MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

chiropractic

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In the realm of alternative medicine, we encounter many therapeutic claims that beggar belief. This is true for most modalities but perhaps for none more than chiropractic. Many chiropractors still adhere to Palmer’s gospel of the ‘inate’, ‘subluxation’ etc. and thus they believe that their ‘adjustments’ are a cure all. Readers of this blog will know all that, of course, but even they might be surprised by the notion that a chiropractic adjustment improves the voice of a choir singer.

This, however, is precisely the ‘hypothesis’ that was recently submitted to an RCT. To be precise, the study investigated the effect of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) on the singing voice of male individuals.

Twenty-nine subjects were selected among male members of a local choir. Participants were randomly assigned to two groups: (A) a single session of chiropractic SMT and (B) a single session of non-therapeutic transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Recordings of the singing voice of each participant were taken immediately before and after the procedures. After a 14-day wash-out period, procedures were switched between groups: participants who underwent SMT on the first occasion were now subjected to TENS and vice versa. Recordings were assessed via perceptual audio and acoustic evaluations. The same recording segment of each participant was selected. Perceptual audio evaluation was performed by a specialist panel (SP). Recordings of each participant were randomly presented thus making the SP blind to intervention type and recording session (before/after intervention). Recordings compiled in a randomized order were also subjected to acoustic evaluation.

No differences in the quality of the singing on perceptual audio evaluation were observed between TENS and SMT.

The authors concluded that no differences in the quality of the singing voice of asymptomatic male singers were observed on perceptual audio evaluation or acoustic evaluation after a single spinal manipulative intervention of the thoracic and cervical spine.

Laughable? Yes!

There is nevertheless an important point to be made here, I feel: some claims are just too silly to waste resources on. Or, to put it in more scientific terms, hypotheses require much more than a vague notion or hunch.

To set up, conduct and eventually publish an RCT as above requires expertise, commitment, time and money. All of this is entirely wasted, if the prior probability of a relevant result approaches zero. In the realm of alternative medicine, this is depressingly often the case. In the final analysis, this suggests that all too often research in this area achieves nothing other than giving science a bad name.

‘Doctor’ Don Harte is former medical student who prematurely left medical school and currently works as a chiropractor in California. He, has served on the Boards of the World Chiropractic Association and the Council on Chiropractic Practice. He has published extensively; on his website, he offers a list of his articles:

His website also reveals that Harte views chiropractic as a ‘cure all’ and believes that the “Vertebral Subluxation Complex (VSC) is THE most serious threat to your health and well-being.”

Harte is not impressed with conventional medicine: “Virtually everyone has lost loved ones to medical mistakes and indifference. I, myself, count my father, my favorite uncle and two cousins amongst this unnecessary medical death toll. Though people concoct all kinds of charges against Chiropractic, nobody knows of any deaths from Chiropractic, because there just aren’t any. You might want to read the article that I wrote on this subject in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Where is the Danger in Chiropractic.”

In particular, Harte is no friend of immunisation. Here are some of the things he has been quoted as saying recently about the subject:

  • He charged the media with “an evil bigotry” in relation to vaccination.
  • He said that “The mass media refuses to acknowledge the existence of vaccine-injured children. This is quite a trick, since we are talking millions of children.”
  • He explained that “their whole con game relies on fear, trying to convince you that you and your children have nothing inside to protect them from all those evil germs. That you need their HOLY WATER, the vaccines, or you will die.” Once again, Harte charged the California Governor and the legislature “as Destroyers of the family, as Enemies of liberty, as CHEMICAL CHILD MOLESTERS.”
  • He claimed that “His (Mr J Coleman’s) son, Otto, who was paralyzed by a vaccine reaction, was there, in his wheelchair; as were other vaccine-damaged children. Some participants held up photos of their children who had died from vaccines.” And he said, “There were no photos of these children, nor any mention of them in news accounts. Establishment media refuses to put a human face on the suffering caused by vaccinations. I don’t know whether to call them ‘chicken’ or ‘evil.’”
  • Harte also stated that “The claim that non-vaccinated children are a threat to Rhett has ZERO scientific basis. First of all, less-vaccinated and non-vaccinated kids tend to be healthier. And more specifically, children recently vaccinated with live virus vaccines will shed viruses, and thus, be contagious, for up to 28 days.”
  • “Here we have a case,” explained Harte, “of one boy held up as a potential victim of unvaccinated or less-vaccinated children, who has had, in reality, no harm done by those children. The millions of children who have endured great harm, up to and including paralysis and death, are ignored. This is not science, nor is it reputable news reporting nor reputable public policy. It is naked propaganda, paid for by Big Pharma.”

