The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has lost all credibility after suing Simon Singh for drawing the public’s attention to the fact that they were ‘happily promoting bogus treatments’. Now, it seems, they are trying to re-establish themselves with regular, often bogus or dubious pronouncements about back pain. It looks as though they have learnt nothing. A recent article in THE INDEPENDENT is a good example of this ambition, I think:
START OF QUOTE
Skinny jeans and coats with big fluffy hoods can contribute to painful back problems, chiropractors have warned.
Nearly three-quarters of women have experienced back pain, according to a survey by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), who said fashionable clothing including backless shoes, oversized bags and heavy statement jewellery were partly to blame.
Wearing very tight jeans can restrict mobility and force other muscles to strain as they try to compensate for the resulting change in posture, chiropractor Rishi Loatey told The Independent.
“If they’re incredibly tight, you won’t be able to walk as you normally would,” he said.
“You’ve got a natural gait, or stride, that you would take, and the knee, hip and lower back all move to minimise the pressure coming up through the joints.
“However, if one of those areas isn’t moving as it should be, it’s going to cause more pressure elsewhere.”
While 73 per cent of women from a sample of more than 2,000 said they have had back pain, more than a quarter – 28 per cent – said they were aware their clothing affects their posture and back and neck pain, but did not take this into account when choosing what to wear.
Lower back pain is the most common cause of disability worldwide, with 9.4 per cent of people suffering from it, according to a previous study.
High heels, which cause muscles in the back of the leg and the calf to tighten and pull on the pelvis differently, have long been culprits of back pain.
A number of high-profile campaigns against “sexist” dress codes requiring women to wear high heels at work have made reference to this fact.
But backless shoes, flimsy ballet pumps and some soft boots can also damage your back if they are worn too often, said Mr Loatey.
“If you imagine the back of a shoe, the bit that goes round the back is supposed to be quite firm, so it grips the rear foot,” he said. “If you don’t have that, then your foot is more mobile in the shoe.”
“If they’re not the right size, they’re a bit loose or they don’t have the bit at the back, you’re almost gripping the shoe as you walk, which again changes the way you walk,” said Mr Loatey, adding that ideally shoes should be laced up at the front to make sure the foot is held firmly.
A third of women surveyed by the BCA were unaware that their clothing choices could harm their backs and necks.
Mr Loatey said people should try and wear clothes that allow them to move more freely. Heavy hoods and over-shoulder bags can both restrict movement.
They should also consider limiting the amount of time they spent wearing high heels or backless shoes and consider travelling to work or social events in trainers or other well-supported shoes instead, he said.
END OF QUOTE
This piece strikes me as pure promotion of chiropractic – health journalism at its worse, I’d say. What is more objectionable than the promotion, it is full of half truths, ‘alternative facts’ and pure invention. Let me list a few statements that I find particularly doggy:
- “Skinny jeans and coats with big fluffy hoods can contribute to painful back problems.” Do they have any evidence for this? I don’t know of any!
- “…fashionable clothing including backless shoes, oversized bags and heavy statement jewellery were partly to blame [for back problems].” Idem!
- “Wearing very tight jeans can restrict mobility and force other muscles to strain…” Idem!
- “…it’s going to cause more pressure elsewhere.” Idem!
- 28% of women said “they were aware their clothing affects their posture and back and neck pain, but did not take this into account when choosing what to wear.” To make the findings from a survey look like scientific evidence for cause and effect is at best misleading, at worst dishonest.
- “…according to a previous study“. It turns out that this previous study was of occupational back pain which has nothing to do with tight jeans etc.
- “High heels, which cause muscles in the back of the leg and the calf to tighten and pull on the pelvis differently, have long been culprits of back pain.” A link to the evidence would be nice – if there is any.
- “But backless shoes, flimsy ballet pumps and some soft boots can also damage your back – if they are worn too often…” Evidence needed – if there is any.
- “Mr Loatey said people should try and wear clothes that allow them to move more freely. Heavy hoods and over-shoulder bags can both restrict movement.” Concrete recommendations require concrete evidence or a link to it.
- Women “should also consider limiting the amount of time they spent wearing high heels or backless shoes and consider travelling to work or social events in trainers or other well-supported shoes instead.” Idem.
At this point congratulations are in order, I feel.
