MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

chiropractic

Low back pain (LBP) is a ‘minor complaint’ in the sense that it does not cost patients’ lives. At the same time, LBP is amongst the leading causes of disability and one of the most common reasons for patients to seek primary care. Chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists and general practitioners are among those treating LBP patients, but there is only limited evidence regarding the effectiveness offered by these provider groups.

The aim of this systematic review was to estimate the clinical effectiveness and to systematically review economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to other commonly used approaches among adult patients with non-specific LBP.

A comprehensive search strategy was conducted to identify 1) pragmatic randomized clinical trials (RCTs) and/or 2) full economic evaluations of chiropractic care for low back pain compared to standard care delivered by other healthcare providers. Studies published between 1990 and 4th June 2015 were considered. The primary outcomes included pain, functional status and global improvement. Study selection, critical quality appraisal and data extraction were conducted by two independent reviewers. Data from RCTs with low risk of bias were included in a meta-analysis to determine estimates of effect sizes. Cost estimates of full economic evaluations were converted to 2015 USD and results summarized.

Six RCTs and three full economic evaluations were included. Five RCTs with low risk of bias compared chiropractic care to exercise therapy (n = 1), physical therapy (n = 3) and medical care (n = 1). The authors found similar effects for chiropractic care and the other types of care. Three low to high quality full economic evaluations studies (one cost-effectiveness, one cost-minimization and one cost-benefit) compared chiropractic to medical care. Highly divergent conclusions (favours chiropractic, favours medical care, equivalent options) were noted for economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to medical care.

The authors drew the following conclusions: moderate evidence suggests that chiropractic care for LBP appears to be equally effective as physical therapy. Limited evidence suggests the same conclusion when chiropractic care is compared to exercise therapy and medical care although no firm conclusion can be reached at this time. No serious adverse events were reported for any type of care. Our review was also unable to clarify whether chiropractic or medical care is more cost-effective. Given the limited available evidence, the decision to seek or to refer patients for chiropractic care should be based on patient preference and values. Future studies are likely to have an important impact on our estimates as these were based on only a few admissible studies.

This is a thorough and timely review. Its results are transparent and clear, however, its conclusions are, in my view, more than a little odd.

Let me try to re-formulate them such that they are better supported by the actual data: There is no good evidence to suggest that chiropractic care is better or worse that conventional therapeutic approaches currently used for LBP. The pooled sample size dimensions too small to allow any statements about the risks of the various approaches. The data are also too weak for any pronouncements on the relative cost-effectiveness of the various options. Given these limitations, the decision which approach to use should be based on a more comprehensive analysis of the therapeutic risks.

The point I am trying to make is quite simple:

  • The fact that RCTs fail to show adverse effects could be due to the small collective sample size and/or to the well-known phenomenon that, in well-controlled trials, adverse effects tend to be significantly rarer than in routine care.
  • Hundreds of serious adverse events have been reported after chiropractic spinal manipulations; to these we have to add the fact that ~50% of all chiropractic patients suffer from transient, mild to moderate adverse effects after spinal manipulations.
  • If we want to generate a realistic picture of the safety of a therapy, we need to include case-reports, case-series and other non-RCT evidence.
  • Conventional treatments of LBP may not be free of adverse effects, but some are relatively safe.
  • It seems reasonable, necessary and ethical to consider a realistic picture of the relative risks when deciding which therapy amongst equally (in)effective treatments might be best.

To me, all this seems almost painfully obvious, and I ask myself why the authors of this otherwise sound review failed to consider such thoughts. As one normally is obliged to, the authors included a section about the limitations of their review:

Our review has limitations. First, we did not search the grey literature for clinical effectiveness studies. McAuley et al. showed that the inclusion of results from the grey literature tend to decrease effectiveness estimates in meta-analyses because the unpublished studies tend to report smaller treatment effects. Second, critical appraisal requires scientific judgment that may vary among reviewers. This potential bias was minimized by training reviewers to use a standardized critical appraisal tool and using a consensus process among reviewers to reach decisions regarding scientific admissibility. Most of the original between-group differences and pooled estimates in our meta-analysis did not favour a specific provider group, and we believe it is unlikely that the inclusion of unpublished grey literature would change our conclusions. Third, the low number of clinical trials prevents us from conducting a meaningful investigation for publication bias. Fourth, the majority of the included clinical effectiveness studies (three out of five) and all three economic evaluations were conducted in the United States. Caution should therefore be used when generalizing our findings to other settings or jurisdictions. With respect to economic evaluations in particular, local healthcare systems and insurance plans may have a higher impact on cost than the type of healthcare provider.

Remarkably, this section does not mention their useless assessment of the risks with one word. Why? One answer might be found in the small-print of the paper:

The authors … have the following competing interests: MAB: Personal fees from Ordre des chiropraticiens du Québec for one teaching presentation, outside the submitted work. MJS: Position at the Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics is funded by the Danish Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication. RBDS: Nothing to disclose. JB: Nothing to disclose. PH: Nothing to disclose. AB: Position at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University is funded by the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication.

