D D Palmer was born on March 7, 1845; so, why do chiros celebrate the ‘CHIROPRACTIC AWARENESS WEEK’ from 10 – 16 of April? Perhaps out of sympathy with the homeopaths (many US chiros also use homeopathy) who had their ‘big week’ during the same period? Please tell me, I want to know!
Anyway, the HAW almost ‘drowned’ the CAW – but only almost.
The British Chiropractic Association did its best to make sure we don’t forget the CAW. On their website, we find an article that alerts us to their newest bit of research. Here are some excerpts:
The consumer survey by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) of more than 2,000 UK adults who currently suffer from back or neck pain, or have done so in the past, found that almost three in five (56%) people experienced pain after using some form of technological device. Despite this, only 27% of people surveyed had limited or stopped using their devices due to concerns for their back or neck health and posture. The research showed people were most likely to experience back or neck pain after using the following technological devices:
• Laptop computer (35%)
• Desktop computer (35%)
• Smart phone (22%)
• Tablet (20%)
• Games console (17%)
The age group most likely to experience back or neck pain when using their smart phone were 16-24 year olds, while nearly half (45%) of young adults 25-34 year olds) admitted to experiencing back or neck pain after using a laptop. One in seven (14%) 16-24 year olds attributed their back or neck pain to virtual reality headsets.
As part of Chiropractic Awareness Week (10-16 April) the BCA is calling for technology companies to design devices with posture in mind, to help tech proof our back health. BCA chiropractor Rishi Loatey comments: “We all know how easy it is to remain glued to our smart phone or tablet, messaging friends or scrolling through social media. However, this addiction to technology could be causing changes to posture, which can lead to increased pressure on the muscles, joints and discs in the spine. Technology companies are now starting to issue older phone models which hark back to a time before smart phones enabled people to do everything from check emails and take pictures, to internet banking. Returning to a time of basic functionality, which may see people look to limit the time spent on their phone, can only be good news for our backs. Yet, in an age where people can now track their health and wellbeing using their phone, technology companies should also start looking at ways to make their devices posture friendly from the outset, encouraging us to take time away from our desks and breaks from our scrolling, gaming and messaging.”
END OF QUOTE
So, here we have it: another piece of compelling, cutting edge research by the BCA. They have made us giggle before but rarely have I laughed so heartily about a ‘professional’ organisation confusing so unprofessionally correlation with causation.
Considering the amount of highly public blunders they managed to inflict on the profession in recent years, I have come to the conclusion that the BCA is a cover organisation of BIG PHARMA with the aim of giving chiropractic a bad name!
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.
If you start reading the literature on chiropractic, you are bound to have surprises. The paucity of rigorous and meaningful research is one of them. I am constantly on the look-out for such papers but am regularly frustrated. Over the years, I got the impression that chiropractors tend to view research as an exercise in promotion – that is promotion of their very own trade.
Take this article, for instance. It seems to be a systematic review of chiropractic for breastfeeding. This is an interesting indication; remember: in 1998, Simon Singh wrote in the Guardian this comment “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.” As a consequence, he got sued for libel; he won, of course, but ever since, chiropractors across the world are trying to pretend that there is some evidence for their treatments after all.
The authors of the new review searched Pubmed [1966-2013], Manual, Alternative and Natural Therapy Index System (MANTIS) [1964-2013] and Index to Chiropractic Literature [1984-2013] for the relevant literature. The search terms utilized “breastfeeding”, “breast feeding”, “breastfeeding difficulties”, “breastfeeding difficulty”, “TMJ dysfunction”, “temporomandibular joint”, “birth trauma” and “infants”, in the appropriate Boolean combinations. They also examined non-peer-reviewed articles as revealed by Index to Chiropractic Literature and conducted a secondary analysis of references. Inclusion criteria for their review included all papers on breastfeeding difficulties regardless of peer-review. Articles were excluded if they were not written in the English language.
The following articles met the inclusion criteria: 8 case reports, 2 case series, 3 cohort studies and 6 manuscripts (5 case reports and a case series) that involved breastfeeding difficulties as a secondary complaint. The findings revealed a “theoretical and clinical framework based on the detection of spinal and extraspinal subluxations involving the cervico-cranio-mandibular complex and assessment of the infant while breastfeeding.”
