MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

spinal manipulation

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Some of you will remember the saga of the British Chiropractic Association suing my friend and co-author Simon Singh (eventually losing the case, lots of money and all respect). One of the ‘hot potatoes’ in this case was the question whether chiropractic is effective for infant colic. This question is settled, I thought: IT HAS NOT BEEN SHOWN TO WORK BETTER THAN A PLACEBO.

Yet manipulators have not forgotten the defeat and are still plotting, it seems, to overturn it. Hence a new systematic review assessed the effect of manual therapy interventions for healthy but unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants.

The authors reviewed published peer-reviewed primary research articles in the last 26 years from nine databases (Medline Ovid, Embase, Web of Science, Physiotherapy Evidence Database, Osteopathic Medicine Digital Repository , Cochrane (all databases), Index of Chiropractic Literature, Open Access Theses and Dissertations and Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature). The inclusion criteria were: manual therapy (by regulated or registered professionals) of unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants who were otherwise healthy and treated in a primary care setting. Outcomes of interest were: crying, feeding, sleep, parent-child relations, parent experience/satisfaction and parent-reported global change. The authors included the following types of peer-reviewed studies in our search: RCTs, prospective cohort studies, observational studies, case–control studies, case series, questionnaire surveys and qualitative studies.

Nineteen studies were selected for full review: seven randomised controlled trials, seven case series, three cohort studies, one service evaluation study and one qualitative study. Only 5 studies were rated as high quality: four RCTs (low risk of bias) and a qualitative study.

The authors found moderate strength evidence for the effectiveness of manual therapy on: reduction in crying time (favourable: -1.27 hours per day (95% CI -2.19 to -0.36)), sleep (inconclusive), parent-child relations (inconclusive) and global improvement (no effect).

Reduction in crying: RCTs mean difference.

The risk of reported adverse events was low (only 8 studies mentioned adverse effects at all, meaning that the rest were in breach of research and publication ethics): seven non-serious events per 1000 infants exposed to manual therapy (n=1308) and 110 per 1000 in those not exposed.

The authors concluded that some small benefits were found, but whether these are meaningful to parents remains unclear as does the mechanisms of action. Manual therapy appears relatively safe.

For several reasons, I find this review, although technically sound, quite odd.

Why review uncontrolled data when RCTs are available?

How can a qualitative study be rated as high quality for assessing the effectiveness of a therapy?

How can the authors categorically conclude that there were benefits when there were only 4 RCTs of high quality?

Why do they not explain the implications of none of the RCTs being placebo-controlled?

How can anyone pool the results of all types of manual therapies which, as most of us know, are highly diverse?

How can the authors conclude about the safety of manual therapies when most trials failed to report on this issue?

Why do they not point out that this is unethical?

My greatest general concern about this review is the overt lack of critical input. A systematic review is not a means of promoting an intervention but of critically assessing its value. This void of critical thinking is palpable throughout the paper. In the discussion section, for instance, the authors state that “previous systematic reviews from 2012 and 2014 concluded there was favourable but inconclusive and weak evidence for manual therapy for infantile colic. They mention two reviews to back up this claim. They conveniently forget my own review of 2009 (the first on this subject). Why? Perhaps because it did not fit their preconceived ideas? Here is my abstract:

Some chiropractors claim that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for infant colic. This systematic review was aimed at evaluating the evidence for this claim. Four databases were searched and three randomised clinical trials met all the inclusion criteria. The totality of this evidence fails to demonstrate the effectiveness of this treatment. It is concluded that the above claim is not based on convincing data from rigorous clinical trials.

Towards the end of their paper, the authors state that “this was a comprehensive and rigorously conducted review…” I beg to differ; it turned out to be uncritical and biased, in my view. And at the very end of the article, we learn a possible reason for this phenomenon: “CM had financial support from the National Council for Osteopathic Research from crowd-funded donations.”

Recently, I was asked about the ‘Dorn Method’. In alternative medicine, it sometimes seems that everyone who manages to write his family name correctly has inaugurated his very own therapy. It is therefore a tall order to aim at blogging about them all. But that’s been my goal all along, and after more than 1 000 posts, I am still far from achieving it.

So, what is the Dorn Method?

A website dedicated to it provides some first-hand information. Here are a few extracts (numbers in brackets were inserted by me and refer to my comments below):

START OF QUOTE

Developed by Dieter Dorn in the 1970’s in the South of Germany, it is now fast becoming the widest used therapy for Back Pain and many Spinal Disorders in Germany (1).