It seems that Harte is an altogether dangerous person.

Of course, chiropractors will (yet again) claim that Harte does in no way stand for chiropractic as a whole and that chiropractors are just as appalled by such dangerous anti-vaccination propaganda as we are. They will say he is just ‘a rotten apple’ within a mostly laudable profession.

But is that true? What have the professional bodies of chiropractic done against him and his hazardous views? Have they excluded or reprimanded him, or requested that he seeks treatment for what seems to be rampant paranoia?

The answer, I am afraid, is NO! What they did do instead was to name him, in 2006, as “Chiropractor of the Year” – an honour bestowed on him by the World Chiropractic Alliance.

Chiropractors are back pain specialists, they say. They do not pretend to treat non-spinal conditions, they claim.

If such notions were true, why are so many of them still misleading the public? Why do many chiropractors pretend to be primary care physicians who can take care of most illnesses regardless of any connection with the spine? Why do they continue to happily promote bogus treatments? Why do chiropractors, for instance, claim they can treat gastrointestinal diseases?

This recent narrative review of the literature, for example, was aimed at summarising studies describing the management of disorders of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract using ‘chiropractic therapy’ broadly defined here as spinal manipulation therapy, mobilizations, soft tissue therapy, modalities and stretches.

Twenty-one articles were found through searching the published literature to meet the authors’ inclusion criteria. The retrieved articles included case reports to clinical trials to review articles. The majority of articles chronicling patient experiences under chiropractic care reported that they experienced mild to moderate improvements in GI symptoms. No adverse effects were reported.

From this, the authors concluded that chiropractic care can be considered as an adjunctive therapy for patients with various GI conditions providing there are no co-morbidities.

I think, we would need to look for a long time to find an article with conclusions that are more ridiculous, false and unethical than these.

The old adage applies: rubbish in, rubbish out. If we include unreliable reports such as anecdotes, our finding will be unreliable as well. If we do not make this mistake and conduct a proper systematic review, we will arrive at very different conclusions. My own systematic review, for instance, of controlled clinical trials drew the following conclusion: There is no supportive evidence that chiropractic is an effective treatment for gastrointestinal disorders.

That probably says it all. I only want to add a short question: SHOULD THIS LATEST CHIROPRACTIC ATTEMPT TO MISLEAD THE PUBLIC BE CONSIDERED ‘SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT’ OR ‘FRAUD’?

I will state my position up front: THERE IS NO CHILDHOOD CONDITION FOR WHICH CHIROPRACTIC SPINAL MANIPULATION GENERATES MORE GOOD THAN HARM. What is more, I have published evidence (published herehere, here, and here, for instance) to support this statement. If you disagree with it, this is the place and time to do so – and please don’t forget to cite the evidence that supports your statements.

Given that there is very little reliable evidence in this area, I find it surprising that so many chiropractors continue to treat kids. Not true! I hear some chiropractors shout, we do not often treat children. Who is correct? Clearly, we need data to answer this question.

The objective of a new paper was to investigate characteristics of clinical chiropractic practice, including the age of pediatric patients, the number of reports of negative side effects (NSEs), the opinions of doctors of chiropractic on treatment options by patient age groups, the conditions seen and the number of treatment sessions delivered by conditions and by patient age.

An Internet cross-sectional survey was conducted in 20 European countries with 4109 chiropractors invited to reply. The 19 national associations belonging to the European Chiropractic Union and the Danish Chiropractic Association were asked to participate. Respondents were asked to self-report characteristics of their practices.