Based on these results, the authors concluded that chiropractors care of infants with breastfeeding difficulties by addressing spinal and extraspinal subluxations involving the cervico-cranio-mandibular complex.
Have I promised too much?
I had thought that chiropractors had abandoned the subluxation nonsense! Not really, it seems.
I had thought that systematic reviews are about evidence of therapeutic effectiveness! Not in the weird world of chiropractic.
I would have thought that we all knew that ‘chiropractors care of infants with breastfeeding difficulties’ and do not need a review to confirm it! Yes, but what is good for business deserves another meaningless paper.
I would have thought that the conclusions of scientific articles need to be appropriate and based on the data provided! It seems that, in the realm of chiropractic, these rules do not apply.
An appropriate conclusion should have stated something like THERE IS NO GOOD EVIDENCE THAT CHIROPRACTIC CARE AIDS BREASTFEEDING. But that would have been entirely inappropriate from the chiropractic point of view because it is not a conclusion that promotes the sort of quackery most chiropractors rely upon for a living. And the concern over income is surely more important than telling the truth!
On 1/12/2014 I published a post in which I offered to give lectures to students of alternative medicine:
Getting good and experienced lecturers for courses is not easy. Having someone who has done more research than most working in the field and who is internationally known, might therefore be a thrill for students and an image-boosting experience of colleges. In the true Christmas spirit, I am today making the offer of being of assistance to the many struggling educational institutions of alternative medicine .
A few days ago, I tweeted about my willingness to give free lectures to homeopathic colleges (so far without response). Having thought about it a bit, I would now like to extend this offer. I would be happy to give a free lecture to the students of any educational institution of alternative medicine.
I did not think that this would create much interest – and I was right: only the ANGLO-EUROPEAN COLLEGE OF CHIROPRACTIC has so far hoisted me on my own petard and, after some discussion (see comment section of the original post) hosted me for a lecture. Several people seem keen on knowing how this went; so here is a brief report.
I was received, on 14/1/2015, with the utmost kindness by my host David Newell. We has a coffee and a chat and then it was time to start the lecture. The hall was packed with ~150 students and the same number was listening in a second lecture hall to which my talk was being transmitted.
We had agreed on the title CHIROPRACTIC: FALLACIES AND FACTS. So, after telling the audience about my professional background, I elaborated on 7 fallacies:
- Appeal to tradition
- Appeal to authority
- Appeal to popularity
- Subluxation exists
- Spinal manipulation is effective
- Spinal manipulation is safe
- Ad hominem attack
Numbers 3, 5 and 6 were dealt with in more detail than the rest. The organisers had asked me to finish by elaborating on what I perceive as the future challenges of chiropractic; so I did:
- Stop happily promoting bogus treatments
- Denounce obsolete concepts like ‘subluxation’
- Clarify differences between chiros, osteos and physios
- Start a culture of critical thinking
- Take action against charlatans in your ranks
- Stop attacking everyone who voices criticism
I ended by pointing out that the biggest challenge, in my view, was to “demonstrate with rigorous science which chiropractic treatments demonstrably generate more good than harm for which condition”.
We had agreed that my lecture would be followed by half an hour of discussion; this period turned out to be lively and had to be extended to a full hour. Most questions initially came from the tutors rather than the students, and most were polite – I had expected much more aggression.
In his email thanking me for coming to Bournemouth, David Newell wrote about the event: The general feedback from staff and students was one of relief that you possessed only one head, :-). I hope you may have felt the same about us. You came over as someone who had strong views, a fair amount of which we disagreed with, but that presented them in a calm, informative and courteous manner as we did in listening and discussing issues after your talk. I think everyone enjoyed the questions and debate and felt that some of the points you made were indeed fair critique of what the profession may need to do, to secure a more inclusive role in the health care arena.
My own impression of the day is that some of my messages were not really understood, that some of the questions, including some from the tutors, seemed like coming from a different planet, and that people were more out to teach me than to learn from my talk. One overall impression that I took home from that day is that, even in this college which prides itself of being open to scientific evidence and unimpressed by chiropractic fundamentalism, students are strangely different from other health care professionals. The most tangible aspect of this is the openly hostile attitude against drug therapies voiced during the discussion by some students.