The Dorn Method ist presented under different names like Dornmethod, Dorntherapy, Dorn Spinal Therapy, Dorn-Breuss Method, Dorn-XXname-method and (should) have as ‘core’ the same basic principles.

There are many supporters of the Dorn Method (2) but also Critics (see: Dorn controversy) and because it is a free (3) Method and therefore not bound to clear defined rules and regulations, this issue will not change so quickly.

The Method is featured in numerous books and medical expositions (4), taught to medical students in some universities (5), covered by most private medical insurances (6) and more and more recognized in general (7).

However because it is fairly new and not developed by a Medical Professional it is often still considered an alternative Healing Method and it is meant to stay FREE of becoming a registered trademark, following the wish of the Founder Dieter Dorn (†2011) who did NOT execute his sole right to register this Method as the founder, this Method must become socalled Folk Medicine.

As of now only licensed Therapists, Non Medical Practitioners (in Germany called Heilpraktiker (Healing Practitioners with Government recognition) (8), Physical Therapists or Medical Doctors are authorized to practice with government license, but luckily the Dorn Method is mainly a True Self Help Method therefore all other Dorn Method Practitioners can legally help others by sharing it in this way (9).

What conditions can be treated with the Dorn Method? Every disease, even up to the psychological domain can be treated (positively influenced) unless an illness had already led to irreversible damages at organs (10). The main areas of application are: Muscle-Skeletal Disorders (incl. Back Pain, Sciatica, Scoliosis, Joint-Pain, Muscular Tensions, Migraines etc.)

END OF QUOTE

My brief comments:

  1. This is a gross exaggeration.
  2. Clearly another exaggeration.
  3. Not ‘free’ in the sense of costing nothing, surely!
  4. Yet another exaggeration.
  5. I very much doubt that.
  6. I also have difficulties believing this statement.
  7. I see no evidence for this.
  8. We have repeatedly discussed the Heilpraktiker on this blog, see for instance here, here and here.
  9. Sorry, but I fail to understand the meaning of this statement.
  10. I am always sceptical of claims of this nature.

By now, we all are keen to know what evidence there might be to suggest that the Dorn Method works. The website of the Dorn Method claims that there are 4 different strands of evidence:

START OF QUOTE

1. A new form of manual therapy and self help method which is basically unknown in conventional medicine until now, with absolutely revolutionary new knowledge. It concerns for example the manual adjustment of a difference in length of legs as a consequence of a combination of subluxation of the hip-joint (subluxation=partly luxated=misaligned) and a subluxation of the joints of sacrum (Ilio-sacral joint) and possible knee and ankle joints. The longer leg is considered the ‘problem’-leg and Not the shorter leg as believed in classical medicine and chiropractic.

2. The osteopathic knowledge that there is a connection of each vertebra and its appropriate  spinal segment to certain inner organs. That means that when there are damages at these structures, disturbances of organic functions are the consequence, which again are the base for the arising of diseases.

3. The knowledge of the Chinese medicine, especially of acupuncture and meridian science that the organic functions are stirred and leveled, also among each other, via the vegetative nervous system

4. The natural-scientific  knowledge of anatomy, physiology, physics, chemistry and other domains.

END OF QUOTE

One does not need to be a master in critical thinking to realise that these 4 strands amount to precisely NOTHING in terms of evidence for the Dorn Method. I therefore conducted several searches and have to report that, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a jot of evidence to suggest that the Dorm Method is more than hocus-pocus.

In case you wonder what actually happens when a patient – unaware of this lack of evidence – consults a clinician using the Dorn Method, the above website provides us with some interesting details:

START OF QUOTE

First the patients leg length is controlled and if necessary corrected in a laying position. The hip joint is brought to a (more or less) 90 degree position and the leg is then brought back to its straight position while guiding the bones back into its original place with gentle pressure.

picture link to dorn therapy pictures

This can be done by the patient and it is absolutely safe, easy and painless!

The treatment of Knees and Ankles should then follow with the same principals: Gentle pressure towards the Joint while moving it from a bended to a more straight position.

After the legs the pelvis is checked for misalignment and also corrected if necessary in standing position.

Followed by the lumbar vertebrae and lower thoracic columns, also while standing upright.

Then the upper thoracic vertebrae are checked, corrected if necessary, and finally the cervical vertebrae, usually in a sitting position.

