MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

case report

We all hope that serious complications after chiropractic care are rare. However, this does not mean they are unimportant. Multi-vessel cervical dissection with cortical sparing is an exceptional event in clinical practice. Such a case has just been described as a result of chiropractic upper spinal manipulation.

Neurologists from Qatar published a case report of a 55-year-old man who presented with acute-onset neck pain associated with sudden onset right-sided hemiparesis and dysphasia after chiropractic manipulation for chronic neck pain.

Magnetic resonance imaging revealed bilateral internal carotid artery dissection and left extracranial vertebral artery dissection with bilateral anterior cerebral artery territory infarctions and large cortical-sparing left middle cerebral artery infarction. This suggests the presence of functionally patent and interconnecting leptomeningeal anastomoses between cerebral arteries, which may provide sufficient blood flow to salvage penumbral regions when a supplying artery is occluded.

The authors concluded that chiropractic cervical manipulation can result in catastrophic vascular lesions preventable if these practices are limited to highly specialized personnel under very specific situations.

Chiropractors will claim that they are highly specialised and that such events must be true rarities. Others might even deny a causal relationship altogether. Others again would claim that, relative to conventional treatments, chiropractic manipulations are extremely safe. You only need to search my blog using the search-term ‘chiropractic’ to find that there are considerable doubts about these assumptions:

  • Many chiropractors are not well trained and seem mostly in the business of making a tidy profit.
  • Some seem to have forgotten most of the factual knowledge they may have learnt at chiro-college.
  • There is no effective monitoring scheme to adequately record serious side-effects of chiropractic care.
  • Therefore the incidence figures of such catastrophic events are currently still anyone’s guess.
  • Publications by chiropractic interest groups seemingly denying this point are all fatally flawed.
  • It is not far-fetched to fear that under-reporting of serious complications is huge.
  • The reliable evidence fails to demonstrate that neck manipulations generate more good than harm.
  • Until sound evidence is available, the precautionary principle leads most critical thinkers to conclude that neck manipulations have no place in routine health care.

While some chiropractors now do admit that upper neck manipulations can cause severe problems, many of them simply continue to ignore this fact. It is therefore important, I think, to keep alerting both consumers and chiropractors to the risks of spinal manipulations. In this context, a new article seems relevant.

Danish doctors reported a critical case of bilateral vertebral artery dissection (VAD) causing embolic occlusion of the basilar artery (BA) in a patient whose symptoms started after chiropractic Spinal manipulative therapy (cSMT). The patient, a 37-year-old woman, presented with acute onset of neurological symptoms immediately following cSMT in a chiropractic facility. Acute magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed ischemic lesions in the right cerebellar hemisphere and occlusion of the cranial part of the BA. Angiography demonstrated bilateral VADs. Symptoms remitted after endovascular therapy, which included dilatation of the left vertebral artery (VA) and extraction of thrombus from the BA. After 6 months, the patient still had minor sensory and cognitive deficits.

The authors concluded that, in severe cases, VAD may be complicated by BA thrombosis, and this case highlights the importance of a fast diagnostic approach and advanced intravascular procedure to obtain good long-term neurological outcome. Furthermore, this case underlines the need to suspect VAD in patients presenting with neurological symptoms following cSMT.

I can already hear the excuses of the chiropractic fraternity:

  • this is just a case report,
  • the risk is very rare,
  • some investigations even deny any risk at all,
  • the risk of many conventional treatments is far greater.
However, these excuses are lame for a number of reasons:
  • as there are no functioning monitoring systems, nobody can tell with certainty how big the risk truly is,
  • the precautionary principle in health care compels us to take even the slightest of suspicions of harm seriously,
  • the risk/benefit principle compels us to ask whether the demonstrable benefits of neck manipulations outweigh its suspected risks.

The last point is perhaps the most important: AS FAR AS I CAN SEE, THERE IS NO INDICATION FOR NECK MANIPULATIONS FOR WHICH THE BENEFIT IS SUFFICIENTLY CERTAIN TO JUSTIFY ANY SUCH RISKS.

Hurray, I can hear the Champagne corks popping: this month is ‘National Chiropractic Months’ in the USA – a whole month! This has depleted my stock of the delicious fizz already in the first three days.