Firstly to THE INDEPENDENT for publishing one of the most inadequate health-related article which I have seen in recent months.
Secondly to the BCA for their stubborn determination to ‘happily promoting bogus’ notions. Instead of getting their act together when found out to advertise quackery in 2008, they sued Simon Singh (unsuccessfully, I hasten to add). Instead of cutting out the nonsense once and for all, they now promote populist ‘alternative facts’ about the causes of back pain. Instead of behaving like a professional organisation that promotes high standards and solid evidence, they continue to do the opposite.
One cannot but be impressed with so much intransigence.
At a recent conference in Montréal (October 2016), the WFC (World Federation of Chiropractic) and the ACC (Association of Chiropractic Colleges) reached a consensus on education. Consequently, recommendations were produced that offer 12 key ‘take away messages’. I take the liberty of reproducing these statements entitled ‘Training Tomorrow’s Spine Care Experts’ (the square brackets were inserted by me and refer to brief comments I made below).
START OF QUOTE
1. Chiropractic educational institutions have a responsibility to equip students with the skills and attributes necessary to become future spinal health care experts. This includes a commitment to astute diagnostic ability, a comprehensive knowledge of spine-related disorders , appreciation for the contributions of other health professionals and a commitment to collaborative, patient-centered and evidence-informed care .
2. Technological advances  provide an opportunity for the chiropractic profession to enhance, evolve and standardize core education and practice. This is relevant to the teaching of chiropractic skills, sharing of learning resources and assessment of performance. Emerging technologies that support the development of clinically-competent practitioners should be embedded within chiropractic programs.
3. The teaching and learning of specialized manual assessment and treatment skills should remain a key distinguishing element of chiropractic curricula.
4. Surveys of the public have a demonstrated a desire for consistency in the provision of chiropractic services. Such consistency need not compromise the identities of individual institutions but will cultivate public trust and cultural authority .
5. Globally consistent educational and practice standards will facilitate international portability  and promote greater health equity in the delivery of spine care.
6. Chiropractic programs should espouse innovation and leadership in the context of ethical , sustainable business  practices.
7. Chiropractic educational curricula should reflect current evidence  and high quality guidelines , and be subjected to regular review to ensure that students are prepared to work in collaborative health care environments.
8. The training of tomorrow’ s spine care experts should incorporate current best practices in education.
9. Interdisciplinary collaboration and strategic partnerships present opportunities to position chiropractors as leaders  and integral team players in global spine care.
10. Chiropractic educational institutions should champion the integration of evidence informed clinical practice , including clinical practice guidelines, in order to optimize patient outcomes. This will in turn foster principles of lifelong learning and willingness to adapt practice methods in the light of emerging evidence .
11. Students, faculty, staff and administrators must all contribute to a learning environment that fosters cultural diversity, critical thinking , academic responsibility and scholarly activity.
12. Resources should be dedicated to embed and promote educational research activity in all chiropractic institutions.
END OF QUOTE
And here are my brief comments: Some chiropractors believe that all or most human conditions are ‘spine-related disorders’. We would need a clear statement here whether the WFC/ACC do support or reject this notion and what conditions we are actually talking about.  ‘Evidence-informed’??? I have come across this term before; it is used more and more by quacks of all types. It is clearly not synonymous with ‘evidence-based’, but aims at providing a veneer of respectability by creation an association with EBM. In concrete terms, asthma, for instance, might, in the eyes of some chiropractors, be an evidence-informed indication for chiropractic. In other words, ‘evidence-informed’ is merely a card blanch for promoting all sorts of nonsense.  It would be good to know which technical advances they are thinking of.  Public trust is best cultivated by demonstrating that chiropractic is doing more good than harm; by itself, this point sounds a bit like PR for maximising income. Sorry, I am not sure what they mean by ‘cultural authority’ – chiropractic as a cult?  ‘International portability’ – nice term, but what does it mean?  I get the impression that many chiropractors do not know what is meant by the term ‘ethics’.  But they certainly know much about business!  That is, I think, the most relevant statement in the entire text – see below.  Like those by NICE which no longer recommend chiropractic for back pain? No? They are not ‘high quality’? I see, only those that recommend chiropractic fulfil this criterion!  Chiropractors as leaders? Really? With their (largely ineffective) manipulations as the main contribution to the field? You have to be a chiropractor to find this realistic, I guess.  Again ‘evidence-informed’ instead of ‘evidence-based’ – who are they trying to kid?  The evidence that has been emerging since many years is that chiropractic manipulations fail to generate more good than harm.  In the past, I got the impression that critical thinking and chiropractic are a bit like fire and water.