The question I always ask myself after having invested a lot of time in preparing and delivering a lecture is: WAS IT WORTH IT? In the case of this lecture, I think the answer is YES. With 300 students present, I am fairly confident that I did manage to stimulate a tiny bit of critical thinking in a tiny percentage of them. The chiropractic profession needs this badly!
The chiropractic profession have been reminded time and times again that their claim to be able to effectively treat paediatric conditions is bogus. Many experts have asked them to produce some compelling evidence or stop this dangerous nonsense. Yet most of them seem to remain in denial, famously documented by the British Chiropractic Association suing Simon Singh for libel after he disclosed that they happily promote bogus treatments.
Some chiropractors now say that things have changed and that chiropractors are finally getting their act together. If that is true, progress must be painfully slow – so slow, in fact, that it is hard to see it at all. There are still far too many chiropractors who carry on just as before. There are hundreds, if not thousands of articles promoting chiropractic for childhood conditions; a very basic Google search for ‘chiropractic for children’ returns more than 7 million hits many of which advertise this sort of approach. Take this website, for instance; it makes its bogus claims entirely unabashed:
Even as an infant your child may have spinal nerve stress, known as subluxations. Although subluxations may not be painful, they can pose serious threats to your child’s development. If your baby was in a difficult position in the womb, or experienced a traumatic birth they may have developed subluxations. A common condition attributed to subluxations in children is known as Blocked Atlantal Nerve Syndrome. This condition may be the primary cause of ear and upper respiratory infections, and chronic tonsillitis.
Even regular childhood activities such as tumbles taken while learning to walk and run, bike riding, and participation in sports can also cause stress on your child’s body. Emotional stress and trauma may also be a cause of subluxations. Unless they are corrected they can affect future nerve function and the development of your child’s nervous system. They can also cause problems as your child grows and develops into adulthood.
With regular chiropractic care your child may be at less risk for common childhood disease such as colds and fevers. Some children show a marked improvement in asthma symptoms with regular chiropractic care and nutritional counselling. While chiropractors do no treat disease or sickness, they can identify and remove subluxations which interfere with your child’s natural ability to heal. By removing this stress from your child’s spinal system their immune system may function more efficiently and your child may have a better defense to disease. Their overall health may improve as their natural healing power is released. Children who receive regular chiropractic care may also be able to handle emotional and physical stress better and this care may contribute to their natural development.
Your child is never too young to start chiropractic care. Well-child care starts are early as the first month of life. Doctors use a very gentle pressure to treat children (no more pressure than picking up a tomato in the grocery store) and their treatments are very soothing to your child. After their first visit it is recommended that they receive treatments every three months up to age three, and then every six to 12 month after that. You may also want to visit your chiropractor after major milestones in your child’s life such as learning to sit up, crawl, and walk. They should also be seen if they experience any falls or trauma, and if you notice any balance issues they may be experiencing. These may include head tilting and limping.
Pediatric chiropractic care has many benefits. Children as young as infants may see an improvement in their development and overall health with regular care. Doctors of chiropractic take a proactive approach to health by striving to return and maintain your body’s natural balance. If you are looking for an alternative or supplement to traditional medical care, look into chiropractic care for your entire family.
Just a few rotten apples!… the apologists would probably say. But this is clearly not true. I find it even hard to locate the non-rotten apples in this decomposing and disgusting mess. More importantly, if it were true that things were now changing, one would expect that the progressive sections of the chiropractic profession protest regularly, sharply and effectively to shame the many charlatans amongst their midst. Crucially, one would expect the chiropractic professional organisations to oust their bogus members systematically and swiftly.
The sad truth, however, is that none of this is really happening – certainly not in the US or the UK. On the contrary, organisations like THE INTERNATIONAL PEDIATRIC ASSOCIATION, books entitled CHIROPRACTIC PEDIATRICS, and periodicals like the JOURNAL OF PEDIATRIC, MATERNAL AND FAMILY CHIROPRACTIC remain popular and respected within the chiropractic profession. A few lip-services here and there, yes. But truly effective action? No!
The tolerance of quackery, I would argue, must be one of the most important hallmarks of a quack profession.
Some people are their worst enemies, and it seems as though chiropractors are no strangers to this strange phenomenon.
On this blog, I frequently criticise chiropractic; my main concerns are that
- chiropractors make far too many bogus claims far too often,
- there is precious little evidence that their hallmark treatment, spinal manipulation, generates more good than harm.