At first, I thought this survey would be yet another of those useless and boring articles that currently seem to litter the literature of alternative medicine. It’s abstract seemed to confirm my suspicion: “Fifty-two chiropractors in Victoria, Australia, provided information for up to 100 consecutive encounters. If patients attended more than once during the 100 encounters, only data from their first encounter were included in this study. Where possible patient characteristics were compared with the general Australian population…” But then I saw that the chiropractors were also asked to record their patients’ main complaints. That, I thought, was much more interesting, and I decided to do a post that focusses on this particular point.

The article informs us that 72 chiropractors agreed to participate (46 % response rate of eligible chiropractors approached). During the study, 20 (28 %) of these chiropractors withdrew and did not provide any data. Fifty two chiropractors (72 % of those enrolled) completed the study, providing information for 4464 chiropractor-patient encounters. Of these, 1123 (25 %) encounters were identified as repeat patient encounters during the recording period and were removed from further analyses, leaving 3287 unique patients.

The results that I want to focus on indicated that chiropractors give the following reasons for treating patients:

  • maintenance: 39%
  • spinal problems: 33%
  • neck problems: 18%
  • shoulder problems: 6%
  • headache: 6%
  • hip problems: 3%
  • leg problems: 3%
  • muscle problems: 3%
  • knee problems: 2%

(the percentage figures refer to the percentages of patients with the indicated problem)

Yes, I know, there is lots to be criticised about the methodology used for this survey. But let’s forget about this for the moment and focus on the list of reasons or indications which these chiropractors give for treating patients. For which of these is there enough evidence to justify this decision and the fees asked for the interventions? Here is my very quick run-down of the evidence:

  • maintenance: no good evidence.
  • spinal problems: if they mean back pain by this nebulous term, an optimist might grant that there is some promising but by no means conclusive evidence.
  • neck problems: again some promising but by no means conclusive evidence.
  • shoulder problems: no good evidence.
  • headache: again some promising but by no means conclusive evidence
  • hip problems: no good evidence.
  • leg problems: no good evidence.
  • muscle problems: no good evidence.
  • knee problems: no good evidence.

As I said, this is merely a very quick assessment. I imagine that many chiropractors will disagree with it – and I invite them to present their evidence in the comments section below. However, if I am correct (or at least not totally off the mark), this new survey seems to show that most of the things these chiropractors do is not supported by good evidence. One could be more blunt and phrase this differently:

  • these chiropractors are misleading their patients;
  • they are not behaving ethically;
  • they are not adhering to EBP.

Yes, we (I mean rationalists who know about EBM) did suspect this all along – but now we can back it up with quite nice data from a recent survey done by chiropractors themselves.

Since several years, there has been an increasingly vociferous movement within the chiropractic profession to obtain limited prescription rights, that is the right to prescribe drugs for musculoskeletal problems. A recent article by Canadian and Swiss chiropractors is an attempt to sum up the arguments for and against this notion. Here I have tried to distil the essence of the pros and contras into short sentences.

 1) Arguments in favour of prescription rights for chiropractors

1.1 Such privileges would be in line with current evidence-based practice. Currently, most international guidelines recommend, alongside prescription medication, a course of manual therapy and/or exercise as well as education and reassurance as part of a multi-modal approach to managing various spine-related and other MSK conditions.

1.2 Limited medication prescription privileges would be consistent with chiropractors’ general experience and practice behaviour. Many clinicians tend to recommend OTC medications to their patients in practice.

1.3 A more comprehensive treatment approach offered by chiropractors could potentially lead to a reduction in healthcare costs by providing additional specialized health care options for the treatment of MSK conditions. Namely, if patients consult one central practitioner who can effectively address and provide a range of treatment modalities for MSK pain-related matters, the number of visits to providers might be reduced, thereby resulting in better resource allocation.

1.4 Limited medication prescription rights could lead to improved cultural authority for chiropractors and better integration within the healthcare system.

1.5 With these privileges, chiropractors could have a positive influence on public health. For instance, analgesics and NSAIDs are widely used and potentially misused by the general public, and users are often unaware of the potential side effects that such medication may cause.

2) Arguments against prescription rights for chiropractors

2.1 Chiropractors and their governing bodies would start reaching out to politicians and third-party payers to promote the benefits of making such changes to the existing healthcare system.

2.2 Additional research may be needed to better understand the consequences of such changes and provide leverage for discussions with healthcare stakeholders.

2.3 Existing healthcare legislation needs to be amended in order to regulate medication prescription by chiropractors.

2.4 There is a need to focus on the curriculum of chiropractors. Inadequate knowledge and competence can result in harm to patients; therefore, appropriate and robust continuing education and training would be an absolute requirement.

2.5 Another important issue to consider relates to the divisiveness around this topic within the profession. In fact, some have argued that the right to prescribe medication in chiropractic practice is the profession’s most divisive issue. Some have argued that further incorporation of prescription rights into the chiropractic scope of practice will negatively impact the distinct professional brand and identity of chiropractic.

2.6 Such privileges would increase chiropractors’ professional responsibilities. For example, if given limited prescriptive authority, chiropractors would be required to recognize and monitor medication side effects in their patients.

2.7 Prior to medication prescription rights being incorporated into the chiropractic scope of practice worldwide, further discussions need to take place around the breadth of such privileges for the chiropractic profession.