Of the 956 (23.3%) participating chiropractors, 921 reported 19821 pediatric patients per month. Children represented 8.1% of chiropractors’ total patient load over the last year. A total of 557 (534 mild, 23 moderate, and 0 severe) negative (adverse) side effects were reported for an estimated incidence of 0.23%. On the given treatment statements, chiropractors reported varying agreement and disagreement rates based on patient age. The 8309 answers on conditions were grouped into skeletal (57.0%), neurologic (23.7%), gastrointestinal (12.4%), infection (3.5%), genitourinary (1.5%), immune (1.4%), and miscellaneous conditions (0.5%). The number of treatment sessions delivered varied according to the condition and the patient age.

The authors of this survey concluded that this study showed that European chiropractors are active in the care of pediatric patients. Reported conditions were mainly skeletal and neurologic complaints. In this survey, no severe NSEs were reported, and mild NSEs were infrequent.

In my view, a more appropriate conclusion might be that MANY EUROPEAN CHIROPRACTORS ARE ACTIVE IN QUACKERY.

Osteopathy is a difficult subject. In the US, osteopaths are (almost) identical with doctors who have studied conventional medicine and hardly practice any manipulative techniques at all. Elsewhere, osteopaths are alternative healthcare providers specialising in what they like to call ‘osteopathic manipulative therapy’ (OMT). As though this is not confusing enough, osteopaths are doing similar things as chiropractors but are adamant that they are a distinct profession. Despite these assertions, I have seen little to clearly differentiate the two – with one exception perhaps: osteopaths tend to use techniques that are less frequently associated with severe harm.

Despite this confusion, or maybe because of it, we need to ask: DOES OMT WORK?

A recent study was aimed at assessing the effectiveness of OMT on chronic migraineurs using HIT-6 questionnaire, drug consumption, days of migraine, pain intensity and functional disability. All patients admitted to the Department of Neurology of Ancona’s United Hospitals, Italy, with a diagnosis of migraine and without chronic illness, were considered eligible for this 3-armed RCT.

Patients were randomly divided into three (1) OMT+medication therapy, (2) sham+medication therapy and (3) medication therapy only and received 8 treatments during 6 months. Changes in the HIT-6 score were considered as the main outcome measure.

A total of 105 subjects were included. At the end of the study, OMT significantly reduced HIT-6 score, drug consumption, days of migraine, pain intensity and functional disability.

The investigators concluded that these findings suggest that OMT may be considered a valid procedure for the management of migraineurs.

Similar results have been reported elsewhere:

One trial, for instance, concluded: “This study affirms the effects of OMT on migraine headache in regard to decreased pain intensity and the reduction of number of days with migraine as well as working disability, and partly on improvement of HRQoL. Future studies with a larger sample size should reproduce the results with a control group receiving placebo treatment in a long-term follow-up.”

Convinced? No, I am not.

Why? Because the studies that do exist seem a little too good to be true; because they are few and far between, because the few studies tend to be flimsy and have been published in dodgy journals, because they lack independent replications, and because critical reviews seem to conclude that OMT is nowhere near as promising as some osteopaths would like us to believe: “Further studies of improved quality are necessary to more firmly establish the place of physical modalities in the treatment of primary headache disorders. With the exception of high velocity chiropractic manipulation of the neck, the treatments are unlikely to be physically dangerous, although the financial costs and lost treatment opportunity by prescribing potentially ineffective treatment may not be insignificant. In the absence of clear evidence regarding their role in treatment, physicians and patients are advised to make cautious and individualized judgments about the utility of physical treatments for headache management; in most cases, the use of these modalities should complement rather than supplant better-validated forms of therapy.”

Many chiropractors try to tell us that vaccinations are not necessary, if we receive regular spinal adjustments. This claim is based on the assumption that spinal manipulations stimulate the immune system. Take the text published on this website, for instance:

The nervous system and immune system are hardwired and work together to create optimal responses for the body to adapt and heal appropriately. Neural dysfunctions due to spinal misalignments are stressful to the body and cause abnormal changes that lead to a poorly coordinated immune response. Chiropractic adjustments have been shown to boost the coordinated responses of the nervous system and immune system…

Subluxation is the term for misalignments of the spine that cause compression and irritation of nerve pathways affecting organ systems of the body. Subluxations are an example of physical nerve stress that affects neuronal control. According to researchers, such stressful conditions lead to altered measures of immune function & increased susceptibility to a variety of diseases.