MY CONCLUSION FROM ALL THIS
What we have here is, in my view, little more than a mixture between politically correct drivel and wishful thinking. If chiropractors truly want chiropractic educational curricula to “reflect current evidence”, they need to teach the following main tenets:
- Chiropractic manipulations have not been shown to be effective for any of the conditions they are currently used for.
- Other forms of treatment are invariably preferable.
- Subluxation, as defined by chiropractors, is a myth.
- Spine-related disorders, as taught in many chiropractic colleges, are a myth.
- ‘Evidence-informed’ is a term that has no meaning; the proper word is ‘evidence-based’ – and evidence-based chiropractic is a contradiction in terms.
Finally, chiropractors need to be aware of the fact that any curriculum for future clinicians must include the core elements of critical assessment and medical ethics. The two combined would automatically discontinue the worst excesses of chiropractic abuse, such as the promotion of bogus claims or the financial exploitation of the public.
But, of course, none of this is ever going to happen! Why? Because it would mean teaching students that they need to find a different profession. And this is why I feel that statements like the above are politically correct drivel which can serve only one purpose: to distract everyone from the fundamental problems in that profession.
The ACUPUNCTURE NOW FOUNDATION (ANF) has featured on this blog before. Today I want to re-introduce them because I just came across one of their articles which I found remarkable. In it, they define what many of us have often wondered about: the most important myth about acupuncture.
Is it acupuncture’s current popularity, its long history, its mode of action, its efficacy, its safety?
No, here is the answer directly from the ANF:
The most important myth that needs to be put to rest is the idea promoted by a small group of vocal critics that acupuncture is nothing more than a placebo. Many cite the fact that studies showing acupuncture to be highly effective were of low quality and that several higher quality studies show that, while acupuncture was clinically effective, it usually does not outperform “sham” acupuncture. But those studies are dominated by the first quality issue cited above; studies with higher methodological rigor where the “real” acupuncture was so poorly done as to not be a legitimate comparison. Yet despite the tendency toward poor quality acupuncture in studies with higher methodological standards, a benchmark study was done that showed “real” acupuncture clearly outperforming “sham” acupuncture in four different chronic pain conditions.3 When you add this study together with the fact veterinary acupuncture is used successfully in many different animals, the idea of acupuncture only being placebo must now be considered finally disproven. This is further supported by studies which show that the underlying physiological pathways activated by acupuncture sometimes overlap, but can be clearly differentiated from, those activated by placebo responses.
Yes, I was too.
The myth, according to the ANF, essentially is that sceptics do not understand the scientific evidence. And these blinkered sceptics even go as far as ignoring the findings from what the ANF consider to be a ‘benchmark study’! Ghosh, that’s nasty of them!!!
But, no – the benchmark study (actually, it was not a ‘study’ but a meta-analysis of studies) has been discussed fully on this blog (and in many other places too). Here is what I wrote in 2012 when it was first published:
An international team of acupuncture trialists published a meta-analysed of individual patient data to determine the analgesic effect of acupuncture compared to sham or non-acupuncture control for the following 4 chronic pain conditions: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, headache, and shoulder pain. Data from 29 RCTs, with an impressive total of 17 922 patients, were included.
The results of this new evaluation suggest that acupuncture is superior to both sham and no-acupuncture controls for each of these conditions. Patients receiving acupuncture had less pain, with scores that were 0.23 (95% CI, 0.13-0.33), 0.16 (95% CI, 0.07-0.25), and 0.15 (95% CI, 0.07-0.24) SDs lower than those of sham controls for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, and chronic headache, respectively; the effect sizes in comparison to no-acupuncture controls were 0.55 (95% CI, 0.51-0.58), 0.57 (95% CI, 0.50-0.64), and 0.42 (95% CI, 0.37-0.46) SDs.
Based on these findings, the authors reached the conclusion that “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture”.
… even the enthusiastic authors of this article admit that, when compared to sham, the effect size of real acupuncture is too small to be clinically relevant. Therefore one might argue that this meta-analysis confirms what critics have suggested all along: acupuncture is not a useful treatment for clinical routine.