In my view, some of these arguments are clearly spurious, particularly those in favour of prescription rights. Moreover, the list of arguments against this notion seems a little incomplete. Here are a few additional ones that came to my mind:

  • Patients might be put at risk by chiropractors who are less than competent in prescribing medicines.
  • More unnecessary NAISDs would be prescribed.
  • The vast majority of the drugs in question is already available OTC.
  • Healthcare costs would increase (just as plausible as the opposite argument made above, I think).
  • Prescribing rights would give more legitimacy to a profession that arguably does not deserve it.
  • Chiropractors would then continue their lobby work and soon demand the prescription rights to be extended to other classes of drugs.

I am sure there are plenty of further arguments both pro and contra – and I would be keen to hear them; so please post yours in the comments section below.

In alternative medicine, good evidence is like gold dust and good evidence showing that alternative therapies are efficacious is even rarer. Therefore, I was delighted to come across a brand-new article from an institution that should stand for reliable information: the NIH, no less.

According to its authors, this new article “examines the clinical trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques including meditation, selected natural product supplements (chondroitin, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane, S-adenosylmethionine), tai chi, and yoga—as used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and severe headaches or migraines.”

The results of this huge undertaking are complex, of course, but in a nutshell they are at least partly positive for alternative medicine. Specifically, the authors state that “based on a preponderance of positive trials vs negative trials, current evidence suggests that the following complementary approaches may help some patients manage their painful health conditions: acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for OA of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Weaker evidence suggests that massage therapy, SM, and osteopathic manipulation might also be of some benefit to those with back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help those with fibromyalgia.”

This is excellent news! Finally, we have data from an authoritative source showing that some alternative treatments can be recommended for common pain conditions.

Hold on, not so fast! Yes, the NIH is a most respectable organisation, but we must not blindly accept anything of importance just because it appears to come form a reputable source. Let’s look a bit closer at the actual evidence provided by the authors of this paper.

Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:

  • the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
  • the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
  • the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
  • the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
  • not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
  • the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
  • there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.

My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.

Personally, I find it lamentable that such a potentially worthy exercise ended up employing such lousy methodology. Perhaps even more lamentable is the fact that the NIH (or one of its Centers) can descend that low; to mislead the public in this way borders on scientific misconduct and is, in my view, unethical and unacceptable.

As has been discussed on this blog many times before, the chiropractic profession seems to be in a bit of a crisis (my attempt at a British understatement). The Australian chiropractor, Bruce Walker, thinks that, with the adoption of his ten point plan, “the chiropractic profession has an opportunity to turn things around within a generation. Importantly, it has an obligation to the public and to successive generations of chiropractors ahead of it. By embracing this plan the profession can be set on a new path, a new beginning and a new direction. This plan should be known as the new chiropractic.”

And now you are. of course, dying to hear this 10 point plan – well, here it is [heavily abbreviated, I am afraid (the footnotes [ ] and the comments referring to them are mine)]:

  1. There is a need to improve pre professional education for chiropractors.
    Universities or private colleges?
    Chiropractic education should where possible be conducted at universities [1] and this does not mean small single purpose institutions that are deemed universities in name only. Why is this recommended? Primarily because unlike some private colleges, government funded universities insist on intellectual evidence based rigour [2] in their learning and teaching and importantly require staff to be research active. Chiropractic courses need to have an underpinning pedagogy that insists that content [3] is taught in the context of the evidence [4] and that students obtain the necessary training to question and critically appraise [5]…
    Accreditation problems
    Underpinning chiropractic education is program accreditation and this is also in need of review particularly where vitalistic subluxation [6] based courses have been legitimised by the accreditation process…
    Hospital training
    Chiropractic education should also involve specifically relevant hospital access or work experience such as hospital rounds so that students can observe patients that are truly unwell and observe the signs and symptoms taught in their theory classes. Hospital rounds would also allow chiropractic students to interact with other health providers and increase the likelihood of legitimate partnership and respect between health professions [7].
    Who should teach chiropractic students?…
  2. There is a need to establish a progressive identity.
    Chiropractors need to become solely musculoskeletal practitioners with a special emphasis on spinal pain [8]. If the profession becomes the world’s experts in this area it will command the respect deserved [9]. Importantly it will not be seen as a collective of alternative medicine practitioners with a strange belief system [10]…
  3. The profession should develop a generalised special interest.
    …Chiropractic as a profession should also develop a special interest area in the health sciences that can make a worldwide contribution to other related health sciences. This could be either research based or clinically based or indeed both. Some possibilities are: the further development and refinement of evidence based practice [11], improved posture through motor control, musculoskeletal care for the aged and elderly, improving bone density or the very important area of translating research into practice via implementation science. Whatever chosen we need to develop a special interest that sets us apart as experts in a distinctive area [12].
  4. Marginalisation of the nonsensical elements within the profession.
    As professionals chiropractors should not tolerate colleagues or leadership in the profession who demonstrate aberrant ideas. If colleagues transgress the boundaries or professionalism they should be reported to authorities and this should be followed up with action by those authorities [13]…
  5. The profession and individual practitioners should be pro public health.
    It is important to speak up openly in favour of evidence-based public health measures and to join public health associations and agencies [14]…  For example, chiropractors promoting anti-vaccination views need to be countered [15]…
  6. Support legitimate organised elements of the profession.
    Practitioners should support and become involved in chiropractic organisations that are clearly ethical and evidence based [16] and add value to them…
    …Regular collective professional advertising of the benefits of chiropractic for back pain, for example, is a worthy undertaking but the advertisements or media offerings must be evidence based [17].
  7. The profession should strive to improve clinical practice.
    Chiropractors contribute to the public health by the aggregated benefit of positive outcomes to health from their clinical practices [18]… Where restrictive practice laws relating to chiropractors prescribing medication exist the profession should seek to overturn them [19]…
  8. The profession should embrace evidence based practice.
    EBP is the amalgam of best scientific evidence plus clinical expertise plus patient values and circumstances. So what could be missing from this equation? It is clear that in the opinion of a sizable minority of the profession the elements that are missing are “practitioner ideology” and “practitioner values and circumstances”. These additional self- serving and dangerous notions should not be entertained. The adoption of evidence based practice is critical to the future of chiropractic and yet there is resistance by elements within the profession. Soft resistance occurs with attempts to change the name of “Evidence-based practice” (EBP) to “Evidence-informed practice” (EIP). It is worth noting that currently there are over 13,000 articles listed in PUBMED on EBP but less than 100 listed on EIP. So why are some of our profession so keen to use this alternate and weaker term?
    Hard resistance against EBP occurs where it is stated that the best evidence is that based on practice experience and not research. This apparently is known as Practice Based Evidence (PBE) and has a band of followers [20]…
  9. The profession must support research.Research needs to become the number one aspiration of the profession. Research informs both practice and teaching. Without research the profession will not progress. Sadly, the research contribution by the chiropractic profession can only be described as seed like. Figure 1 is a comparison of articles published in the past 45 years by decade using the key words “Physiotherapy” or “Physical Therapy” versus “Chiropractic” (source PUBMED). The Y axis is the number of articles published and the X axis is the decade, the red represents physiotherapy articles, the blue chiropractic. The difference is stark and needs urgent change [21].If the profession at large ignores research whether in its conduct, administration or its results the profession will wither on the vine [22]…
  10. Individual chiropractors need to show personal leadership to effect change.
    Change within the profession will likely only occur if individual chiropractors show personal leadership….
    As part of this personal leadership it will be critical to speak out within the profession. Speak out and become a mentor to less experienced colleagues [23]…
[1] I do wonder whether the ambition to be university-based is not more the hope for recognition than anything else.