Now that my bottles are empty (is there a chiropractic cure for a hang-over?), I must find other ways to celebrate. How about a more sober look at what has been published in the medical literature on chiropractic during the last few days?

A quick look into Medline identifies several articles of interest. The very first one is a case-report:

Spinal epidural hematoma (SEH) occurring after chiropractic spinal manipulation therapy (CSMT) is a rare clinical phenomenon. Our case is unique because the patient had an undiagnosed cervical spinal arteriovenous malformation (AVM) discovered on pathological analysis of the evacuated hematoma. Although the spinal manipulation likely contributed to the rupture of the AVM, there was no radiographic evidence of the use of excessive force, which was seen in another reported case. As such, patients with a known AVM who have not undergone surgical intervention should be cautioned against symptomatic treatment with CSMT, even if performed properly. Regardless of etiology, SEH is a surgical emergency and its favorable neurological recovery correlates inversely with time to surgical evacuation.

This is important, I think, in more than one way. Many chiropractors simply deny that their manipulations cause serious complications of this nature. Yet such cases are being reported with depressing regularity. Other chiropractors claim that excessive force is necessary to cause the damage. This paper seems to refute this notion quite well, I think.

But let’s not be inelegant and dwell on this unpleasant subject; it might upset chiros during their month of celebration.

The next article fresh from the press is a survey – chiropractors are very fond of this research tool, it seems. It produced a lot of intensely boring data – except for one item that caught my eye: the authors found that ‘virtually all Danish chiropractors working in the primary sector made use of manipulation as one of their treatment modalities.’

Why is that interesting? Whenever I point out that there is no good evidence that chiropractic manipulations generate more good than harm, chiropractors tend to point out that they do so much more than that. Manipulations are not administered to all their patients, they say. This survey is a reminder (there is plenty more evidence on this issue) of the fact that the argument is not very convincing.

Another survey which has just been published in time for the ‘celebratory month’ is worth mentioning. It reports the responses of patients to questions about chiropractic by providing the ‘positive angle’, e.g.: ‘Most (61.4%) respondents believed that chiropractic care was effective at treating neck and back pain…’ Just for the fun of it, I thought it might be worth doing the opposite: 39% did not believe that chiropractic care was effective at treating neck and back pain… If we use this approach, the new survey also indicates that about half of the respondents did not think chiropractors were trustworthy, and 86% have not consulted a chiropractor within the last year.

Oh, so sorry – I did not mean to spoil the celebrations! Better move on then!

A third survey assessed the attitudes of Canadian obstetricians towards chiropractic. Overall, 70% of respondents did not hold a positive views toward chiropractic, 74% did not agree that chiropractic had a role in treatment of non-musculoskeletal conditions, 60% did not refer at least some patients for chiropractic care each year, and comments of the obstetricians revealed concerns regarding safety of spinal manipulation and variability among chiropractors.

And now I better let you get on with your well-deserved celebrations and look for another bottle!

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On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed the risks of acupuncture. Contrary to what we often hear, there clearly is potential for harm. Acupuncture is, of course most popular in China where it has been used for thousands of years. Therefore the Chinese literature, which is not easy to access for non-Chinese speakers and therefore often disregarded by Western researchers, might hold treasures of valuable information on the subject. It follows that a thorough review of this information might be helpful. A recent paper by Chinese scientists has tackled this issue.

The objective of this review was to determine the frequency and severity of adverse complications and events in acupuncture treatment reported from 1980 to 2013 in China. All first-hand case reports of acupuncture-related complications and adverse events that could be identified in the scientific literature were reviewed and classified according to the type of complication and adverse event, circumstance of the event, and long-term patient outcome. The selected case reports were published between 1980 and 2013 in 3 databases. Relevant papers were collected and analyzed by 2 reviewers.

Over the 33 years, 182 incidents were identified in 133 relevant papers. Internal organ, tissue, or nerve injury is the main complications of acupuncture especially for pneumothorax and central nervous system injury. Adverse effects also included syncope, infections, hemorrhage, allergy, burn, aphonia, hysteria, cough, thirst, fever, somnolence, and broken needles.