The treatment often is continued by the controlling and correction of other joints like the shoulders, elbow, hands and others like the jaw or collarbone.

END OF QUOTE

Even if we disregard the poor English used throughout the text, we cannot possibly escape the conclusion that the Dorn Method is pure nonsense. So, why do some practitioners practice it?

The answer to this question is, of course, simple: There is money in it!

“Average fees for Dorn Therapy sessions range from about 40€ to 100€ or more…  Average fees for Dorn Method Seminars range from about 180€ to 400€ in most developed countries for a two day basic or review or advanced training.”

SAY NO MORE!

 

 

 

The question whether chiropractic is a truly valuable option for people suffering from back pain has been addressed repeatedly on this blog. My answer was usually negative, but proponents of chiropractic tended to argue that I am biased. Therefore I find it constructive to see what an organisation that hardly can be accused of bias says on this topic. An article by ‘SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE’ has recently provided a comprehensive overview of treatments for back pain. This is what they wrote about chiropractic:

START OF QUOTE

Spinal manipulation, the cranking and tweaking on offer when you visit a traditional chiropractor, is among the most popular approaches to back pain. Practitioners lay their hands on the patient and move their joints to or beyond their range of motion — a technique that’s often accompanied by a pop or crack.

There is some evidence the approach can help people with chronic back pain — but not any more than over-the-counter painkillers or exercise, and you need to take precautions when seeking out a chiropractor.

First, a quick look at the evidence. There are two recent Cochrane reviews on spinal manipulation for low back pain: one focused on people with acute (again, episodic/short duration) pain and the other on chronic pain. The 2011 review on chronic low back pain found that spinal manipulation had small, short-term effects on reducing pain and improving the patient’s functional status — but this effect was about the same as other common therapies for chronic low back pain, such as exercise. That review was published in 2011; UpToDate reviewed the randomized trials that have come out since — and also found that spinal manipulation delivered modest, short-term benefits for chronic back pain sufferers.

The Cochrane review on acute pain found that spinal manipulation worked no better than placebo. So people with a short episode of back pain should probably not bother seeing a chiropractor.

“Based on the evidence,” University of Amsterdam assistant professor Sidney Rubinstein, who is the lead author on the Cochrane reviews, told me, “it would appear [spinal manipulation] works as well as other accepted conservative therapies for chronic low back pain, such as non-prescription medication or exercise, but less well for patients with acute low back pain.”

As a chiropractor himself, he had some advice for patients: They should avoid chiropractors who routinely make X-rays or do advanced diagnostics for low back pain because this adds nothing to the clinical picture, particularly in the case of nonspecific low back pain. Patients should also beware chiropractors who put them on extended programs of care.

“Patients who respond to chiropractic care traditionally respond rather quickly,” he said. “My advice is those patients who have not responded to a short course of chiropractic care or manipulation should consider another type of therapy.”

While the risks of serious side effects from spinal manipulation for back pain are rare — about one in 10 million — the risks associated with chiropractic therapy for neck pain tend to be slightly higher: 1.46 strokes for every million neck adjustments.

The issue is the vertebral artery, which travels from the neck down through the vertebrae. Manipulating the neck can put patients at a higher risk of arterial problems, including stroke or vertebral artery dissection, or the tearing of the vertebral artery (though Rubinstein noted that people in the initial stages of stroke or dissection may also seek out care for their symptoms, such as neck pain, which makes it difficult to untangle how many of health emergencies are brought on by the adjustments).

END OF QUOTE

This all seems fairly reasonable to me – except for the following not entirely unimportant points:

  • I am not sure where the evidence about risks of spinal manipulation comes from. In my view, it is not entirely correct: as there is no effective post-marketing surveillance, we cannot possibly name the incidence figures.
  • Neck manipulations are clearly more risky than manipulations lower down. But this does not necessarily mean that back patients are safer than those with neck pain. Chiropractors view the spine as a whole organ and will regularly manipulate the neck (if they sense ‘subluxations’ in this area), even if the patient comes with low back pain.
  • There are also indirect risks with consulting a chiropractor; for instance, they often give incompetent advice about healthcare. This can include discouraging immunisations or treating serious diseases, such as asthma, colic etc., with chiropractic.
  • I think the article should point out that exercise is not just as effective (or as ineffective) as chiropractic, but it is much safer and less expensive.
  • What Rubinstein says about responders is debatable, in my view. In particular, most chiropractors will convince their patients to continue treatment, even if they do not ‘respond’. And ‘responding’ might be simply the natural history of the condition and therefore totally unrelated to the therapy.

