice but to lift and move their patients, and their bodies can only take so much of that. Sometimes I have no choice but to lift and move patients…occupational hazard.
Do you play any sports?
I’m actually a pretty good golfer, and I play softball. I used to play basketball once a week for many years. I love to play, and it’s a joy whenever I can. I’m also a huge sports fan, and love watching all my sports teams from Minnesota, where I was born and raised. I’m very loyal to the Vikings, Timberwolves, Twins, Wild, and Gophers!
Is it different when you treat professional athletes?
Actually, yes. They get paid millions of dollars to perform, and they’re sent to me to get better very quickly so they can play. In my office, when I treat anybody, I make my own decisions. When you treat professional athletes, you have a head trainer and you’re part of a team. I give my recommendations and I want to protect the athletes but they’re under a tremendous amount of pressure to get back on the field or the ice. It’s an interesting dynamic. In the hands-on treatments I can be physically pressing down on a particular muscle. Some patients may say that it’s too hard, but a professional athlete would say: “come on, press harder!” They want all you can give.
You treat performers as well…
Yes, I treat some big Broadway and movie stars.
When you’re a performer, you are, in a sense like an athlete. Your body is your instrument. How do you work with a performer?
You said it! I would say it too: a professional Broadway singer and a professional athlete are very similar in the way they go about their business, in the sense that their body is their temple, and they treat it that way. They also know their own bodies. A professional athlete is so attuned and knows when something is off. Singers also know their bodies so well that they just feel when a rib is slightly out, and their diaphragm can’t expand the way they need it to. A simple tune-up can make a huge difference for them.
Speaking from the perspective of someone who sang opera: a big part of learning how to sing classically is knowing how to relax the neck muscles so they don’t interfere with the freedom of the sound. Have you encountered any cases where the vocal production was impeded by some kind of muscular neck issues, and how have you dealt with that?
Absolutely, there are the scalene muscles, the sternocleidomastoids, even the platysma muscles. These are muscles that people don’t think about, but singers, have to either recruit or relax these muscles so they can get the sound they want out. I have certain regulars that come in. I’ve gotten them to a point where they don’t need to come in often, but they know when something doesn’t feel right. They come in before it gets worse so that I can open them back up and do the Active Release Technique (ART), which is really important in order to break up what is called the myofascial adhesions of the muscles.
Image of a herniated disc jelly pinching a nerve (Shutterstock)
What are myofascial adhesions?
A myofascial adhesion is scar tissue formed from a microscopic tear. Muscles are parallel fibers. So, through bad posture, repetitive motions, or constriction of blood flow, those muscles which are supposed to glide on one another really nicely, splay haphazardly and the body fills in the gaps with scar tissues, myofascial adhesions. This causes the muscles to get stuck and not move as well.
The Active Release Technique helps break up the adhesions. The best analogy I would have is a paint brush: you get a new paint brush with brand new bristles, and when you use it, the paint goes on the wall really smoothly, but after a while the paint can get stuck in the paint brush; it doesn’t paint as smoothly anymore, it doesn’t glide. So, my job is to find the paint chips and get rid of them, and get those bristles, meaning the muscles, to glide properly. This technique works very quickly, so patients can have one treatment and often feel the results right away. What I want is to make sure the whole body is functioning at its optimal level so that my regular patients as well as the performers and the professional athletes can perform at their maximum capabilities.
I know that you have treated over 50 medical doctors. Yet, why is there still prevalent mistrust of chiropractors?
This goes back many decades, long before I started practicing. I think it was in the 60s and 70s when the American Medical Association actually lost a lawsuit against the chiropractic profession in the Supreme Court; they were blatantly biased and anti-chiropractors. They called chiropractors “quacks” and the practice “quackery.” One of my uncles, who is around 80 years old, is an infectious disease doctor. I remember when I told him I was going to become a chiropractor, he was very against the idea.
But, just a few years ago, I was an adjunct professor at a medical school, and I think the younger doctors don’t have the same bias. As I get older now—I’ve been practicing for 15 years—I see that doctors in general are more open minded to chiropractic; the research through the years has gotten much better. Remember, in medicine, it’s the pharmaceutical industry that does all the research, and research costs a lot of money. Chiropractors are actually causing people to use medicine and expensive interventions much less. Studies have shown that if a person sees a doctor of chiropractic for a musculoskeletal problem before a medical doctor, the cost of their entire care is a fraction of what they pay if they go to a medical doctor first. Chiropractors help prevent the drug companies from making as much money, so there’s another natural bias. Through the years, the studies have shown that the effects of chiropractic are significant in getting people out of back pain, neck pain, headaches, and other musculoskeletal issues.