Unsurprisingly, the authors of the meta-analysis do their very best to play down this aspect. They reason that, for clinical routine, the comparison between acupuncture and non-acupuncture controls is more relevant than the one between acupuncture and sham. But this comparison, of course, includes placebo- and other non-specific effects masquerading as effects of acupuncture – and with this little trick (which, by the way is very popular in alternative medicine), we can, of course, show that even sugar pills are effective.
I do not doubt that context effects are important in patient care; yet I do doubt that we need a placebo treatment for generating such benefit in our patients. If we administer treatments which are effective beyond placebo with kindness, time, compassion and empathy, our patients will benefit from both specific and non-specific effects. In other words, purely generating non-specific effects with acupuncture is far from optimal and certainly not in the interest of our patients. In my view, it cannot be regarded as not good medicine, and the authors’ conclusion referring to a “reasonable referral option” is more than a little surprising in my view.
Acupuncture-fans might argue that, at the very minimum, the new meta-analysis does demonstrate acupuncture to be statistically significantly better than a placebo. Yet I am not convinced that this notion holds water: the small residual effect-size in the comparison of acupuncture with sham might not be the result of a specific effect of acupuncture; it could be (and most likely is) due to residual bias in the analysed studies.
The meta-analysis is strongly driven by the large German trials which, for good reasons, were heavily and frequently criticised when first published. One of the most important potential drawbacks was that many participating patients were almost certainly de-blinded through the significant media coverage of the study while it was being conducted. Moreover, in none of these trials was the therapist blinded (the often-voiced notion that therapist-blinding is impossible is demonstrably false). Thus it is likely that patient-unblinding and the absence of therapist-blinding importantly influenced the clinical outcome of these trials thus generating false positive findings. As the German studies constitute by far the largest volume of patients in the meta-analysis, any of their flaws would strongly impact on the overall result of the meta-analysis.
So, has this new meta-analysis finally solved the decades-old question about the effectiveness of acupuncture? It might not have solved it, but we have certainly moved closer to a solution, particularly if we employ our faculties of critical thinking. In my view, this meta-analysis is the most compelling evidence yet to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain.
END OF QUOTE
The ANF-text then goes from bad to worse. First they cite the evidence from veterinary acupuncture as further proof of the efficacy of their therapy. Well, the only systematic review in this are is, I think, by my team; and it concluded that there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.
Lastly, the ANF mentions acupuncture’s mode of action which they seem to understand clearly and fully. Congratulations ANF! In this case, you are much better than the many experts in basic science or neurology who almost unanimously view these ‘explanations’ of how acupuncture might work as highly adventurous hypotheses or speculations.
So, what IS the most important myth about acupuncture? I am not sure and – unlike the ANF – I do not feel that I can speak for the rest of the world, but one of the biggest myths FOR ME is how acupuncture fans constantly manage to mislead the public.
The fact that much of chiropractic might be bogus has frequently been discussed on this blog. A recent press-release provided me with more evidence for this notion. It proudly announced a new book entitled “Beyond the Back: The Chiropractic Alternative For Conditions Beyond Back Pain”
The text claimed that shortly after the launch, the book hit #1 on the Amazon.com best seller list out of all Chiropractor books and also reached #1 for the category of Holistic Medicine.
When I checked (22/12/2016), I was not able to confirm this statement: #47 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Medical eBooks > Alternative & Holistic > Holistic Medicine, #58 in Books > Medical Books > Allied Health Professions > Chiropractic. But let’s not be petty; let’s rather see what the book has to offer.
‘Beyond the Back’ focuses on how Chiropractic care can do so much more than just alleviate back pain, the press-release says. From avoiding knee surgery to resolving athletic injuries, chiropractic care allegedly is a 100% natural health solution for a wide variety of conditions… In fact, in some cases, chiropractors can help their patients get off medications entirely and even avoid surgery, the press-release continues.
In the book itself, the authors claim that chiropractic is effective for a multitude of conditions, including asthma and colic (in fact, the authors try to give the impression that chiropractic is a veritable panacea), and that there is sound evidence for all these indications from hundreds, if not thousands of studies. The authors make it very clear – even on the book cover – that chiropractic is not an adjunct to conventional healthcare but an alternative to it; an idea, of course, that goes back to the founding fathers of chiropractic. As if this were not enough, the book also promotes diagnostic techniques such as applied kinesiology.