The bottom line: Chiropractic is not the best treatment for back pain!

The common cold is a perfect condition for providers of alternative medicine:

  • it is prevalent (good money to be earned),
  • it is not normally dangerous,
  • it nevertheless reduces quality of life and thus patients look for a treatment,
  • there probably is not a single alternative therapy that does not claim to be effective for it,
  • it is gone after about a week, treated or not.

But is there an alternative therapy that does actually work? An article by the Cochrane Collaboration provides an excellent overview. It includes conventional as well as alternative treatments; here I have merely copied the passages related to the latter:

VITAMIN C

There was great excitement in the 1970s when Linus Pauling, (a Nobel laureate twice over), concluded from placebo-controlled trials that Vitamin C could prevent and alleviate the common cold. Further research followed and a Cochrane review, published in 2013, found 29 clinical trials, involving 11,306 participants. Unfortunately, the review did not confirm Pauling’s findings. Taking regular Vitamin C did not reduce the incidence of colds in the general population, although there was a modest reduction in the duration and severity of symptoms. The only people who appeared to derive some benefit were those who undertook short bursts of extreme exercise, such as marathon runners and skiers. In this group the risk of getting a cold was halved.

Trials looking at taking high dose Vitamin C at the onset of cold symptoms showed no consistent effect on the duration and severity of symptoms and more research is needed to clarify these findings.

ECHINACEA

Echinacea is widely used in Europe and North America for common colds. A Cochrane review (2014) showed that some Echinacea products may be more effective than placebo in treating colds but the overall evidence for clinically relevant effects was weak. There was some evidence of a small preventative effect.

INHALATIONS

Inhaled steam has been used for decades (see earlier reference to my childhood humiliation!) thinking that it helps drain away mucus more effectively and possibly destroys the cold virus. A Cochrane review (2017) of six trials with 387 participants showed no consistent benefit for this intervention.

GARLIC

A single trial with 146 participants showed that taking garlic every day for three months might prevent occurrences of the common cold but the evidence was of low quality and more research is needed to validate this finding. (Cochrane review 2014.)

END OF QUOTE

The article obviously focuses only on such therapies for which Cochrane reviews have been published. What about other treatments? As I already mentioned, if we believe the promoters of alternative medicine, the list is long. But fortunately, we do not believe them and want to see the evidence.

HOMEOPATHY

Unsurprisingly, the evidence is not good. One of my posts even expressed the fear that it might involve scientific misconduct.

CHIROPRACTIC

Yes, some chiropractors claim that their manipulations are effective for the common cold. But, as with almost all of their claims, this cannot be taken seriously; the assumption is bogus.

CHINESE HERBAL MEDICINES

A systematic review concluded that their use for common cold is not supported by robust evidence.

SAUNA

Ages ago, I published a small study with promising results:

Twenty-five volunteers were submitted to sauna bathing, with 25 controls abstaining from this or comparable procedures. In both groups the frequency, duration and severity of common colds were recorded for six months. There were significantly fewer episodes of common cold in the sauna group. This was found particularly during the last three months of the study period when the incidence was roughly halved compared to controls. The mean duration and average severity of common colds did not differ significantly between the groups. It is concluded that regular sauna bathing probably reduces the incidence of common colds, but further studies are needed to prove this.

Sadly, the findings were never replicated.

 

MY CONCLUSION

Grin and bear it!

(That is the cold as well as the myriad of false claims made by enthusiasts of alternative medicine)

 

This overview by researchers from that Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre, Research Institute for Primary Care & Health Sciences, Keele University, UK, was aimed at summarising the current best evidence on treatment options for 5 common musculoskeletal pain presentations: back, neck, shoulder, knee and multi-site pain. Reviews and studies of treatments were considered of the following therapeutic options: self-management advice and education, exercise therapy, manual therapy, pharmacological interventions (oral and topical analgesics, local injections), aids and devices, other treatments (ultrasound, TENS, laser, acupuncture, ice / hot packs) and psychosocial interventions (such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and pain-coping skills).