[2] The lack of ‘intellectual evidence based rigor’ in chiropractic might prevent from being accepted by universities.

[3] What content?

[4] What evidence?

[5] If one critically assesses chiropractic, it very quickly falls apart.

[6] Subluxation does not need to be reviewed, it needs to be scrapped once and for all.

[7] Again I wonder whether this ambition is about anything else than gaining acceptance and recognition.

[8] In what way would they then differ from physiotherapists?

[9] Same point as in 1 and 7.

[10] The strangest belief system must be that of chiropractic!

[11] This is almost comical! Chiropractic is clearly much further away from evidence practice than chiropractors are aware. In my view, this statement reveals an embarrassing degree of delusion.

[12] To me, this sounds embarrassingly naïve.

[13] If such transgressions were reported in all instances, there would be only very few chiropractors left with a clean slate, I fear.

[14] The profession has a very poor track when it comes to public health measures; as back pain specialists they also would not be in a key position for such a task.

[15] I fear there are far too many anti-vaccination chiros for this to be a realistic prospect.

[16] There is plenty of evidence to show that chiropractic is often neither ethical nor evidence-based.

[17] Advertising is ethically problematic; responsible physicians are extremely cautious and restricted in this respect.

[18] What is this supposed to mean? It sounds politically correct but seems to be little more than a platitude.

[19] So, the future of chiropractic lies in prescribing medicines?

[20] These ‘followers’ are people who want to introduce double standards in healthcare – hardly anything worthy of consideration, I think.

[21] To understand this figure better, we need to know that physiotherapy is, compared to most other areas of healthcare, also not a very research-active field.

[22] But that’s precisely what chiropractors have been doing for the last 100 years!

[23] If you want to know how chiropractors receive a colleague who ‘speaks out’, you only need to read some of the comments Preston Long attracted with his guest post on this blog.

Anyone you thinks that with such a strategy “the chiropractic profession has an opportunity to turn things around within a generation” is, in my view, naïve and deluded. The 10 points are not realistic and woefully incomplete. The most embarrassing omission is a clear statement that chiropractors are fully dedicated to making sure that they serve the best interest of their patients by doing more good than harm.

Several investigations have suggested that chiropractic care can be cost-effective. A recent review of 25 studies, for instance, concluded that cost comparison studies suggest that health care costs were generally lower among patients whose spine pain was managed with chiropractic care. However, its authors cautioned that the studies reviewed had many methodological limitations. Better research is needed to determine if these differences in health care costs were attributable to the type of HCP managing their care.

Better research might come from the US ‘Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services’ (CMS); they conduced a two-year demonstration of expanded Medicare coverage for chiropractic services in the treatment of beneficiaries with neuromusculoskeletal (NMS) conditions affecting the back, limbs, neck, or head.

The demonstration was conducted in 2005–2007 in selected counties of Illinois, Iowa, and Virginia and the entire states of Maine and New Mexico. Medicare claims were compiled for the preceding year and two demonstration years for the demonstration areas and matched comparison areas. The impact of the demonstration was analyzed through multivariate regression analysis with a difference-in-difference framework.