Some commentators on this blog have argued that the chiropractic profession is in the midst of giving up much of the nonsense upon it was originally based and to which it has clung on for more than hundred years. This book, written by 9 US authors of the new generation of chiropractors, seems to demonstrate the opposite.
On Amazon, the book currently has one single customer review: Value information and an easy read! I am a strong believer of chiropractic and this makes it easy for me to share this info with my friends !
This comment is apt because it makes clear that chiropractic is a belief system. We must not expect rational thoughts or facts from what, in effect, is a religion for many. I can understand this in a way: belief can be a cosy shelter from the truth; it does not require much thinking; it hardly needs any learning, no changing of minds, etc. However, belief can never be a basis for good healthcare. In my view, ‘Beyond The Back’ provides a perfect example of that.
Chiropractors have been shown to over-use X-rays (a worry about which I cautioned almost 20 years ago) and to refer for lumbar radiography inconsistent with the current clinical guidelines for low back pain. It is unknown whether this is due to lack of adherence with, or a lack of awareness of relevant guidelines. The aim of this study was to clarify this issue; more specifically, the authors wanted to determine Australian chiropractors’ awareness of, and reported adherence to, radiographic guidelines for low back pain.
An online survey was distributed to Australian chiropractors from July to September, 2014. Survey questions assessed demographic, chiropractic practice and radiographic usage characteristics, awareness of radiographic guidelines for low back pain and the level of agreement with current guidelines. Results were analysed with descriptive statistics and logistic regression analysis.
A total of 480 surveys were completed online. Only 49.6 % of the responders reported awareness of radiographic guidelines for low back pain. Chiropractors reported a likelihood of referring for radiographs for low back pain: in new patients (47.6 %); to confirm biomechanical pathologies (69.0 %); to perform biomechanical analysis (37.5 %); or to screen for contraindications (39.4 %). Chiropractors agreed that radiographs for low back pain could be useful for: acute low back pain (54.0 %); screening for contraindications (55.8 %); or to confirm diagnosis and direct treatment (61.3 %). Poorer adherence to current guidelines was seen, if the chiropractor referred to in-house radiographic facilities, practiced a technique other than diversified technique or was unaware or unsure of current radiographic guidelines for low back pain.
The authors of this paper concluded that only 50 % of Australian chiropractors report awareness of current radiographic guidelines for low back pain. A poorer awareness of guidelines is associated with an increase in the reported likelihood of use, and the perceived usefulness of radiographs for low back pain, in clinical situations that fall outside of current guidelines. Therefore, education strategies may help to increase guideline knowledge and compliance.
I am tempted to rephrase the last sentence: EDUCATION STRATEGIES MAY HELP TO INCREASE THE KNOWLEDGE THAT RESPONSIBLE HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS SHOULD WORK PRIMARILY FOR THE BENEFIT OF THEIR PATIENTS RATHER THAN FOR THE BENEFIT OF THEIR BANK ACCOUNTS.
In my view, this investigation confirms that:
- chiropractors still grossly over-use X-rays (it probably is fair to assume that the responders of this survey were relatively guideline-conform compared to non-responders; if that were true, the true figures of X-ray overuse would be even higher)
- they use X-rays for spurious reasons;
- they are ill-informed about the existing evidence;
- they have not abandoned the myth of ‘subluxation’, i. e. ‘biomechanical pathologies’.
Of course, the data are from Australia, and chiros elsewhere might claim that they are more guideline-conform than their Australian colleagues. But, in their discussion section, the authors of the present paper point out that “three previous studies have quantitatively assessed the adherence of registered chiropractors to radiographic guidelines for the management of low back pain (LBP). Two surveys performed in Canada with 26 and 32 responses respectively found that 63 and 59 % would use radiography for acute LBP without indicators of potential pathology and 68 and 66 % thought that radiography was useful in the evaluation of acute LBP.”
Chiropractors (and other alternative practitioners) tend to treat their patients for unnecessarily long periods of time. This, of course, costs money, and even if the treatment in question ever was indicated (which, according to the best evidence, is more than doubtful), this phenomenon would significantly inflate healthcare expenditure.