Here are the findings for those treatments most relevant in alternative medicine (it is interesting that most alternative medicines were not even considered because of lack of evidence and that the team of researchers can hardly be accused of an anti-alternative medicine bias, since its senior author has a track record of publishing results favourable to alternative medicine):

EXERCISE

Current evidence shows significant positive effects in favour of exercise on pain, function, quality of life and work related outcomes in the short and long-term for all the musculoskeletal pain presentations (compared to no exercise or other control) but the evidence regarding optimal content or delivery of exercise in each case is inconclusive.

ACUPUNCTURE

The evidence from a good quality individual patient data meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture may be effective for short-term relief of back pain and knee pain with medium summary effect sizes respectively compared with usual care or no acupuncture. However, effects on function were reported to be minimal and not maintained at longer-term follow-up. Similarly for neck and shoulder pain, acupuncture was only found to be effective for short-term (immediately post-treatment and at short-term follow-up) symptom relief compared to placebo.

MANUAL THERAPY

Current evidence regarding manual therapy is beset by heterogeneity. Due to paucity of high quality evidence, it is uncertain whether the efficacy of manual therapy might be different for different patient subgroups or influenced by the type and experience of professional delivering the therapy. On the whole, the available evidence suggests that manual therapy may offer some beneficial effects on pain and function, but it may not be superior to other non-pharmacological treatments (e.g. exercise) for patients with acute or chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Overall. the authors concluded that the best available evidence shows that patients with musculoskeletal pain problems in primary care can be managed effectively with non-pharmacological treatments such as self-management advice, exercise therapy, and psychosocial interventions. Pharmacological interventions such as corticosteroid injections (for knee and shoulder pain) were shown to be effective treatment options for the short-term relief of musculoskeletal pain and may be used in addition to non-pharmacological treatments. NSAIDs and opioids also offer short-term benefit for musculoskeletal pain, but the potential for adverse effects must be considered. Furthermore, the optimal treatment intensity, methods of application, amount of clinical contact, and type of provider or setting, are unclear for most treatment options.

These findings confirm what we have pointed out many times before on this blog. There is very little that alternative therapies have to offer for musculoskeletal pain. Whenever it is possible, I would recommend exercise therapy initiated by a physiotherapist; it is inexpensive, safe, and at least as effective as acupuncture or chiropractic or osteopathy.

Practitioners of alternative medicine will, of course, not like this solution.

Acupuncturists may not be that bothered by such evidence: their focus is not necessarily on musculoskeletal but on a range of other conditions (with usually little evidence, I hasten to add).

But for chiropractors and osteopaths, this is much more serious, in my view. Of course, some of them also claim to be able to treat a plethora of non-musculoskeletal conditions (but there the evidence is even worse than for musculoskeletal pain, and therefore this type of practice is clearly unethical). And those who see themselves as musculoskeletal specialists have to either accept the evidence that shows little benefit and considerable risk of spinal manipulation, or go in a state of denial.

In the former case, the logical conclusion is to look for another job.

In the latter case, the only conclusion is that their practice is not ethical.

This is a fascinating new review of upper neck manipulation. It raises many concerns that we, on this blog, have been struggling with for years. I take the liberty of quoting a few passages which I feel are important and encourage everyone to study the report in full:

The Minister of Health, Seniors and Active Living gave direction to the Health Professions Advisory Council (“the Council”) to undertake a review related to high neck manipulation.

Specifically, the Minister directed the Council to undertake:

1) A review of the status of the reserved act in other Canadian jurisdictions,

2) A literature review related to the benefits to patients and risks to patient safety associated with the procedure, and

3) A jurisprudence review or a review into the legal issues that have arisen in Canada with respect to the performance of the procedure that touch upon the risk of harm to a patient.

In addition, the Minister requested the Council to seek written input on the issue from:

  • Manitoba Chiropractic Stroke Survivors
  • Manitoba Chiropractic Association
  • College of Physiotherapists of Manitoba
  • Manitoba Naturopathic Association
  • College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba
  • other relevant interested parties as determined by the Council

… The review indicated that further research is required to:

  • strengthen evidence for the efficacy of cervical spinal manipulations (CSM) as a treatment for neck pain and headache, “as well as for other indications where evidence currently does not exist (i.e., upper back and should/arm pain, high blood pressure, etc.)”
  • establish safety and efficacy of CSM in infants and children
  • assess the risk versus benefit in consideration of using HVLA cervical spine manipulation, which also involve cost-benefit analyses that compare CSM to other standard treatments.