Expanded coverage increased Medicare expenditures by $50 million or 28.5% in users of chiropractic services and by $114 million or 10.4% in all patients treated for NMS conditions in demonstration areas during the two-year period. Results varied widely among demonstration areas ranging from increased costs per user of $485 in Northern Illinois and Chicago counties to decreases in costs per user of $59 in New Mexico and $178 in Scott County, Iowa.

The authors concluded that the demonstration did not assess possible decreases in costs to other insurers, out-of-pocket payments by patients, the need for and costs of pain medications, or longer term clinical benefits such as avoidance of orthopedic surgical procedures beyond the two-year period of the demonstration. It is possible that other payers or beneficiaries saved money during the demonstration while costs to Medicare were increased.

In view of such results, I believe chiropractors should stop claiming that chiropractic care is cost-effective.

Informed consent is a basic ethical principle and a precondition for any medical or surgical procedure (e. g. a therapeutic intervention or a diagnostic test). Essentially, there are 4 facets of informed consent:

  1. the patient must have decision-making capacity,
  2. the patient’s decision must be free from coercion or manipulation,
  3. all relevant information must be disclosed to the patient,
  4. the patient must not merely be told but must understand what he/she has been told.

It seems to me that points 1, 2 and 4 are more or less the same in alternative as in conventional medicine. Point 3, however, has fundamentally different implications in the two types of healthcare.

What is meant by ‘all relevant information’? There seems to be general agreement that this should include the following elements:

  1. the indication,
  2. the nature of the procedure,
  3. its potential benefits,
  4. its risks,
  5. other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all.

If we carefully consider these 5 elements of ‘all relevant information’, we soon realise why there might be profound differences between alternative and conventional medicine. These differences relate not so much to the nature of the procedures but to the competence of the clinicians.

At medical school, doctors-to-be learn the necessary facts that should enable them to adequately deal with the 5 elements listed above. (This does not necessarily mean that, in conventional medical or surgical practice, informed consent is always optimal. But there is little doubt that, in theory, it could be optimal.)

By contrast, alternative practitioners have not normally been to medical school and will have gone through an entirely different type of training. Therefore, the question arises whether – even in theory – they are able to transmit to their patients all essential information as outlined above.

Let’s try to address this question by looking at concrete cases: a patient with frequent headaches consults an alternative practitioner for help. For the sake of argument, the practitioner could be:

  • a chiropractor,
  • an acupuncturist,
  • a homeopath,
  • a naturopath,
  • a traditional herbalist.

Are these alternative practitioners able to convey all the relevant information to their patient before starting their respective treatments?

THE CHIROPRACTOR

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? In all likelihood he would treat the headache as though it was caused by a spinal subluxation. If our patient were suffering from a brain tumour, for instance, this might dangerously delay the diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Many chiropractors deny any risk of spinal manipulation.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? Probably yes for cervicogenic headache. No for most other differential diagnoses.

THE TRADITIONAL ACUPUNCTURIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? The patient might be treated for an assumed ‘energy blockage’; other diagnoses might not be given adequate consideration.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Perhaps.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No

THE CLASSICAL HOMEOPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No, for a classical homeopath, the totality of the symptoms is the only valid diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? Doubtful.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE NATUROPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? Doubtful.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE TRADITIONAL HERBALIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

The answers provided above are based on my experience of more than 20 years with alternative practitioners; I am aware of the degree of simplification required to give short, succinct replies. The answers are, of course, assumptions as well as generalisations. There may well be individual practitioners who would do better (or worse) than the fictitious average I had in mind when answering the questions. Moreover, one would expect important national differences.

If my experience-based assumptions are not totally incorrect, their implications could be most significant. In essence they suggest that, in alternative medicine, fully informed consent can rarely, if ever, be provided. In turn, this means that the current practice of alternative medicine cannot be in line with the most fundamental requirements of medical ethics.

There is very little research on any of these  issues, and thus hardly any reliable evidence. Therefore, this post is simply meant as a deliberately provocative essay to stimulate debate – debate which, in my view, is urgently required.

 

We were recently informed that Americans spend more than US$ 30 billion per year on alternative medicine. This is a tidy sum by anyone’s standards, and we may well ask:

Why do so many people opt for alternative medicine?

The enthusiasts claim, of course, that this is because alternative medicine is effective and safe. As there is precious little data to support this claim, it is probably not the true answer. There must be other reasons, and I could name several. For instance, it could be due to consumers being conned by charlatans.

During the 25 years or so that I have been researching alternative medicine, I got the impression that there are certain ‘tricks of the trade’ which alternative practitioners use in order to convince the often all too gullible public. In this series of posts, I will present some of them.

Here are the first three:

TREAT A NON-EXISTING CONDITION

There is nothing better for committing a health fraud than to treat a condition that the patient in question does not have. Many alternative practitioners have made a true cult of this handy option. Go to a chiropractor and you will in all likelihood receive a diagnosis of ‘subluxation’. See a TCM practitioner and you might be diagnosed suffering from ‘chi deficiency’ or ‘chi blockage’ etc.

Each branch of alternative practitioners seem to have created their very own diagnoses, and they have one thing in common: they are figments of their imaginations. To arrive at such diagnoses, the practitioner would often use diagnostic techniques which have either been found to lack validity, or which have never been validated at all. Many practitioners appreciate all of this, of course, but it would be foolish of them to admit it – after all, these diagnoses earn them the bulk of their living!