This sounds perfectly logical to me, but is there any evidence for it? Yes, there is!
The WSJ recently reported that over 80% of the money that Medicare paid to US chiropractors in 2013 went for medically unnecessary procedures. The federal insurance program for senior citizens spent roughly $359 million on unnecessary chiropractic care that year, a review by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) found.
The OIG report was based on a random sample of Medicare spending for 105 chiropractic services in 2013. It included bills submitted to CMS through June 2014. Medicare audit contractors reviewed medical records for patients to determine whether treatment was medically necessary. The OIG called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to tighten oversight of the payments, noting its analysis was one of several in recent years to find questionable Medicare spending on chiropractic care. “Unless CMS implements strong controls, it is likely to continue to make improper payments to chiropractors,” the OIG said.
Medicare should determine whether there should be a cut-off in visits, the OIG said. Medicare does not pay for “supportive” care, or maintenance therapy. Patients who received more than a dozen treatments are more likely to get medically unnecessary care, the OIG found, and all chiropractic care after the first 30 treatment sessions was unnecessary, the review found. However, a spokesperson for US chiropractors disagreed: “Every patient is different,” he said. “Some patients may require two visits; some may require more.”
I have repeatedly written about the fact that chiropractic is not nearly as cost-effective as chiropractors want us to believe (see for instance here and here). It seems that this evidence is being systematically ignored by them; in fact, the evidence gets in the way of their aim – which often is not to help patients but to maximise their cash-flow.
Some osteopaths – similar to their chiropractic, naturopathic, homeopathic, etc. colleagues – claim they can treat almost any condition under the sun. Even gynaecological ones? Sure! But is the claim true? Let’s find out.
The aim of this recent review was to evaluate the effects of the osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) on women with gynaecological and obstetric disorders. An extensive search from inception to April 2014 was conducted on MEDLINE, Embase, the Cochrane library using MeSH and free terms. Clinical studies investigating the effect of OMT in gynaecologic and obstetric conditions were included as well as unpublished works. Reviews and personal contributions were excluded. Studies were screened for population, outcome, results and adverse effects by two independent reviewers using an ad-hoc data extraction form. The high heterogeneity of the studies led to a narrative review.
In total, 24 studies were included. They addressed the following conditions: back pain and low back functioning in pregnancy, pain and drug use during labor and delivery, infertility and subfertility, dysmenorrhea, symptoms of (peri)menopause and pelvic pain. Overall, OMT was considered to be effective for pregnancy related back pain. For all other gynaecological and obstetrical conditions the evidence was considered to be uncertain. Only three studies mentioned adverse events after OMT.
The authors concluded that, although positive effects were found, the heterogeneity of study designs, the low number of studies and the high risk of bias of included trials prevented any indication on the effect of osteopathic care. Further investigation with more pragmatic methodology, better and detailed description of interventions and systematic reporting of adverse events are recommended in order to obtain solid and generalizable results.
Given the fact that the lead authors of this review come from the “Accademia Italiana Osteopatia Tradizionale, Pescara, Italy, we can probably answer the question in the title of this blog with a straight NO. I see no reason why OMT should work for gynaecological conditions, and I am not in the least surprised to read that there is no clinical evidence for this notion. Sadly, this is unlikely to stop osteopaths to claim otherwise and continue to prey on the desperate and the gullible.
One might thus say that this review is totally unremarkable – but I would beg to differ: it highlights yet again one very important finding, namely the fact that trials of alternative therapies far too often fail to report adverse effects. I have stated this often already, but I will say it again: THIS OMISSION IS A VIOLATION OF RESEARCH ETHICS WHICH GIVES US A FALSE POSITIVE OVERALL PICTURE OF THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE.
Low back pain (LBP) is a ‘minor complaint’ in the sense that it does not cost patients’ lives. At the same time, LBP is amongst the leading causes of disability and one of the most common reasons for patients to seek primary care. Chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists and general practitioners are among those treating LBP patients, but there is only limited evidence regarding the effectiveness offered by these provider groups.
The aim of this systematic review was to estimate the clinical effectiveness and to systematically review economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to other commonly used approaches among adult patients with non-specific LBP.