… the performance of “high neck manipulation” or cervical spine manipulation does present a risk of harm to patients. This risk of harm must be understood by both the patient and the practitioner.

Both the jurisprudence review and the research literature review point to the need for the following actions to mitigate the risk of harm associated with the performance of cervical spine manipulation:

  • Action One: Ensure that the patient provides written informed consent prior to initiating treatment which includes a discussion about the risk associated with cervical spine manipulation.
  • Action Two: Provide patients with information to assist in the early recognition of a serious adverse event.

This is too wonderful (I found it on Twitter where it was posted by ‘Doctors Leonard and Michael Valentine’, chiropractors at Valentine Chiropractic in Fountain Valley, CA.) – I have to show it to you.

This could almost pass without a comment. But for what it’s worth, here are my 7 points:

  1. platitude,
  2. platitude,
  3. no, they do not easily move out of alignment, and if they do, you are severely ill and need urgent treatment but not chiropractic,
  4. subluxations as dreamt up by chiropractors are a myth; they simply do not exist,
  5. it is vital that we don’t disclose this BS, if not chiros need to find new jobs,
  6. chiros pretend to find subluxations because this is their livelihood,
  7. pathetic platitude.

 

During Voltaire’s time, this famous quote was largely correct. But today, things are very different, and I often think this ‘bon mot’ ought to be re-phrased into ‘The art of alternative medicine consists in amusing the patient, while medics cure the disease’.

To illustrate this point, I shall schematically outline the story of a patient seeking care from a range of clinicians. The story is invented but nevertheless based on many real experiences of a similar nature.

Tom is in his mid 50s, happily married, mildly over-weight and under plenty of stress. In addition to holding a demanding job, he has recently moved home and, as a consequence of lots of heavy lifting, his whole body aches. He had previous episodes of back trouble and re-starts the exercises a physio once taught him. A few days later, the back-pain has improved and most other pains have subsided as well. Yet a dull and nagging pain around his left shoulder and arm persists.

He is tempted to see his GP, but his wife is fiercely alternative. She was also the one who dissuaded  Tom from taking Statins for his high cholesterol and put him on Garlic pills instead. Now she gives Tom a bottle of her Rescue Remedy, but after a week of taking it Tom’s condition is unchanged. His wife therefore persuades him to consult alternative practitioners for his ‘shoulder problem’. Thus he sees a succession of her favourite clinicians.

THE CHIROPRACTOR examines Tom’s spine and diagnoses subluxations to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of spinal manipulations and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE ENERGY HEALER diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital energy as the root cause of his persistent pain. Tom thus receives a series of healing sessions and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE REFLEXOLOGIST examines Tom’s foot and diagnoses knots on the sole of his foot to cause energy blockages which are the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of most agreeable foot massages and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE ACUPUNCTURIST examines Tom’s pulse and tongue and diagnoses a chi deficiency to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of acupuncture treatments and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE NATUROPATH examines Tom and diagnoses some form of auto-intoxication as the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a full program of detox and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE HOMEOPATH takes a long and detailed history and diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital force to be the root cause of his pain. Tom thus receives a homeopathic remedy tailor-made for his needs and feels a little improved after taking it for a few days. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore tries to make another appointment for him.

But this time, Tom had enough. His pain has not really improved and he is increasingly feeling unwell.

At the risk of a marital dispute, he consults his GP. The doctor looks up Tom’s history, asks a few questions, conducts a brief physical examination, and arranges for Tom to see a specialist. A cardiologist diagnoses Tom to suffer from coronary heart disease due to a stenosis in one of his coronary arteries. She explains that Tom’s dull pain in the left shoulder and arm is a rather typical symptom of this condition.

Tom has to have a stent put into the affected coronary artery, receives several medications to lower his cholesterol and blood pressure, and is told to take up regular exercise, lose weight and make several other changes to his stressful life-style. Tom’s wife is told in no uncertain terms to stop dissuading her husband from taking his prescribed medicines, and the couple are both sent to see a dietician who offers advice and recommends a course on healthy cooking. Nobody leaves any doubt that not following this complex (holistic!) package of treatments and advice would be a serious risk to Tom’s life.

It has taken a while, but finally Tom is pain-free. More importantly, his prognosis has dramatically improved. The team who now look after him have no doubt that a major heart attack had been imminent, and Tom could easily have died had he continued to listen to the advice of multiple non-medically trained clinicians.