So, I feel very blessed. The fact that I’ve treated so many medical doctors including many surgeons is a big source of pride for me. I also like lecturing to medical doctors. I used to lecture at Jacobi Hospital to the first-year medical students about chiropractic, to educate them on how to do a proper physical exam and what chiropractors do and how to find a good one to refer to.
Also, I try to get my patients better as fast as possible. If a patient is seeing me for a long time, I feel like I’ve done him or her a disservice. Sometimes, someone’s got chronic pain and it takes me a couple of months to get them better. But the average person might see me 4 to 6 times and they’re done. Then, I show them exercises and if they need me again, down the line, they know where to go. The goal is that they should not need me because I don’t want them to have to keep coming back. There’s a stereotype with chiropractors, that once you go to them, they keep trying to get you to come back. There are some chiropractors like that, but there are also some psychologists like that. I think it really depends; there are good doctors and bad doctors.
Do you find that medical doctors are usually trusting when they come to you?
Well, I think all patients come in with a bit of skepticism, especially when everything else hasn’t worked for them. My main specialty is non-surgical spinal decompression therapy. People come to me after conservative care fails, and when physical therapy and medicine are not working. Many have even had epidural cortisone injections in their spine which did not work, and they’re told that surgery is their only option. I’m still able to help around 95% of these severe herniated disc cases. The doctors definitely come in with some skepticism, but once they see that you know how to do a proper exam and you’re asking all the right questions, that you go through the MRI with them and explain what you’re doing, show them the research, and it all makes sense, they understand. Let me tell you, the doctors know that they don’t ever want to have neck or back surgery. The number one cause of back surgery is a previous back surgery.
Besides your knowledge and experience, what do you think gives you the confidence to believe you can solve a complex issue in the face of what may seem like overwhelming odds?
First of all, I would say that knowing what you know is as important as knowing what you don’t know. There are times that I tell patients, I’m so sorry but I can’t help you. I will do everything I can to refer them to someone else or give the best advice I can. Sometimes it’s so sad because they come in saying “you’re my last hope,” but I realize they’re not the right case for me. Second, I think it’s my experience: working with over 10,000 patients over the last 15 years and seeing a lot of different issues. For sure, my specialty is herniated discs, joint problems of the neck and back, sciatica, and headaches, but I also treat plantar fasciitis, frozen shoulder, carpal tunnel syndrome, and TMJ problems. It’s one big connective tissue so most things come back to the spine. I also pride myself on always wanting to learn and I’m always going to new seminars. There’s so much there in the physical medicine world, different alternative techniques that can help. So, I really have a lot of tools in my toolbox, a lot of different techniques that I do. And the combination can be very, very effective.
The reception area at Joint Effort Chiropractic in White Plains, NY
What is spinal decompression therapy?
Let me first explain what a herniated disc is. The disc is the shock absorber between the vertebrae. It’s made of two parts: there’s a soft jelly inner part made of water and nutrients and then there are outer layers of harder rings of cartilage. A metaphor that’s used a lot is: if you put a jelly donut between two hard plates and squeeze the plates together, the jelly comes out and hits a nerve. If it happens in the lower back, it causes sciatica and shooting pain into your butt and down your leg; if it’s in the neck, it causes pain shooting into your shoulder, down your arm or tingling in your head or numbness or weakness.
So, the typical medical model for treating this is: you go to your doctor, they prescribe you muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories, and they send you to physical therapy. If none of that works, they send you for cortisone injections or epidural shots. If that doesn’t work, they send you for surgery. That’s our entire medical model, and this is 2021! I am able to help 95% of these cases that suffer from chronic pain from herniated discs, degenerative disc diseases, or spinal stenosis. The studies show that spinal decompression has between an 86 and 92% success rate. I feel it should be mandatory to try it before anyone goes for surgery. Of course, sometimes emergency surgery of the neck and back is necessary. I’ve had patients I’ve sent straight to the ER for surgery.
Now let me explain spinal decompression therapy: if I were to pull your hand, reflexively you would pull back. That’s how muscles work: when they get pulled, they fight back. So, if I were to put your lower back on a machine of traction, your strong back muscles will contract, and I won’t be able to get deep inside the disc to cause anything to happen because your muscles are fighting. In spinal decompression therapy, you’re on a table, and there is a harness above and below the level of discs that we want to treat. The table opens underneath, so there’s no friction when we pull, and it slowly ramps up to whatever weight we set the machine at. In typical traction patients are pulled at a much heavier setting. With spinal decompression, we’re going up really slowly, so we don’t elicit that contraction effect from the muscles. So, let’s say we pull you at 40 lbs., after 30 seconds or so, the machine goes back down to 20 lbs. then back up to 40, then back to 20, and it’s super gentle. It’s a very precise machine; I pull some people at 7 lbs. and others at 120 lbs.; it depends on the patient, and how hard the pull feels to them.