The authors of this review concluded that qualifying training of acupuncturists should be systemized and the clinical acupuncture operations should be standardized in order to effectively prevent the occurrence of acupuncture accidents, enhance the influence of acupuncture, and further popularize acupuncture to the rest of the world.

This is a bizarrely disappointing article followed by a most strange conclusion. The authors totally fail to discuss the most important issue and they arrive at conclusions which, I think, make little sense.

The issue to discuss here is, of course, under-reporting. We know that under-reporting in the Western literature is already huge. For every complication reported there could easily be 10 or even 100 that go unreported. There is no monitoring system for adverse effects, and acupuncturists have no incentive to publish their mistakes. Accurate and realistic prevalence data are therefore anybody’s guess.

In China, under-reporting is likely to be one or two orders of magnitude bigger. I say this because close to zero % of all Chinese papers on acupuncture report negative findings. For China, TCM is a huge export business, and the interest in reporting adverse effects is close to zero.

Seen from this perspective, it seems at first glance laudable that the Chinese authors dared to address this thorny issue. In the text of the article, they even mention that the included complications resulted in a total of 25 fatalities! This seems courageous. But one only needs to read the full article to get a strong suspicion that the authors are either in denial about the real figures, or their paper is a deliberate attempt to ‘white-wash’ acupuncture from its potential to do harm.

In 2010, we published a very similar review of the Chinese literature (unsurprisingly, it was not cited by the authors of the new paper). At the time, we found almost 500 published cases of serious adverse events and stated that we suspect that underreporting of such events in the Chinese-language literature is much higher than in the English-language literature.

The truth is that nobody knows how frequent adverse events of acupuncture truly are in China – or most other countries, for that matter. I believe that, before we “further popularize acupuncture to the rest of the world”, it would be ethical and necessary to 1) state this fact openly and 2) do something about it.

Much has been written on this blog and elsewhere about the risks of spinal manipulation. It relates almost exclusively to the risks of manipulating patients’ necks. There is far less on the safety of thrust joint manipulation (TJM) when applied to the thoracic spine. A new paper focusses on this specific topic.

The purpose of this review was to retrospectively analyse documented case reports in the literature describing patients who had experienced severe adverse events (AE) after receiving TJM to their thoracic spine.

Case reports published in peer reviewed journals were searched in Medline (using Ovid Technologies, Inc.), Science Direct, Web of Science, PEDro (Physiotherapy Evidence Database), Index of Chiropractic literature, AMED (Allied and Alternative Medicine Database), PubMed and the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health (CINHAL) from January 1950 to February 2015.

Case reports were included if they: (1) were peer-reviewed; (2) were published between 1950 and 2015; (3) provided case reports or case series; and (4) had TJM as an intervention. The authors only looked at serious complications, not at the much more frequent transient AEs after spinal manipulations. Articles were excluded if: (1) the AE occurred without TJM (e.g. spontaneous); (2) the article was a systematic or literature review; or (3) it was written in a language other than English or Spanish. Data extracted from each case report included: gender; age; who performed the TJM and why; presence of contraindications; the number of manipulation interventions performed; initial symptoms experienced after the TJM; as well as type of severe AE that resulted.

Ten cases, reported in 7 articles, were reviewed. Cases involved females (8) more than males (2), with mean age being 43.5 years. The most frequent AE reported was injury (mechanical or vascular) to the spinal cord (7/10); pneumothorax and hematothorax (2/10) and CSF leak secondary to dural sleeve injury (1/10) were also reported.

The authors point out that there were only a small number of case reports published in the literature and there may have been discrepancies between what was reported and what actually occurred, since physicians dealing with the effects of the AE, rather than the clinician performing the TJM, published the cases.

The authors concluded that serious AE do occur in the thoracic spine, most commonly, trauma to the spinal cord, followed by pneumothorax. This suggests that excessive peak forces may have been applied to thoracic spine, and it should serve as a cautionary note for clinicians to decrease these peak forces.