The root cause of his condition was misdiagnosed by all of them. In fact, the root cause was the atherosclerotic degeneration in his arteries. This may not be fully reversible, but even if the atherosclerotic process cannot be halted completely, it can be significantly slowed down such that he can live a full life.

My advice based on this invented and many real stories of a very similar nature is this:

  • alternative practitioners are often good at pampering their patients;
  • this may contribute to some perceived clinical improvements;
  • in turn, this perceived benefit can motivate patients to continue their treatment despite residual symptoms;
  • alternative practitioner’s claims about ‘root causes’ and holistic care are usually pure nonsense;
  • their pampering may be agreeable, but it can undoubtedly cost lives.

The British press recently reported that a retired bank manager (John Lawler, aged 80) died after visiting a chiropractor in York. This tragic case was published in multiple articles, most recently in THE SUN. Personally, I find this regrettable – not the fact that the press warns consumers of chiropractic, but the tone and content of the articles.

Let me explain this by citing the one in THE SUN of today. Here is the critical bit that concerns me:

Ezvard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, published a study showing at least 26 people had died as a result. He said: “The evidence is not in favour of chiropractic treatments. Nobody knows how many have suffered severe complications or died.” Edvard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, says many have suffered complications or died from chiropractors treatments… A study from Exeter University shows at least 26 people have died as a result of treatment.

And what is wrong with this?

The answer is lots:

  • My first name is consistently misspelled (a triviality, I agree).
  • I am once named as Emeritus Professor and once as Professor of Complementary Medicine. The latter is wrong (another triviality, perhaps, but some of my more demented critics have regularly accused me of carrying wrong titles)
  • The mention of 26 deaths after chiropractic treatments is problematic and arguably misleading (see below).
  • Our ‘study’ was not a study but a systematic review (another triviality?).

Now you probably think I am being pedantic, but I feel that the article is regrettable not so much by what it says but by what it fails to say. To understand this better, I will below copy my emails to the journalist who asked for help in researching this article.

  • My email of 17/10 answering all 7 of the journalist’s specific questions:
  • 1. Why are you sceptical of chiropractic?
  • I have researched the subject for more than 2 decades, and I know that the evidence is not in favour of chiropractic
  • 2. How many people do you believe have died in Britain as a result of being treated by a chiropractor? If it’s not possible to say, can you estimate?
  • nobody knows how many patients have suffered severe complications or deaths. there is no system to monitor such events that is comparable to the post-marketing surveillance of conventional medicine. we did some research and found that the under-reporting of cases of severe complications was close to 100% in the UK.
  • 3. What is so dangerous about chiropractic? Is there a particular physical treatment than endangers life?
  • manipulations that involve rotation and over-extension of the upper spine can lead to a vertebral artery breaking up. this causes a stroke which sometimes is fatal.
  • 4. Is the industry well regulated?
  • UK chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council. it is debatable whether they are fit for purpose (see here:http://edzardernst.com/2015/02/the-uk-general-chiropractic-council-fit-for-purpose/)
  • 5. Should we be suspicious of claims that chiropractic can cure things like IBS and autism?
  • such claims are not based on good evidence and therefore misleading and unethical. sadly, however, they are prevalent.
  • 6. Who trains chiropractors?
  • there are numerous colleges that specialise in that activity.
  • 7. Is it true Prince Charles is to blame for the rise in popularity/prominence of chiropractic?
  • I am not sure. certainly he has been promoting all sorts of unproven treatments for decades.
  • My email of 18/10 answering 3 further specific questions
  • 1. Would you actively discourage anyone from being treated by a chiropractor?
    yes, anyone I feel responsible for
    2. Are older people particularly at risk or could one wrong move affect anyone?
    older people are at higher risk of bone fractures and might also have more brittle arteries prone to dissection
    3. If someone has, say, a bad back or stiff neck what treatment would you recommend instead of chiropractic?
    I realise every case is different, but you are sceptical of all complementary treatments (as I understand it) so what would you suggest instead?
    I would normally consider therapeutic exercises and recommend seeing a good physio.
  • 3. My email of 23/10 replying to his request for specific UK cases
  • the only thing I can offer is this 2001 paper
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1297923/
  • where we discovered 35 cases seen by UK neurologists within the preceding year. the truly amazing finding here was that NONE of them had been reported anywhere before. this means under-reporting was exactly 100%.