Inflammatory based disease is influenced by both the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Nerve stimulation directly affects the growth and function of inflammatory cells. Researchers found that dysfunction in this pathway results in the development of various inflammatory syndromes such as rheumatoid arthritis and behavioral syndromes such as depression. Additionally, this dysfunctional neuro-endo-immune response plays a significant role in immune-compromised conditions such as chronic infections and cancer.

Wellness based chiropractors analyze the spine for subluxations and give corrective adjustments to reduce the stress on the nervous system. A 1992 research group found that when a thoracic adjustment was applied to a subluxated area the white blood cell (neutrophil) count collected rose significantly.

Other websites go even further:

The best way to prevent meningitis, and other illness, is to develop a robust immune system. The most important element in developing a robust immune system is optimum communication between all systems of the body. Chiropractic does this. The goal of chiropractic is to remove interference in the nervous system, the system that controls and coordinates all other parts of the body. Interference is caused by subluxations or misalignments in the spine. When subluxations are corrected, the body’s nervous system functions optimally and boosts the immune functioning. In fact, individuals who receive chiropractic care have 200% greater immune competence than individuals who don’t. This is why it is vital to receive regular chiropractic adjustments…

If we look at the actual research that might support such strange claims, we find that that it is scarce, flimsy and unconvincing. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has yet shown that people who receive regular chiropractic care are protected from conditions mediated via the immune system. Unless such a phenomenon can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, we should be highly sceptical of the claim that chiropractic care stimulates the immune system and thus generates better health. In my view, regular chiropractic adjustments stimulate only one thing: the cash flow of the therapist.

My conclusion: The claim that chiropractic adjustments have such profound effects on human health is highly irresponsible.

I just came across a website that promised to”cover 5 common misconceptions about alternative medicine that many people have”. As much of this blog is about this very issue, I was fascinated. Here are Dr Cohen’s 5 points in full:

5 Misconceptions about Alternative Medicine Today

1. Alternative Medicine Is Only an Alternative

In fact, many alternative practitioners are also medical doctors, chiropractors, or other trained medical professionals. Others work closely with MDs to coordinate care. Patients should always let all of their health care providers know about treatments that they receive from all the others.

2. Holistic Medicine Isn’t Mainstream

In fact, scientists and doctors do perform studies on all sorts of alternative therapies to determine their effectiveness. These therapies, like acupuncture and an improved diet, pass the test of science and then get integrated into standard medical practices.

3. Natural Doctors Don’t Use Conventional Medicine

No credible natural doctor will ever tell a patient to replace prescribed medication without consulting with his or her original doctor. In many cases, the MD and natural practitioner are the same person. If not, they will coordinate treatment to benefit the health of the patient.

4. Alternative Medicine Doesn’t Work

Actual licensed health providers won’t just suggest natural therapies on a whim. They will consider scientific studies and their own experience to suggest therapies that do work. Countless studies have, for example, confirmed that acupuncture is an effective treatment for many medical conditions. Also, the right dietary changes are known to help improve health and even minimize or cure some diseases. Numerous other alternative therapies have been proven effective using scientific studies.

5. Big Medical Institutions are Against Alternative Medicine

According to a recent survey, about half of big insurers pay for tested alternative therapies like acupuncture. Also, hospitals and doctors do recognize that lifestyle changes, some herbal remedies, and other kinds of alternative medicine may reduce side effects, allow patients to reduce prescription medicine, and even lower medical bills.

This is not to say that every insurer, doctor, or hospital will support a particular treatment. However, patients are beginning to take more control of their health care. If their own providers won’t suggest natural remedies, it might be a good idea to find one who does.

The Best Medicine Combines Conventional and Alternative Medicine

Everyone needs to find the right health care providers to enjoy the safest and most natural care possible. Good natural health providers will have a solid education in their field. Nobody should just abandon their medical treatment to pursue alternative cures. However, seeking alternative therapies may help many people reduce their reliance on harsh medications by following the advice of alternative providers and coordinating their care with all of their health care providers.