I repeatedly voice those concerns because I feel strongly that consumers have the right to unbiased information for making evidence-based therapeutic decisions. When I do this, I get invariably attacked by some chiropractors who disagree with me. Frequently, these chiropractors are not interested to discuss the issues I raised with me; instead they insult me in the most primitive way imaginable.
This happens far too often to write about each time, but occasionally things are so extraordinary that I do blog about them. A case in point is the email I recently received out of the blue from “Dr” Brian Moravec, a chiropractor who believes in subluxation and claims that new-born babies should have spinal adjustments. My last post quotes his astonishing views in full; he believes I am a self proclaimed “expert” on alternative medicine, promoting so much misinformation with regard to chiropractic care. Unfortunately he failed to tell me which of my statements he considers to be misleading and he continued: fortunately you look old. and soon will be gone.
Rejoicing at the (hopefully not so) imminent demise of a fellow human being is perhaps not what one might expect from a health care professional. Yet it does fit into the behaviour of chiropractors which tends to turn outright self-destructive when challenged. The comments by chiropractors that followed my post seem to confirm this tendency. They show that the demolition of chiropractic’s reputation by chiropractors is relentless.
One chiropractor claimed Moravec’s opinion could “have been better put”… and “come over as a somewhat personal attack” while quickly changing the subject by starting a discussion on the evidence-base of chiropractic. This ended abruptly in him agreeing with me to disagree. Other chiropractors seemed to concur.
At that stage, one chiropractor noted that Moeavec’s email is doing no favours to the reputation of chiropractic, a ray of light which quickly was instantly overshadowed by a further chiropractor’s comments. This man – or perhaps woman (hiding behind a pseudonym) – is a regular commentator on my blog. He felt that Moravec’s comments were rather polite an opinion which he justified as follows: Dr. Moravec thinks you are old because of your unflattering (IMO) photo. The shiny, bald look adds years to a person’s looks, especially in photos. It is the old glass half-empty or half-full debate. IOW, have you lost hair or have you gained face? The mustache is so fifties, too. The perpetual scowl, however, does suit you rather well. Just sayin’.
At this point, I cannot help but laugh out loud. Someone asked how I can bear those vicious attacks. The answer is that I merely cringe at the stupidity on display. Are these guys really so limited as to not realise what they are doing to their own reputation? Do they not notice that this amounts to a relentless and general demolition of chiropractic’s reputation?
All of this would, of course, be rather trivial fun, if it were a single occurrence – but it is most definitely not!
As I already pointed out, such things happen to me all the time. More remarkably, chiropractors have repeatedly tried to get me fired. Much more importantly, chiropractors have behaved in this way when they decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. Each time, they ended up with plenty of egg on their faces.
Isn’t it time that they learn a lesson? Isn’t it time that they learn to consider criticism seriously? Isn’t it time the more rational one amongst them do something about the many cranks in their midst? Isn’t it time they got their act together?
The question whether infant colic can be effectively treated with manipulative therapies might seem rather trivial – after all, this is a benign condition which the infant quickly grows out of. However, the issue becomes a little more tricky, if we consider that it was one of the 6 paediatric illnesses which were at the centre of the famous libel case of the BCA against my friend and co-author Simon Singh. At the time, Simon had claimed that there was ‘not a jot of evidence’ for claiming that chiropractic was an effective treatment of infant colic, and my systematic review of the evidence strongly supported his statement. The BCA eventually lost their libel case and with it the reputation of chiropractic. Now a new article on this intriguing topic has become available; do we have to reverse our judgements?
The aim of this new systematic review was to evaluate the efficacy or effectiveness of manipulative therapies for infantile colic. Six RCTs of chiropractic, osteopathy or cranial osteopathy alone or in conjunction with other interventions were included with a total of 325 infants. Of the 6 included studies, 5 were “suggestive of a beneficial effect” and one found no evidence of benefit. Combining all the RCTs suggested that manipulative therapies had a significant effect. The average crying time was reduced by an average of 72 minutes per day. This effect was sustained for studies with a low risk of selection bias and attrition bias. When analysing only those studies with a low risk of performance bias (i.e. parental blinding) the improvement in daily crying hours was no longer statistically significant.
The quality of the studies was variable. There was a generally low risk of selection bias but a high risk of performance bias. Only one of the studies recorded adverse events and none were encountered.