These are odd conclusions, in my view, and I think I ought to add a few points:

  • As I stated above, the actual rate of experiencing AEs after having chiropractic spinal manipulations is much larger; it is around 50%.
  • Most complications on record occur with chiropractors, while other professions are far less frequently implicated.
  • The authors’ statement about ‘excessive peak force’ is purely speculative and is therefore not a legitimate conclusion.
  • As the authors mention, it is  hardly ever the chiropractor who reports a serious complication when it occurs.
  • In fact, there is no functioning reporting scheme where the public might inform themselves about such complications.
  • Therefore their true rate is anyone’s guess.
  • As there is no good evidence that thoracic spinal manipulations are effective for any condition, the risk/benefit balance for this intervention fails to be positive.
  • Many consumers believe that a chiropractor will only manipulate in the region where they feel pain; this is not necessarily true – they will manipulate where they believe to diagnose ‘SUBLUXATIONS’, and that can be anywhere.
  • Finally, I would not call a review that excludes all languages other than English and Spanish ‘systematic’.

And my conclusion from all this? THORACIC SPINAL MANIPULATIONS CAN CAUSE CONSIDERABLE HARM AND SHOULD BE AVOIDED.

Proponents of alternative medicine regularly stress the notion that their treatments are either risk-free or much safer than conventional medicine. This assumption may be excellent for marketing bogus treatments, however, it neglects that even a relatively harmless therapy can become dangerous, if it is ineffective. Here is yet again a tragic reminder of this undeniable fact.

Japanese doctors reported the case of 2-year-old girl who died of precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common cancer in children.

She had no remarkable medical history. She was transferred to a hospital because of respiratory distress and died 4 hours after arrival. Two weeks before her death, she had developed a fever of 39 degrees C, which subsided after the administration of a naturopathic herbal remedy. One week before death, she developed jaundice, and her condition worsened on the day of death.

Laboratory test results on admission to hospital showed a markedly elevated white blood cell count. Accordingly, the cause of death was suspected to be acute leukaemia. Forensic autopsy revealed the cause of death to be precursor B-cell ALL.

With the current advancements in medical technology, the 5-year survival rate of children with ALL is nearly 90%. However, in this case, the child’s parents had opted for naturopathy instead of evidence-based medicine. They had not taken her to a hospital for a medical check-up or immunisation since she was an infant. If the child had received routine medical care, she would have a more than 60% chance of being alive 5 years after diagnosis of ALL.

The authors of this case-report concluded that the parents should be accused of medical neglect regardless of their motives.

Such cases are tragic and infuriating in equal measure. There is no way of knowing how often this sort of thing happens; we rely entirely on anecdotes because systematic research is hardly feasible.

While anecdotes of this nature have their obvious limitations, they are nevertheless important. They can serve as poignant reminders that alternative remedies might be relatively harmless, but this does not necessarily apply to all alternative practitioners. Moreover, they should make us redouble our efforts to inform the public responsibly about the all too often trivialized risks of alternative medicine.

If you ask a chiropractor, you will probably be told that chiropractic spinal manipulation is a safe treatment. Unfortunately this is not quite true, as regular readers of this blog will appreciate. About half of all patients suffer mild to moderate adverse effects after chiropractic treatments and, in addition, many instances of much more serious complications have been documented, including rare cases of Horner syndrome. It results from an interruption of the sympathetic nerve supply to the eye and is characterized by the classic triad of miosis (ie, constricted pupil), partial ptosis, and loss of hemifacial sweating (ie, anhidrosis).

Danish neurologists recently reported the case of a 60-year-old man with no relevant medical history who was admitted to the Department of Neurology with drooping of his right upper eyelid and an ipsilateral contracted pupil, combined with pain, weakness, and numbness in his upper right limb.

The patient had experienced thoracic back pain of moderate intensity with radiating right-sided belt-like chest pain for 7 days. When the discomfort suddenly intensified, he sought chiropractic treatment. Following manipulations of the thoracic and cervical spine, the pain intensity initially lessened. Approximately one hour after chiropractic treatment, the patient experienced the eye and upper limb symptoms described above, for which he sought medical assistance three days later.