The beauty of a non-existing diagnosis is that the practitioner can treat it, and treat it and treat it…until the client has run out of money or patience. Then, one day, the practitioner can proudly announce to his patient “you are completely healthy now”. This happens to be true, of course, because the patient has been healthy all along.

My advice for preventing to get fleeced in this way: make sure that the diagnosis given by an alternative practitioner firstly exists at all in the realm of real medicine and secondly is correct; if necessary ask a real healthcare professional.

MAINTENANCE TREATMENT

As I just stated, practitioners like to treat and treat and treat conditions which simply do not exist. When – for whatever reason – this strategy fails, the next ‘trick of the trade’ is often to convince the patient of the necessity of ‘maintenance’ treatment. This term describes the regular treatment of an individual who is entirely healthy but who, according to the practitioner, needs regular treatments in order not to fall ill in future. The best example here is chiropractic.

Many chiropractors proclaim that maintenance treatment is necessary for keeping a person’s spine aligned – and only a well-serviced spine will keep all of our body’s systems working perfectly. It is like with a car: if you don’t service it regularly, it will sooner or later break down. You don’t want this to happen to your body, do you? To many ‘worried well’, this sounds so convincing that they actually fall for this scam. It goes without saying that the value of maintenance treatment is unproven.

My advice is to start running as soon as a practitioner mentions maintenance treatments.

IT MUST GET WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER

Many patients fail to experience an improvement of their condition or even feel worse after receiving alternative treatments. Practitioners of alternative medicine love to tell these patients that this is normal because things have to get worse before they get better. They tend to call this a ‘healing crisis’. Like so many notions of alternative practitioners, the healing crisis is a phenomenon for which no or very little compelling evidence was ever produced.

Imagine a patient with moderately severe symptoms consulting a practitioner and receiving treatment. There are only three things that can happen to her:

  • she can get better,
  • she might experience no change at all,
  • or she might get worse.

In the first scenario, the practitioner would obviously claim that his therapy is responsible for the improvement. In the second scenario, he might say that, without his therapy, things would have deteriorated. In the third scenario, he would tell his patient that the healing crisis is the reason for her experience. In other words,  the myth of the healing crisis is little more than a ‘trick of the trade’ to make even these patients continue supporting the practitioner’s livelihood.

My advice: when you hear the term ‘healing crisis’, go and find a real doctor to help you with your condition.

 

 

 

 

Yes, yes, yes, I know: we have too few women in our ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’. This is not because I have anything against them (quite the contrary) but, in alternative medicine research, the boys by far outnumber the girls, I am afraid.

You do remember, of course, you has previously been admitted to this austere club of excellence; only two women so far. Here is the current list of members to remind you:

David Peters (osteopathy, homeopathy, UK)

Nicola Robinson (TCM, UK)

Peter Fisher (homeopathy, UK)

Simon Mills (herbal medicine, UK)

Gustav Dobos (various, Germany)

Claudia Witt (homeopathy, Germany and Switzerland)

George Lewith (acupuncture, UK)

John Licciardone (osteopathy, US)

If you study the list carefully, you will also notice that, until now, I have totally ignored the chiropractic profession. This is a truly embarrassing omission! When it comes to excellence in research, who could possibly bypass our friends, the chiropractors?

Today we are going to correct these mistakes. Specifically, we are going to increase the number of women by 50% (adding one more to the previous two) and, at the same time, admit a deserving chiropractor to the ALT MED HALL OF FAME.

Cheryl Hawk is currently the Executive Director of Northwest Center for Lifestyle and Functional Medicine, University of Western States, Portland, USA. Previously she worked as Director of Clinical Research at the Logan University College of Chiropractic, Chesterfield, USA, and prior to that she was employed at various other institutions. Since many years she has been a shining light of chiropractic research. She is certainly not ‘small fry’ when it comes to the promotion of chiropractic.

Cheryl seems to prefer surveys as a research tool over clinical trials, and it was therefore not always easy to identify those of her 67 Medline-listed articles that reported some kind of evaluation of the value of chiropractic. Here are, as always, the 10 most recent papers where I could extract something like a data-based conclusion (in bold) from the abstract.

Best Practices for Chiropractic Care of Children: A Consensus Update.

Hawk C, Schneider MJ, Vallone S, Hewitt EG.

J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2016 Mar-Apr;39(3):158-68

All of the seed statements in this best practices document achieved a high level of consensus and thus represent a general framework for what constitutes an evidence-based and reasonable approach to the chiropractic management of infants, children, and adolescents.

Clinical Practice Guideline: Chiropractic Care for Low Back Pain.

Globe G, Farabaugh RJ, Hawk C, Morris CE, Baker G, Whalen WM, Walters S, Kaeser M, Dehen M, Augat T.

J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2016 Jan;39(1):1-22

The evidence supports that doctors of chiropractic are well suited to diagnose, treat, co-manage, and manage the treatment of patients with low back pain disorders.

The Role of Chiropractic Care in the Treatment of Dizziness or Balance Disorders: Analysis of National Health Interview Survey Data.

Ndetan H, Hawk C, Sekhon VK, Chiusano M.

J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2016 Apr;21(2):138-42.