From these data, the authors drew the following conclusion: Parents of infants receiving manipulative therapies reported fewer hours crying per day than parents whose infants did not and this difference was statistically significant. Most studies had a high risk of performance bias due to the fact that the assessors (parents) were not blind to who had received the intervention. When combining only those trials with a low risk of such performance bias the results did not reach statistical significance.
Does that mean that chiropractic does work for infant colic? No, it does not!
The first thing to point out is that the new systematic review included not just RCTs of chiropractic but also osteopathy and cranio-sacral therapy.
The second important issue is that the effects disappear, once performance bias is being accounted for which clearly shows that the result is false positive.
The third relevant fact is that the majority of the RCTs were of poor quality. The methodologically best studies were negative.
And the fourth thing to note is that only one study mentioned adverse effects, which means that the other 5 trials were in breach of one of rather elementary research ethics.
What makes all of this even more fascinating is the fact that the senior author of the new publication, George Lewith, is the very expert who advised the BCA in their libel case against Simon Singh. He seems so fond of his work that he even decided to re-publish it using even more misleading language than before. It is, of course, far from me to suggest that his review was an attempt to white-wash the issue of chiropractic ‘bogus’ claims. However, based on the available evidence, I would have formulated conclusions which are more than just a little different from his; something like this perhaps:
The current best evidence suggests that the small effects that emerge when we pool the data from mostly unreliable studies are due to bias and therefore not real. This systematic review therefore fails to show that manipulative therapies are effective. It furthermore points to a serious breach of research ethics by the majority of researchers in this field.
The dismal state of chiropractic research is no secret. But is anything being done about it? One important step would be to come up with a research strategy to fill the many embarrassing gaps in our knowledge about the validity of the concepts underlying chiropractic.
A brand-new article might be a step in the right direction. The aim of this survey was to identify chiropractors’ priorities for future research in order to best channel the available resources and facilitate advancement of the profession. The researchers recruited 60 academic and clinician chiropractors who had attended any of the annual European Chiropractors’ Union/European Academy of Chiropractic Researchers’ Day meetings since 2008. A Delphi process was used to identify a list of potential research priorities. Initially, 70 research priorities were identified, and 19 of them reached consensus as priorities for future research. The following three items were thought to be most important:
- cost-effectiveness/economic evaluations,
- identification of subgroups likely to respond to treatment,
- initiation and promotion of collaborative research activities.
The authors state that this is the first formal and systematic attempt to develop a research agenda for the chiropractic profession in Europe. Future discussion and study is necessary to determine whether the themes identified in this survey should be broadly implemented.
Am I the only one who finds these findings extraordinary?
The chiropractic profession only recently lost the libel case against Simon Singh who had disclosed that chiropractors HAPPILY PROMOTE BOGUS TREATMENTS. One would have thought that this debacle might prompt the need for rigorous research testing the many unsubstantiated claims chiropractors still make. Alas, the collective chiropractic wisdom does not consider such research as a priority!
Similarly, I would have hoped that chiropractors perceive an urgency to investigate the safety of their treatments. Serious complications after spinal manipulation are well documented, and I would have thought that any responsible health care profession would consider it essential to generate reliable evidence on the incidence of such events.
The fact that these two areas are not considered to be priorities is revealing. In my view, it suggests that chiropractic is still very far from becoming a mature and responsible profession. It seems that chiropractors have not learned the most important lessons from recent events; on the contrary, they continue to bury their heads in the sand and carry on seeing research as a tool for marketing.
Systematic reviews are widely considered to be the most reliable type of evidence for judging the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. Such reviews should be focused on a well-defined research question and identify, critically appraise and synthesize the totality of the high quality research evidence relevant to that question. Often it is possible to pool the data from individual studies and thus create a new numerical result of the existing evidence; in this case, we speak of a meta-analysis, a sub-category of systematic reviews.
One strength of systematic review is that they minimise selection and random biases by considering at the totality of the evidence of a pre-defined nature and quality. A crucial precondition, however, is that the quality of the primary studies is critically assessed. If this is done well, the researchers will usually be able to determine how robust any given result is, and whether high quality trials generate similar findings as those of lower quality. If there is a discrepancy between findings from rigorous and flimsy studies, it is obviously advisable to trust the former and discard the latter.