A detailed neurologic examination revealed moderate right-sided ptosis and miosis, no facial anhidrosis, decreased strength of the intrinsic and opponens muscles of the right hand, and reduced cutaneous sensation corresponding to the T1 dermatome, with inability to discriminate pain and light touch. The remaining clinical examination, routine blood tests, and vital parameters were unremarkable.

Brain CT scan and CT angiography including the aortic arch and neck vessels were performed and ruled out cerebral stroke and carotid artery dissection, respectively. As clinical signs of Horner syndrome and a concomitant radiating pain to the medial arm were considered suggestive of either a lower brachial plexopathy, i.e., due to a Pancoast tumor, or a radiculopathy, chest X-ray and electroneurography (ENG) were performed. No apical pulmonary pathology was detected. ENG of the right medial cutaneous antebrachial nerve demonstrated a normal sensory action potential (SAP), consistent with the lesion being located proximally to the dorsal spinal root ganglion, thus suggestive of a spinal nerve root lesion. A subsequent MRI of the thoracic spine showed a para-median herniation of the T1-T2 intervertebral disc compressing the right T1 spinal nerve root.

The patient received no surgery, and follow-up examination 6 months later revealed near-complete recovery, with only mild paraesthesia in the T1 segment of his right arm and a subtle ptosis remaining.

Horner syndrome due to a herniated thoracic disc has only been reported 6 times in the English language literature, though never preceded by chiropractic manipulation.

One of the most frequent causes of Horner syndrome is carotid artery dissection, which may occur spontaneously or due to local trauma to the neck region. Chiropractic manipulation as an independent risk factor for neck artery dissection and a consequent stroke is a controversial topic, though multiple cases of Horner syndrome due to ICA dissections subsequent to chiropractic manipulation have been reported. In the patient described here, an ICA dissection was considered unlikely due to the concomitant prominent radiating medial brachialgia and was furthermore ruled out by a CT angiogram of the neck vessels.

This patient experienced the onset of a Horner syndrome and ipsilateral upper limb symptoms shortly after chiropractic treatment, suggesting the cervico-thoracic manipulation as the cause of or at least worsening factor in the T1-T2 disc herniation. Several cases of disc herniations following chiropractic treatment have been reported.

While the definite pathophysiologic mechanism to explain this patient’s Horner syndrome remains unclear, it seems, according to the authors of this case-report, evident that manipulations as a minimum altered the configuration of an already existing disc protrusion.

I have repeatedly stressed that herbal remedies can cause harm in a range of ways. Indian rheumatologists recently enforced this point by publishing a case-report of adrenal suppression caused by herbal remedies.

A 49-year-old male presented with polyarthritis from which he had suffered for more than 10 years. His serum cortisol levels were extremely low, he had vitamin D deficiency, and his rheumatoid factor was negative. He revealed symptoms of adrenal suppression, mainly muscle weakness and suicidal tendency, and few other psychiatric disturbances.

The patient eventually discontinued his herbal medicine. Then, he was put on deflazacort for 12 weeks at 12 mg twice daily and later the dose was tapered to 6 mg/day. Deflazocort, an intermediate-acting corticosteroid, was prescribed to minimize the probable withdrawal symptoms due to the probable presence of dexamethasone or betamethasone (long-acting steroids) presumably from the herbal medication.

The herbal samples of used by the patient was analysed by mass spectrometry. It showed the presence of steroidal compounds by the mass 393.81, which may be dexamethasone or betamethasone.

The authors of this paper believe that the symptoms of adrenal suppression could have precipitated or exacerbated the neuropsychiatric disturbances due to Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) suppression. In their view, adrenal suppression following ingestion of herbal remedies is of major concern. Abrupt withdrawal of such products could precipitate adrenal failure which can be fatal.

It should be added, I think, that such illegal adulterations of herbal remedies have been reported with some regularity, particularly in Indian (and Chinese) preparations. Our systematic review showed that this problem has caused serious harm. The most severe documented adverse effects include agranulocytosis, meningitis, multi-organ failure, perinatal stroke, arsenic, lead or mercury poisoning, malignancies or carcinomas, hepatic encephalopathy, hepatorenal syndrome, nephrotoxicity, rhabdomyolysis, metabolic acidosis, renal or liver failure, cerebral edema, coma, intracerebral haemorrhage, and death.