END OF COHEN’S TEXT

COMMENT BY MYSELF

Who the Dickens is Dr Cohen and what is his background? I asked myself after reading this. From his website, it seems that he is a chiropractor from North Carolina – not just any old chiro, but one of the best!!! – who also uses several other dubious therapies. He sums up his ‘philosophy’ as follows:

There is an energy or life force that created us (all 70 trillion cells that we are made of) from two cells (sperm and egg cells). This energy or innate intelligence continues to support you throughout life and allows you to grow, develop, heal, and express your every potential. This life force coordinates all cells, tissues, muscles and organs by sending specific, moment by moment communication via the nervous system. If the nervous system is over-stressed or interfered with in any way, then your life force messages will not be properly expressed.

Here he is on the cover of some magazine and here is also his ‘PAIN CLINIC’

naturopathic-doctor-greenville-nc

Fascinating stuff, I am sure you agree.

As I do not want to risk a libel case, I will abstain from commenting on Dr Cohen and his methods or beliefs. Instead I will try to clear up a few misconceptions that are pertinent to him and the many other practitioners who are promoting pure BS via the Internet.

  • Not everyone who uses the title ‘Dr’ is a doctor in the sense of having studied medicine.
  • Chiropractors are not ‘trained medical professionals’.
  • The concepts of ‘vitalism’, ‘life force’ etc. have been abandoned in real heath care a long time ago, and medicine has improved hugely because of this.
  • Hardly any alternative therapy has ‘passed the test of science’.
  • Therefore, it is very doubtful whether alternative practitioners actually will ‘consider scientific studies’.
  • True, some trials did suggest that acupuncture is an effective treatment for many medical conditions; but their methodological quality is often far too low to draw firm conclusions and many other, often better studies have shown the contrary.
  • Numerous other alternative therapies have been proven ineffective using scientific studies.
  • Therefore it might be a good idea to find a health care provider who does not offer unproven treatments simply to make a fast buck.
  • Seeking alternative therapies may harm many people.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. The meaning of this proverb is fairly clear:

  • In the Oxford Dictionary the proverb has been defined as– when the need for something becomes imperative, you are forced to find ways of getting or achieving it.
  • According to the Cambridge Dictionary, this is “an expression that means that if you really need to do something, you will think of a way of doing it.”
  • Finally, the Longman dictionary has defined the proverb as– “if someone really needs to do something, they will find a way of doing it.”

In the world of chiropractic the proverb acquires a special meaning: chiropractic relies almost entirely on inventions. A few examples have to suffice:

  • first, instead of pathophysiology, they invented subluxations,
  • this required the invention of adjustments which were needed for their imagined subluxation,
  • then they invented the ‘inate’,
  • then they invented the idea that all sorts of conditions are caused by subluxations and therefore require adjustments,
  • finally, they invented the notion that regular adjustments are needed for a healthy person to stay healthy.

I was reminded of the unique inventive capacity of chiropractic when I came across the website of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP). The F4CP is, according to their own statements, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the value of chiropractic care (which is, of course, another invention).

Experts at the F4CP point out that a growing number of professional athletic teams utilize chiropractic care to maximize overall health and maintain peak performance. “Repetitive motion injuries, including shoulder tendinitis, elbow, lower back pain and muscle spasms, are common conditions and injuries among professional baseball players that can be successfully prevented, managed and treated with chiropractic care,” says Hirad N. Bagy, DC. “Chiropractic adjustments, in conjunction with soft tissue mobilization, provide athletes with proper structure, function and balance to reduce the risk of injury, accelerate recovery time and improve overall performance,” he continues – and he must know, because he has received specialized training and certifications specific to sports medicine, which include the Graston Technique®, Active Release Technique®, Myofascial Release Technique, Impact Concussion Testing and Functional Dry Needling. Dr. Bagy continues: “A number of athletes that I treat regularly understand the importance of chiropractic maintenance care, and also seek treatment when an injury arises. Through the restoration of proper bio-mechanics, doctors of chiropractic are now positioned as key health care providers throughout all of the sports teams that I work with.”