And this is where systematic reviews of alternative treatments can run into difficulties. For any given research question in this area we usually have a paucity of primary studies. Equally important is the fact that many of the available trials tend to be of low quality. Consequently, there often is a lack of high quality studies, and this makes it all the more important to include a robust critical evaluation of the primary data. Not doing so would render the overall result of the review less than reliable – in fact, such a paper would not qualify as a systematic review at all; it would be a pseudo-systematic review, i.e. a review which pretends to be systematic but, in fact, is not. Such papers are a menace in that they can seriously mislead us, particularly if we are not familiar with the essential requirements for a reliable review.
This is precisely where some promoters of bogus treatments seem to see their opportunity of making their unproven therapy look as though it was evidence-based. Pseudo-systematic reviews can be manipulated to yield a desired outcome. In my last post, I have shown that this can be done by including treatments which are effective so that an ineffective therapy appears effective (“chiropractic is so much more than just spinal manipulation”). An even simpler method is to exclude some of the studies that contradict one’s belief from the review. Obviously, the review would then not comprise the totality of the available evidence. But, unless the reader bothers to do a considerable amount of research, he/she would be highly unlikely to notice. All one needs to do is to smuggle the paper past the peer-review process – hardly a difficult task, given the plethora of alternative medicine journals that bend over backwards to publish any rubbish as long as it promotes alternative medicine.
Alternatively (or in addition) one can save oneself a lot of work and omit the process of critically evaluating the primary studies. This method is increasingly popular in alternative medicine. It is a fool-proof method of generating a false-positive overall result. As poor quality trials have a tendency to deliver false-positive results, it is obvious that a predominance of flimsy studies must create a false-positive result.
A particularly notorious example of a pseudo-systematic review that used this as well as most of the other tricks for misleading the reader is the famous ‘systematic’ review by Bronfort et al. It was commissioned by the UK GENERAL CHIROPRACTIC COUNCIL after the chiropractic profession got into trouble and was keen to defend those bogus treatments disclosed by Simon Singh. Bronfort and his colleagues thus swiftly published (of course, in a chiro-journal) an all-encompassing review attempting to show that, at least for some conditions, chiropractic was effective. Its lengthy conclusions seemed encouraging: Spinal manipulation/mobilization is effective in adults for: acute, subacute, and chronic low back pain; migraine and cervicogenic headache; cervicogenic dizziness; manipulation/mobilization is effective for several extremity joint conditions; and thoracic manipulation/mobilization is effective for acute/subacute neck pain. The evidence is inconclusive for cervical manipulation/mobilization alone for neck pain of any duration, and for manipulation/mobilization for mid back pain, sciatica, tension-type headache, coccydynia, temporomandibular joint disorders, fibromyalgia, premenstrual syndrome, and pneumonia in older adults. Spinal manipulation is not effective for asthma and dysmenorrhea when compared to sham manipulation, or for Stage 1 hypertension when added to an antihypertensive diet. In children, the evidence is inconclusive regarding the effectiveness for otitis media and enuresis, and it is not effective for infantile colic and asthma when compared to sham manipulation. Massage is effective in adults for chronic low back pain and chronic neck pain. The evidence is inconclusive for knee osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain syndrome, migraine headache, and premenstrual syndrome. In children, the evidence is inconclusive for asthma and infantile colic.
Chiropractors across the world cite this paper as evidence that chiropractic has at least some evidence base. What they omit to tell us (perhaps because they do not appreciate it themselves) is the fact that Bronfort et al
- failed to formulate a focussed research question,
- invented his own categories of inconclusive findings,
- included all sorts of studies which had nothing to do with chiropractic,
- and did not to make an assessment of the quality of the included primary studies they included in their review.
If, for a certain condition, three trials were included, for instance, two of which were positive but of poor quality and one was negative but of good quality, the authors would conclude that, overall, there is sound evidence.
Bronfort himself is, of course, more than likely to know all that (he has learnt his trade with an excellent Dutch research team and published several high quality reviews) – but his readers mostly don’t. And for chiropractors, this ‘systematic’ review is now considered to be the most reliable evidence in their field.