The odds ratio for perceiving being helped by a chiropractor was 4.36 (95% CI, 1.17-16.31) for respondents aged 65 years or older; 9.5 (95% CI, 7.92-11.40) for respondents reporting head or neck trauma; and 13.78 (95% CI, 5.59-33.99) for those reporting neurological or muscular conditions as the cause of their balance or dizziness.

US chiropractors’ attitudes, skills and use of evidence-based practice: A cross-sectional national survey.

Schneider MJ, Evans R, Haas M, Leach M, Hawk C, Long C, Cramer GD, Walters O, Vihstadt C, Terhorst L.

Chiropr Man Therap. 2015 May 4;23:16.

American chiropractors appear similar to chiropractors in other countries, and other health professionals regarding their favorable attitudes towards EBP, while expressing barriers related to EBP skills such as research relevance and lack of time. This suggests that the design of future EBP educational interventions should capitalize on the growing body of EBP implementation research developing in other health disciplines. This will likely include broadening the approach beyond a sole focus on EBP education, and taking a multilevel approach that also targets professional, organizational and health policy domains.

Chiropractic identity, role and future: a survey of North American chiropractic students.

Gliedt JA, Hawk C, Anderson M, Ahmad K, Bunn D, Cambron J, Gleberzon B, Hart J, Kizhakkeveettil A, Perle SM, Ramcharan M, Sullivan S, Zhang L.

Chiropr Man Therap. 2015 Feb 2;23(1):4

The chiropractic students in this study showed a preference for participating in mainstream health care, report an exposure to evidence-based practice, and desire to hold to traditional chiropractic theories and practices. The majority of students would like to see an emphasis on correction of vertebral subluxation, while a larger percent found it is important to learn about evidence-based practice. These two key points may seem contradictory, suggesting cognitive dissonance. Or perhaps some students want to hold on to traditional theory (e.g., subluxation-centered practice) while recognizing the need for further research to fully explore these theories. Further research on this topic is needed.

Do informed consent documents for chiropractic clinical research studies meet readability level recommendations and contain required elements: a descriptive study.

Twist E, Lawrence DJ, Salsbury SA, Hawk C.

Chiropr Man Therap. 2014 Dec 10;22(1):40

These results strongly suggest that chiropractic clinical researchers are not developing ICDs at a readability level congruent with the national average acceptable level. The low number of elements in some of the informed consent documents raises concern that not all research participants were fully informed when given the informed consent, and it may suggest that some documents may not be in compliance with federal requirements. Risk varies among institutions and even within institutions for the same intervention.

Feasibility of using a standardized patient encounter for training chiropractic students in tobacco cessation counseling.

Hawk C, Kaeser MA, Beavers DV.

J Chiropr Educ. 2013 Fall;27(2):135-40.

This active learning exercise appeared to be a feasible way to introduce tobacco counseling into the curriculum.

Consensus process to develop a best-practice document on the role of chiropractic care in health promotion, disease prevention, and wellness.

Hawk C, Schneider M, Evans MW Jr, Redwood D.

J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2012 Sep;35(7):556-67

This living document provides a general framework for an evidence-based approach to chiropractic wellness care.

Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation for children in the United States: an analysis of data from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey.

Ndetan H, Evans MW Jr, Hawk C, Walker C.

J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Apr;18(4):347-53.

C/OM is primarily used for back and neck pain, which is increasing in prevalence in children. Teens are more likely to use it than are younger children.

The role of chiropractic care in older adults.

Dougherty PE, Hawk C, Weiner DK, Gleberzon B, Andrew K, Killinger L.

Chiropr Man Therap. 2012 Feb 21;20(1):3.

Given the utilization of chiropractic services by the older adult, it is imperative that providers be familiar with the evidence for and the prudent use of different management strategies for older adults.

I am pleased to say that Prof Hawk gave me no problems at all; her case is clear: she is a champion of using research as a means for promoting chiropractic, has published many papers in this vein, clearly prefers the journals of chiropractic that nobody other than chiropractors ever access, and has an impeccable track record when it comes to avoiding negative conclusions which could harm chiropractic in any way.

Very well done indeed!

WELCOME, PROF HAWK, TO THE ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’.

 

In 2008, I published a paper entitled ‘CHIROPRACTIC, A CRITICAL EVALUATION’ where I reviewed most aspects of this subject, including the historical context. Here is the passage about the history of chiropractic. I believe it is relevant to much of the current discussions about the value or otherwise of chiropractic.

The history of chiropractic is “rooted in quasi-mystical concepts.”  Bone-setters of various types are part of the folk medicine of most cultures, and bone-setting also formed the basis on which chiropractic developed.

The birthday of chiropractic is said to be September 18, 1895. On this day, D.D. Palmer manipulated the spine of a deaf janitor by the name of Harvey Lillard, allegedly curing him of his deafness. Palmer’s second patient, a man suffering from heart disease, was also cured. About one year later, Palmer opened the first school of chiropractic. There is evidence to suggest that D.D. Palmer had learned manipulative techniques from Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of osteopathy. He combined the skills of a bone-setter with the background of a magnetic healer and claimed that “chiropractic was not evolved from medicine or any other method, except that of magnetic.” He coined the term “innate intelligence” (or “innate”) for the assumed “energy” or “vital force,” which, according to the magnetic healers of that time, enables the body to heal itself. The “innate” defies quantification. “Chiropractic is based on a metaphysical epistemology that is not amenable to positivist research or experiment.”