A comprehensive search strategy was conducted to identify 1) pragmatic randomized clinical trials (RCTs) and/or 2) full economic evaluations of chiropractic care for low back pain compared to standard care delivered by other healthcare providers. Studies published between 1990 and 4th June 2015 were considered. The primary outcomes included pain, functional status and global improvement. Study selection, critical quality appraisal and data extraction were conducted by two independent reviewers. Data from RCTs with low risk of bias were included in a meta-analysis to determine estimates of effect sizes. Cost estimates of full economic evaluations were converted to 2015 USD and results summarized.
Six RCTs and three full economic evaluations were included. Five RCTs with low risk of bias compared chiropractic care to exercise therapy (n = 1), physical therapy (n = 3) and medical care (n = 1). The authors found similar effects for chiropractic care and the other types of care. Three low to high quality full economic evaluations studies (one cost-effectiveness, one cost-minimization and one cost-benefit) compared chiropractic to medical care. Highly divergent conclusions (favours chiropractic, favours medical care, equivalent options) were noted for economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to medical care.
The authors drew the following conclusions: moderate evidence suggests that chiropractic care for LBP appears to be equally effective as physical therapy. Limited evidence suggests the same conclusion when chiropractic care is compared to exercise therapy and medical care although no firm conclusion can be reached at this time. No serious adverse events were reported for any type of care. Our review was also unable to clarify whether chiropractic or medical care is more cost-effective. Given the limited available evidence, the decision to seek or to refer patients for chiropractic care should be based on patient preference and values. Future studies are likely to have an important impact on our estimates as these were based on only a few admissible studies.
This is a thorough and timely review. Its results are transparent and clear, however, its conclusions are, in my view, more than a little odd.
Let me try to re-formulate them such that they are better supported by the actual data: There is no good evidence to suggest that chiropractic care is better or worse that conventional therapeutic approaches currently used for LBP. The pooled sample size dimensions too small to allow any statements about the risks of the various approaches. The data are also too weak for any pronouncements on the relative cost-effectiveness of the various options. Given these limitations, the decision which approach to use should be based on a more comprehensive analysis of the therapeutic risks.
The point I am trying to make is quite simple:
- The fact that RCTs fail to show adverse effects could be due to the small collective sample size and/or to the well-known phenomenon that, in well-controlled trials, adverse effects tend to be significantly rarer than in routine care.
- Hundreds of serious adverse events have been reported after chiropractic spinal manipulations; to these we have to add the fact that ~50% of all chiropractic patients suffer from transient, mild to moderate adverse effects after spinal manipulations.
- If we want to generate a realistic picture of the safety of a therapy, we need to include case-reports, case-series and other non-RCT evidence.
- Conventional treatments of LBP may not be free of adverse effects, but some are relatively safe.
- It seems reasonable, necessary and ethical to consider a realistic picture of the relative risks when deciding which therapy amongst equally (in)effective treatments might be best.
To me, all this seems almost painfully obvious, and I ask myself why the authors of this otherwise sound review failed to consider such thoughts. As one normally is obliged to, the authors included a section about the limitations of their review:
Our review has limitations. First, we did not search the grey literature for clinical effectiveness studies. McAuley et al. showed that the inclusion of results from the grey literature tend to decrease effectiveness estimates in meta-analyses because the unpublished studies tend to report smaller treatment effects. Second, critical appraisal requires scientific judgment that may vary among reviewers. This potential bias was minimized by training reviewers to use a standardized critical appraisal tool and using a consensus process among reviewers to reach decisions regarding scientific admissibility. Most of the original between-group differences and pooled estimates in our meta-analysis did not favour a specific provider group, and we believe it is unlikely that the inclusion of unpublished grey literature would change our conclusions. Third, the low number of clinical trials prevents us from conducting a meaningful investigation for publication bias. Fourth, the majority of the included clinical effectiveness studies (three out of five) and all three economic evaluations were conducted in the United States. Caution should therefore be used when generalizing our findings to other settings or jurisdictions. With respect to economic evaluations in particular, local healthcare systems and insurance plans may have a higher impact on cost than the type of healthcare provider.
Remarkably, this section does not mention their useless assessment of the risks with one word. Why? One answer might be found in the small-print of the paper:
The authors … have the following competing interests: MAB: Personal fees from Ordre des chiropraticiens du Québec for one teaching presentation, outside the submitted work. MJS: Position at the Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics is funded by the Danish Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication. RBDS: Nothing to disclose. JB: Nothing to disclose. PH: Nothing to disclose. AB: Position at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University is funded by the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication.
