MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Chiropractors may not be good at treating diseases or symptoms, but they are certainly good at promoting their trade. As this trade hardly does more good than harm, one could argue that chiropractors are promoting bogus and potentially harmful treatments to fill their own pockets.

Does that sound too harsh? If you think so, please read what Canadian researchers have just published:

This study aimed to investigate the presence of critiques and debates surrounding efficacy and risk of Spinal Manipulative Therapy (SMT) on the social media platform Twitter. Specifically, it examined whether there is presence of debate and whether critical information is being widely disseminated.

An initial corpus of 31,339 tweets was compiled through Twitter’s Search Application Programming Interface using the query terms “chiropractic,” “chiropractor,” and “spinal manipulation therapy.” Tweets were collected for the month of December 2015. Post removal of tweets made by bots and spam, the corpus totalled 20,695 tweets, of which a sample (n=1267) was analysed for sceptical or critical tweets.

The results showed that there were 34 tweets explicitly containing scepticism or critique of SMT, representing 2.68% of the sample (n=1267). As such, there is a presence of 2.68% of tweets in the total corpus, 95% CI 0-6.58% displaying explicitly sceptical or critical perspectives of SMT. In addition, there are numerous tweets highlighting the health benefits of SMT for health issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), immune system, and blood pressure that receive scant critical attention. The presence of tweets in the corpus highlighting the risks of “stroke” and “vertebral artery dissection” is also minute (0.1%).

The authors drew the following conclusions: In the abundance of tweets substantiating and promoting chiropractic and SMT as sound health practices and valuable business endeavors, the debates surrounding the efficacy and risks of SMT on Twitter are almost completely absent. Although there are some critical voices of SMT proving to be influential, issues persist regarding how widely this information is being disseminated.

I have no doubt that this paper will be sharply criticised by chiropractors, other manipulators and lobbyists of quackery. Yet I think it is an interesting and innovative approach to describe what is and is not being said on public media. The fact that chiropractors hardly ever publicly criticise or challenge each other on Twitter or elsewhere for even the most idiotic claims is, in my view, most telling.

Few people would doubt that such platforms have become hugely important in forming public opinions, and it seems safe to assume that consumers views about SMT are strongly influenced by what they read on Twitter. If we accept this position, we also have to concede that Twitter et al. are a potential danger to public health.

The survey is, however, not flawless, and the authors are the first to point that out: Given the nature of Twitter discussions and the somewhat limited access provided by Twitter’s API, it can be challenging to capture a comprehensive collection of tweets on any topic. In addition, other potential terms such as “chiro” and “spinal adjustment” are present on Twitter, which may produce datasets with somewhat different results. Finally, although December 2015 was chosen at random, there is nothing to suggest that other time frames would be significantly similar or different. Despite these limitations, this study highlights the degree to which discussions of risk and critical views on efficacy are almost completely absent from Twitter. To this I would add that a comparison subject like nursing or physiotherapy might have been informative, and that somehow osteopaths have been forgotten in the discussion.

The big question, of course, is: what can be done about creating more balance on Twitter and elsewhere? I wish I had a practical answer. In the absence of such a solution, all I can offer is a plea to everyone who is able of critical thinking to become as active as they can in busting myths, disclosing nonsense and preventing the excesses of harmful quackery.

Let’s all work tirelessly and effectively for a better and healthier future!

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