BRAVO! We are impressed! So much so, that we almost forgot to ask: “Is there any evidence for all of these therapeutic claims?”

Just as well! Because had we asked and perhaps even did a bit of research, we would have found that almost none of these far-reaching claims are evidence-based.

But who would be so petty? Instead of criticising the incessant flow of bogus claims made by chiropractors worldwide, we should really admire their remarkable skill of invention:

  • When the need for profit becomes imperative, CHIROPRACTORS are forced to find ways of getting or achieving it.
  • If CHIROPRACTORS really need to do something, they will think of a way of doing it.
  • If a CHIROPRACTOR really needs money, he will advocate ‘maintenance care’.

AND THAT’S WHAT IS CALLED ‘CHIROPRACTIC PROGRESS’!

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.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the impact of early and guideline adherent physical therapy for low back pain on utilization and costs within the Military Health System (MHS).

Patients presenting to a primary care setting with a new complaint of LBP from January 1, 2007 to December 31, 2009 were identified from the MHS Management Analysis and Reporting Tool. Descriptive statistics, utilization, and costs were examined on the basis of timing of referral to physical therapy and adherence to practice guidelines over a 2-year period. Utilization outcomes (advanced imaging, lumbar injections or surgery, and opioid use) were compared using adjusted odds ratios with 99% confidence intervals. Total LBP-related health care costs over the 2-year follow-up were compared using linear regression models.

753,450 eligible patients with a primary care visit for LBP between 18-60 years of age were considered. Physical therapy was utilized by 16.3% (n = 122,723) of patients, with 24.0% (n = 17,175) of those receiving early physical therapy that was adherent to recommendations for active treatment. Early referral to guideline adherent physical therapy was associated with significantly lower utilization for all outcomes and 60% lower total LBP-related costs.

The authors concluded that the potential for cost savings in the MHS from early guideline adherent physical therapy may be substantial. These results also extend the findings from similar studies in civilian settings by demonstrating an association between early guideline adherent care and utilization and costs in a single payer health system. Future research is necessary to examine which patients with LBP benefit early physical therapy and determine strategies for providing early guideline adherent care.

These are certainly interesting data. Because LBP is such a common condition, it costs us all dearly. Measures to reduce this burden in suffering and expense are urgently needed. The question is whether early referral to a physiotherapist is such a measure. The present data show that this is possible but they do not prove it.

I applaud the authors for realising this point and discussing it at length: The results of this study should be examined in light of the following limitations. Given the favorable natural history of LBP, many patients improve regardless of treatment. Those referred to physical therapy early are also more likely to have a shorter duration of pain, thus the potential for selection bias to have influenced these results. We accounted for a number of co-morbidities available in the data set and excluded patients with prior visits for LBP to mitigate against this possibility. However, the retrospective observational design of this study imposes limitations on extending the associations we observed to causation. Although we attempted to exclude patients with a specific spinal pathology, it is possible that a few patients may have been inadvertently included in the data set, in which case advanced imaging may be indicated. Additionally, although our results support that early physical therapy which adheres to practice guidelines may be less resource intense, we cannot conclude without patient-centered clinical outcomes (i.e., pain, function, disability, satisfaction, etc.) that the care was more cost effective. Further, it may be that the standard we used to judge adherence to practice guidelines (CPT codes) was not sufficiently sensitive to determine whether care is consistent with clinical practice guidelines. We also did not account for indirect or out-of-pocket costs for treatments such as complementary care, which is common for LBP. However, it is likely that the observed effects on total costs would have been even larger had these costs been considered.

I was originally alerted to this paper through a tweet claiming that these results demonstrate that chiropractic has an important role in LBP. However, the study does not even imply such a conclusion. It is, of course, true that many chiropractors use physical therapies. But they do not have the same training as physiotherapists and they tend to use spinal manipulations far more frequently. Virtually every LBP-patient consulting a chiropractor would be treated with spinal manipulations. As this approach is neither based on sound evidence nor free of risks, the conclusion, in my view, cannot be to see chiropractors for LBP; it must be to consult a physiotherapist.

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