At first, I thought this survey would be yet another of those useless and boring articles that currently seem to litter the literature of alternative medicine. It’s abstract seemed to confirm my suspicion: “Fifty-two chiropractors in Victoria, Australia, provided information for up to 100 consecutive encounters. If patients attended more than once during the 100 encounters, only data from their first encounter were included in this study. Where possible patient characteristics were compared with the general Australian population…” But then I saw that the chiropractors were also asked to record their patients’ main complaints. That, I thought, was much more interesting, and I decided to do a post that focusses on this particular point.
The article informs us that 72 chiropractors agreed to participate (46 % response rate of eligible chiropractors approached). During the study, 20 (28 %) of these chiropractors withdrew and did not provide any data. Fifty two chiropractors (72 % of those enrolled) completed the study, providing information for 4464 chiropractor-patient encounters. Of these, 1123 (25 %) encounters were identified as repeat patient encounters during the recording period and were removed from further analyses, leaving 3287 unique patients.
The results that I want to focus on indicated that chiropractors give the following reasons for treating patients:
- maintenance: 39%
- spinal problems: 33%
- neck problems: 18%
- shoulder problems: 6%
- headache: 6%
- hip problems: 3%
- leg problems: 3%
- muscle problems: 3%
- knee problems: 2%
(the percentage figures refer to the percentages of patients with the indicated problem)
Yes, I know, there is lots to be criticised about the methodology used for this survey. But let’s forget about this for the moment and focus on the list of reasons or indications which these chiropractors give for treating patients. For which of these is there enough evidence to justify this decision and the fees asked for the interventions? Here is my very quick run-down of the evidence:
- maintenance: no good evidence.
- spinal problems: if they mean back pain by this nebulous term, an optimist might grant that there is some promising but by no means conclusive evidence.
- neck problems: again some promising but by no means conclusive evidence.
- shoulder problems: no good evidence.
- headache: again some promising but by no means conclusive evidence
- hip problems: no good evidence.
- leg problems: no good evidence.
- muscle problems: no good evidence.
- knee problems: no good evidence.
As I said, this is merely a very quick assessment. I imagine that many chiropractors will disagree with it – and I invite them to present their evidence in the comments section below. However, if I am correct (or at least not totally off the mark), this new survey seems to show that most of the things these chiropractors do is not supported by good evidence. One could be more blunt and phrase this differently:
- these chiropractors are misleading their patients;
- they are not behaving ethically;
- they are not adhering to EBP.
Yes, we (I mean rationalists who know about EBM) did suspect this all along – but now we can back it up with quite nice data from a recent survey done by chiropractors themselves.
In alternative medicine, good evidence is like gold dust and good evidence showing that alternative therapies are efficacious is even rarer. Therefore, I was delighted to come across a brand-new article from an institution that should stand for reliable information: the NIH, no less.
According to its authors, this new article “examines the clinical trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques including meditation, selected natural product supplements (chondroitin, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane, S-adenosylmethionine), tai chi, and yoga—as used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and severe headaches or migraines.”
The results of this huge undertaking are complex, of course, but in a nutshell they are at least partly positive for alternative medicine. Specifically, the authors state that “based on a preponderance of positive trials vs negative trials, current evidence suggests that the following complementary approaches may help some patients manage their painful health conditions: acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for OA of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Weaker evidence suggests that massage therapy, SM, and osteopathic manipulation might also be of some benefit to those with back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help those with fibromyalgia.”
This is excellent news! Finally, we have data from an authoritative source showing that some alternative treatments can be recommended for common pain conditions.
Hold on, not so fast! Yes, the NIH is a most respectable organisation, but we must not blindly accept anything of importance just because it appears to come form a reputable source. Let’s look a bit closer at the actual evidence provided by the authors of this paper.
Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:
- the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
- the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
- the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
- the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
- not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
- the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
- there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.
My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.
Personally, I find it lamentable that such a potentially worthy exercise ended up employing such lousy methodology. Perhaps even more lamentable is the fact that the NIH (or one of its Centers) can descend that low; to mislead the public in this way borders on scientific misconduct and is, in my view, unethical and unacceptable.