The “innate” is said to regulate all body functions but, in the presence of “vertebral subluxation,” it cannot function adequately. Chiropractors therefore developed spinal manipulations to correct such subluxations,  which, in their view, block the flow of the “innate.” Chiropractic is “a system of healing based on the premise that the body requires unobstructed flow through the nervous system of innate intelligence.” Anyone who did not believe in the “innate” or in “subluxations” was said to have no legitimate role in chiropractic.

“Innate intelligence” evolved as a theological concept, the representative of Universal Intelligence ( = God) within each person. D.D. Palmer was convinced he had discovered a natural law that pertained to human health in the most general terms. Originally, manipulation was not a technique for treating spinal or musculoskeletal problems, it was a cure for all human illness: “95% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae, the remainder by luxations of other joints.” Early chiropractic pamphlets hardly mention back pain or neck pain, but assert that, “chiropractic could address ailments such as insanity, sexual dysfunction, measles and influenza.” D.D. Palmer was convinced that he had “created a science of principles that has existed as long as the vertebra.” Chiropractors envision man as a microcosm of the universe where “innate intelligence” determines human health as much as “universal intelligence” governs the cosmos; the discovery of the “innate intelligence” represents a discovery of the first order, “a reflection of a critical law that God used to govern natural phenomena.”

Early chiropractic displayed many characteristics of a religion. Both D.D. Palmer and his son, B.J. Palmer, seriously considered establishing  chiropractic as a religion. Chiropractic “incorporated vitalistic concepts of an innate intelligence with religious concepts of universal intelligence,” which substituted for science. D.D. Palmer declared that he had discovered the answer to the timeworn question, “What is life?” and added that chiropractic made “this stage of existence much more efficient in its preparation for the next step – the life beyond.”

Most early and many of today’s chiropractors agree: “Men do not cure. It is that inherent power (derived from the creator) that causes wounds to heal, or a part to be repaired. The Creator…uses the chiropractor as a tool…chiropractic philosophy is truly the missing link between Religion or Power of the various religions.” Today, some chiropractors continue to relate the “innate” to God. Others, however, warn not to “dwindle or dwarf chiropractic by making a religion out of a technique.”

Initially, the success of chiropractic was considerable. By 1925, more than 80 chiropractic schools had been established in the United States. Most were “diploma mills” offering an “easy way to make money,” and many “were at one another’s throats.” Chiropractors believed they had established their own form of science, which emphasized observation rather than experimentation, a vitalistic rather than mechanistic philosophy, and a mutually supportive rather than antagonist relationship between science and religion. The gap between conventional medicine and chiropractic thus widened “from a fissure into a canyon.” The rivalry was not confined to conventional  medicine; “many osteopaths asserted that chiropractic was a bastardized version of osteopathy.”

Rather than arguing over issues such as efficacy, education, or professional authority, the American Medical Association insisted that all competent health care providers must have adequate knowledge of the essential subjects such as anatomy, physiology, pathology, chemistry, and bacteriology. By that token, the American Medical Association claimed, chiropractors were not fit for practice. Some “martyrs,” including D.D. Palmer himself, went to jail for practicing medicine without a licence.

Chiropractors countered that doctors were merely defending their patch for obvious financial reasons (ironically, chiropractors today often earn more than conventional doctors), that orthodox science was morally corrupt and lacked open-mindedness. They attacked the “germo-anti-toxins-vaxiradi-electro-microbioslush death producers” and promised a medicine “destined to the grandest and greatest of this or any age.”

Eventually, the escalating battle against the medical establishment was won in “the trial of the century.” In 1987, sections of the U.S. medical establishment were found “guilty of conspiracy against chiropractors,” a decision which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990. In other countries, similar legal battles were fought, usually with similar outcomes. Only rarely did they not result in the defeat of the “establishment:” In 1990, a Japanese Ministry of Health report found that chiropractic is “not based on the knowledge of human anatomy but subjective and unscientific.”

These victories came at the price of “taming” and “medicalizing” chiropractic. In turn, this formed the basis of a conflict within the chiropractic profession – the dispute between “mixers” and “straights” – a conflict which continues to the present day.

The “straights” religiously adhere to D.D. Palmer’s notions of the “innate intelligence” and view subluxation as the sole cause and manipulation as the sole cure of all human disease. They do not mix any non-chiropractic techniques into their therapeutic repertoire, dismiss physical examination (beyond searching for subluxations) and think medical diagnosis is irrelevant for chiropractic. The “mixers” are somewhat more open to science and conventional medicine, use treatments other than spinal manipulation, and tend to see chiropractors as back pain specialists. Father and son Palmer warned that the “mixers” were “polluting and diluting the sacred teachings” of chiropractic. Many chiropractors agreed that the mixers were “bringing discredit to the chiropractic.”

The “straights” are now in the minority but nevertheless exert an important influence. They have, for instance, recently achieved election victories within the British General Chiropractic Council. Today, two different chiropractic professions exist side by sided “one that wishes to preserve the non-empirical, non-positivist, vitalist foundations (the straights) and the other that wishes to be reckoned as medical physicians and wishes to utilize the techniques and mechanistic viewpoint of orthodox medicine (the mixers).” The International Chiropractic Association represents the “straights” and the American Chiropractic Association the “mixers.”

(for references, see the original article)

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