What it does is: it helps relax all the muscles and gets them to shut off so we can get deep inside the disc and cause a negative pressure that basically creates a vacuum, a suction effect that sucks that jelly back in towards the center of the disc and off the nerves. It’s obviously more complex than this. A really important part is also that discs are made of cartilage. If you break a bone and you’re in a cast, six weeks or so later, you can heal. Bones have a fantastic blood supply that constantly brings nutrients to the fracture. But if an athlete tears their ACL [a ligament that helps stabilize the knee joint] in the knee, they’re out six months to a year because that’s cartilage, and there’s no blood supply. The discs are made of cartilage, that’s why they heal so slow. So, as we do the decompression, we’re also pumping, helping to stimulate that pumping mechanism that keeps the discs healthy in the first place, restoring their health. Spinal decompression is not traction. In order to get the negative pressure to create that important vacuum effect, you have to do it low and slow. I have seven spinal decompression machines; each can do the neck and the back. Herniated discs are very common in the neck and in the low back; they’re not so common in the thoracic spine (the mid-back). They do happen but more rarely.
Usually, how long does it take to heal someone who has a herniated disc?
Everyone is different. Some patients tell me they’ve been in pain for 20 years and they start feeling better after even one or two treatments. Then I have patients that I need to treat for 6 to 8 weeks until they start to feel better. But, for the average patient, there’s usually a regimen of between 20 to 40 sessions, depending on the severity of the case. Whereas chiropractic is different. Someone may come in with a muscle strain or headache, I might treat them twice and they’re fine.
Dr. Jonathan Donath DC speaking about his non-profit organization Daily Giving.
Please tell us about Daily Giving, the charitable organization that you founded.
I’m blessed to have a busy practice; I work late every night and I wasn’t looking for something extra. But I had an epiphany one night. I was in my local synagogue, and I put a dollar in the charity box like we always do there. I thought that no matter how much charity I give, I still get a mitzvah (a good deed) every time I put a dollar in. So, how can I guarantee myself a mitzvah every day for a buck? I was so excited, I ran home and googled it, and I could not find an organization that was doing this: getting everyone to give a dollar a day and giving the collected amounts to different organizations every single day. I called my website guy and a couple of close friends, and our meetings led to us forming a 501c3 non-profit called Daily Giving.
The Daily Giving website went live on January 1st, 2019, and we’re currently giving out over $9,000 every single day. That number goes up daily, as more people join. It’s really exciting. We’re distributing over $3.2 million a year. We don’t take a penny from it; every dollar given goes to charity. We get lots of applications from charities. We have a board and a Rabbinical Council, and we’re careful in the selection process. There are a lot of people behind this, so it’s a real team effort. Every day we send out an e-mail to all our givers about where their money is going. You know, giving is a muscle. It’s not just about the impact you’re having, but you’re becoming a giver by training that giving muscle. So, even if you’re having a bad day, you still feel that you were part of making an impact with 9,000 other people that gave $1 today.
We give to 57 different international organizations; the majority are in America and Israel. All our organizations are Jewish, and there’s such diversity of needs: emergency care, poverty, special needs, substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, and even organizations that help women who can’t afford fertility treatments; it’s a wide gamut. We all want to give and help others, and with one dollar a day, you’re literally helping millions of people around the world, because giving together as a community is so powerful. As Jews, we’re taught at a very early age how important it is to give back. I’m a very proud Orthodox Jew; I wear a kippah to work, which reminds me all the time that God is above me and one has to be honest and ethical with what one does always. Sometimes, I’m the only Orthodox Jewish person my patients ever met. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation, ignorance, assumptions, and anti-Semitism out there. I take it very seriously that I’m representing my religion and dispelling ignorance as people get to know me.
Dr. Jonathan Donath DC with his wife Meira, their son, Eitan, and daughter, Talia
Where do you see yourself in the next five years, and what does an ideal future of chiropractic practice look like for you?
If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would still come to work the next day. I love what I do! But in five years, I would probably work a little less. I would hire a couple of more doctors to work with me. Daily Giving also takes up a lot of my time. I would like to be able to hire more people so I could take a step back. When you work 19 hours a day and sleep 5 hours a night, that’s not enough. Like anyone who works a lot of hours, it’s really hard to find that life balance. My family is very supportive of what I do, but at times I feel like it’s unfair to them. I am serving the community and sometimes my family is the one that loses out. My kids are 14 and 12; I know I’m going to blink and they’re going to be out of the house. That is constantly on my mind.
I see the chiropractic profession getting bigger, and more accepted in having integrated practices where chiropractors and medical doctors are literally in the same office down the hall from each other, and they refer patients to each other more often. In my current office, I don’t have a medical doctor, but I refer patients all the time to lots of doctors. Working in a more integrated way with medical doctors would be an ideal future and would be a big win for what’s truly best for our patients.