As under-reporting can be suspected to be huge, we do currently not know how frequent these events are.

There are things that cannot be said too often. In medicine, these are often related to issues that can save lives. In alternative medicine, it is worth remembering that there is nothing that can save more lives than the following rule: EVEN AN APPARENTLY HARMLESS REMEDY WILL BECOME LIFE-THREATENING, IF IT IS USED AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO AN EFFECTIVE THERAPY FOR A SERIOUS CONDITION.

Here is a publication that serves as a very sad reminder of this important axiom.

Japanese physicians recently published a case-report of 2-year-old girl who died of precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common cancer in children. She had no remarkable medical history. She was transferred to a hospital because of respiratory distress and died 4 hours after arrival.

Two weeks before her death, she had developed a fever of 39°C, which subsided after the administration of a naturopathic herbal remedy. Subsequently, she developed jaundice one week before death, and her condition worsened on the day of death.

Laboratory test results on admission showed a markedly elevated white blood cell count. Accordingly, the cause of death was suspected to be acute leukaemia. Forensic autopsy revealed the cause of death to be precursor B-cell ALL.

With advancements in medical technology, the 5-year survival rate of children with ALL is nearly 90%. However, in this case, the deceased’s parents preferred alternative medicine to evidence-based medicine and had not taken her to a hospital for a medical check-up or immunisation since she was an infant. The authors state that, if she had received routine medical care, she would have a more than 60% chance of being alive 5 years after diagnosis. Therefore, we conclude that the parents should be accused of medical neglect regardless of their motives.

Alternative practitioners who treat their patients in this way, are in my experience often full of good intentions. They remind me of something Bert Brecht one wrote: THE OPPOSITE OF GOOD IS NOT EVIL, IT IS GOOD INTENTIONS.

A few years ago, I fell ill with shingles. When patients had consulted me for this condition, during the times when I still was a clinician, I always had to stop myself smiling; they complained bitterly but, really, this was far from serious. Now, affected myself, I did not smile a bit: this was incredibly painful!

I promptly saw my GP in Exeter who, to my utter amazement, prescribed paracetamol. She too seemed to think that this was really nothing to bother her with. As I had feared, the paracetamol did absolutely nothing to my pain. After a few sleepless nights, I went back and asked for something a little more effective. She refused, and I decided to change GP.

Meanwhile, we went on a scheduled holiday to France. I had hoped my shingles would come to a natural end, but my pain continued unabated. People could see it on my face; so our kind neighbour asked whether she could help. I explained the situation, and she instantly claimed to have just the right treatment for me: she knew a healer who lived just round the corner and had helped many of her friends when they had suffered from pain.

“A healer?” I asked, “you cannot be serious.” I explained that I had conducted studies and done other research into this particular subject. Without exception, the results had shown that healing is a pure placebo. “I prefer to carry on taking even something as useless as paracetamol!” I insisted.

But she would have none of it. The next time I saw her, she declared triumphantly that she had made an appointment for me, and there was no question: I had to go.

As it happened, the day before she announced this, I had met up with a doctor friend of mine who, seeing I was in agony, gave me a prescription for gabapentin. In fact, I was just on the way to the pharmacist to pick it up. Thus I was in hopeful that my ordeal was coming to an end. In this optimistic mood I thanked my neighbour for her effort and concern and said something non-committal like “we shall see”.

A few days later, we met again. By this time, the gabapentin had done it’s trick: a was more or less pain-free, albeit a little dazed from the powerful medication. When my neighbour saw me, she exclaimed: “I see that that you are much improved. Wonderful! Yesterday’s healing session has worked!!!”

In my daze, I had forgotten all about the healing, and I had, of course, not been to see the healer. She was so delighted with her coup, that I did not have the heart to tell her the truth. I only said “yes much better, merci”

These events happened a few years ago, but even today, my kind and slightly alternative neighbour believes that, despite having been highly sceptical, healing has cured me of my shingles. To my embarrassment, she occasionally mentions my ‘miraculous cure’.

One day, I must tell her the truth… on second thoughts, perhaps not, she might claim it was distant healing!

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