END OF QUOTES
I think that makes it quite obvious that much relevant information never made it into the final article. I also know that several other experts provided even more information than I did which never appeared.

The most important issues, I think, are firstly the lack of a monitoring system for adverse events, secondly the level of under-reporting and thirdly the 50% rate of mild to moderate adverse-effects. Without making these issues amply clear, lay readers cannot possibly make any sense of the 26 deaths. More importantly, chiropractors will now be able to respond by claiming: 26 deaths compare very favourably with the millions of fatalities caused by conventional medicine. In the end, the message that will remain in the heads of many consumers is this: CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN CHIROPRACTIC!!! (The 1st comment making this erroneous point has already been published: Don’t be stupid Andy. You wanna discuss how many deaths occur due to medication side effects and drug interactions? There is a reason chiros have the lowest malpractice rates.)

Don’t get me wrong, I am not accusing the author of the SUN-article. For all I know, he has filed a very thoughtful and complete piece. It might have been shortened by the editor who may also have been the one adding the picture of the US starlet with her silicone boobs. But I am accusing THE SUN of missing a chance to publish something that might have had the chance of being a meaningful contribution to public health.

Perhaps you still think this is all quite trivial. Yet, after having experienced this sort of thing dozens, if not hundreds of times, I disagree.

This is the question asked by the American Chiropractic Association. And this is their answer [the numbers in square brackets were inserted by me and refer to my comments below]:

Chiropractic is widely recognized [1] as one of the safest drug-free, non-invasive therapies available for the treatment of neuromusculoskeletal complaints [2]. Although chiropractic has an excellent safety record [3], no health treatment is completely free of potential adverse effects. The risks associated with chiropractic, however, are very small [4]. Many patients feel immediate relief following chiropractic treatment [5], but some may experience mild soreness, stiffness or aching, just as they do after some forms of exercise [6]. Current research shows that minor discomfort or soreness following spinal manipulation typically fades within 24 hours [7]…

Some reports have associated high-velocity upper neck manipulation with a certain rare kind of stroke, or vertebral artery dissection [8]. However, evidence suggests that this type of arterial injury often takes place spontaneously in patients who have pre-existing arterial disease [9]. These dissections have been associated with everyday activities such as turning the head while driving, swimming, or having a shampoo in a hair salon [10]. Patients with this condition may experience neck pain and headache that leads them to seek professional care—often at the office of a doctor of chiropractic or family physician—but that care is not the cause of the injury. The best evidence indicates that the incidence of artery injuries associated with high-velocity upper neck manipulation is extremely rare—about one to three cases in 100,000 patients who get treated with a course of care [11]. This is similar to the incidence of this type of stroke among the general population [12]…

When discussing the risks of any health care procedure, it is important to look at that risk in comparison to other treatments available for the same condition [13]. In this regard, the risks of serious complications from spinal manipulation for conditions such as neck pain and headache compare very favorably with even the most conservative care options. For example, the risks associated with some of the most common treatments for musculoskeletal pain—over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and prescription painkillers—are significantly greater than those of chiropractic manipulation [14]…

Doctors of chiropractic are well trained professionals who provide patients with safe, effective care for a variety of common conditions. Their extensive education has prepared them to identify patients who have special risk factors [15] and to get those patients the most appropriate care, even if that requires referral to a medical specialist [16].

END OF QUOTE

  1. Appeal to tradition = fallacy
  2. and every other condition that brings in cash.
  3. Not true.
  4. Probably not true.
  5. The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence.
  6. Not true, the adverse effects of spinal manipulation are different and more severe.
  7. Not true, they last 1-3 days.
  8. Not just ‘some reports’ but a few hundred.
  9. Which does not mean that spinal manipulation cannot provoke such events.
  10. True, but this does not mean that spinal manipulation cannot provoke such events.
  11. There are other estimates that gives much higher figures; without a proper monitoring system, nobody can provide an accurate incidence figure.
  12. Not true, see above.
  13. ‘Available’ is meaningless – ‘effective’ is what we need here.
  14. The difference between different treatments is not merely their safety but also their effectiveness; in the end it is the risk/benefit balance that determines their value.
  15. Not true, there are no good predictors to identify at-risk populations.
  16. Chiropractors are notoriously bad at referring to other healthcare professionals; they have a huge conflict of interest in keeping up their cash-flow.

So, is chiropractic a safe treatment?

My advice here is not to ask chiropractors but independent experts.

 

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