Many reader of this blog will remember the libel case of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against Simon Singh. Simon had disclosed in a Guardian comment that the BCA was happily promoting bogus chiropractic treatments for 6 paediatric conditions, including infant colic. The BCA not only lost the case but the affair almost destroyed this strange organisation and resulted in an enormous reputational damage of chiropractors worldwide. In an article entitled AFTER THE STORM, the then-president of the BCA later described the defeat in his own words: “in 2009, events in the UK took a turn which was to consume the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for two years and force the wider profession to confront key issues that for decades had kept it distanced from its medical counterparts and attracting ridicule from its critics…the BCA began one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially, reputationally and politically…The GCC itself was in an unprecedented situation. Faced with a 1500% rise in complaints, Investigating Committees were assembled to determine whether there was a case to answer…The events of the past two years have exposed a blind adherence to outdated principles amongst a small but significant minority of the profession. Mindful of the adage that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, the vocalism of this group has ensured that chiropractic is characterised by its critics as unscientific, unsafe and slightly wacky. Claims that the vertebral subluxation complex is the cause of illness and disease have persisted despite the three UK educational establishments advising the GCC that no evidence of acceptable quality exists to support such claims.”
Only a few years AFTER THE STORM, this story seems to have changed beyond recognition. Harald Walach, who is known to readers of this blog because I reported that he was elected ‘pseudo-scientist of the year’ in 2012, recently published a comment on the proceedings of the European Congress of Integrated Medicine where we find the following intriguing version of the libel case:
Mein Freund und Kollege George Lewith aus Southampton hatte einen Hauptvortrag über seine Überblicksarbeit über chiropraktische Interventionen für kleinkindliche Koliken vorgelegt. Sie ist ausgelöst worden durch die Behauptung, die Singh und Ernst vor einigen Jahren erhoben hatten, dass Chiropraktik gefährlich ist, dass es keine Daten dafür gäbe, dass sie wirksam sei und dass sie gefährliche Nebenwirkungen habe, speziell wenn sie bei Kindern angewendet würde. Die Chiropraktiker hatten den Wissenschaftsjournalisten Singh damals wegen Verleumdung verklagt und recht erhalten. George Lewith hatte dem Gericht die Expertise geliefert und nun seine Analyse auf Kinder ausgedehnt.
Kurz gefasst: Die Intervention wirkt sogar ziemlich stark, etwa eine Standardabweichung war der Effekt groß. Die Kinder schreien kürzer und weniger. Und die Durchforstung der Literatur nach gefährlichen Nebenwirkungen hatte keinen, wortwörtlich: nicht einen, Fall zu Tage gefördert, der von Nebenwirkungen, geschweige denn gefährlichen, berichtet hätte. Die Aufregung war seinerzeit dadurch entstanden, dass eine unqualifizierte Person einer zart gebauten Frau über den Rücken gelaufen ist und ihr dabei das Genick gebrochen hat. Die Presse hatte das ganze dann zu „tödlicher Nebenwirkung chiropraktischer Intervention“ aufgebauscht.
Oh, I almost forgot, you don’t read German? Here is my translation of this revealing text:
“My friend and colleague Geoorge Lewith from Southampton gave a keynote lecture on his review of chiropractic interventions for infant colic. This was prompted by the claim, made by Singh and Ernst a few years ago, that chiropractic was dangerous, that no data existed showing its effectiveness, and that it had dangerous side-effects, particularly for children. The chiropractors had sued the science journalist Singh for libel and won the case. George Lewith had provided the expert report for the court and has now extended his analysis on children.
To put it briefly: the intervention is even very effective; the effect-size is about one standard deviation. The children cry less long and more rarely. And the search of the literature for dangerous side-effects resulted in no – literally: not one – case of side-effects, not to mention dangerous ones. The fuzz had started back then because an unqualified person had walked over the back of a thin woman and had thus broken her neck. The press had subsequently hyped the whole thing to a “deadly side-effect of a chiropractic intervention”. (I am sorry for the clumsy language but the original is even worse.)
Now, isn’t that remarkable? Not only has the truth about the libel case been turned upside down, but also the evidence on chiropractic as a treatment for infant colic seems mysteriously improved; other reviews which might just be a bit more independent and objective come to the following conclusions:
The literature concerning this topic is surprisingly scarce, of poor quality and lack of convincing conclusions. With the present day data on this topic, it is impossible to say whether this kind of treatment has a significant effect.
And what should we make of all this? I don’t know about you, but I conclude that, for some apologists of alternative medicine, the truth is a rather flexible commodity.