MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

spinal manipulation

The question whether spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) is effective for acute low back pain is still discussed controversially. Chiropractors (they use SMT more regularly than other professionals) try everything to make us believe it does work, while the evidence is far less certain. Therefore, it is worth considering the best and most up-to-date data.

The  aim of this paper was to systematically review studies of the effectiveness and harms of SMT for acute (≤6 weeks) low back pain. The research question was straight forward: Is the use of SMT in the management of acute (≤6 weeks) low back pain associated with improvements in pain or function?

A through literature search was conducted to locate all relevant papers. Study quality was assessed using the Cochrane Back and Neck (CBN) Risk of Bias tool. The evidence was assessed using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) criteria. The main outcome measures were pain (measured by either the 100-mm visual analog scale, 11-point numeric rating scale, or other numeric pain scale), function (measured by the 24-point Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire or Oswestry Disability Index [range, 0-100]), or any harms measured within 6 weeks.

Of 26 eligible RCTs identified, 15 RCTs (1711 patients) provided moderate-quality evidence that SMT has a statistically significant association with improvements in pain (pooled mean improvement in the 100-mm visual analog pain scale, −9.95 [95% CI, −15.6 to −4.3]). Twelve RCTs (1381 patients) produced moderate-quality evidence that SMT has a statistically significant association with improvements in function (pooled mean effect size, −0.39 [95% CI, −0.71 to −0.07]). Heterogeneity was not explained by type of clinician performing SMT, type of manipulation, study quality, or whether SMT was given alone or as part of a package of therapies. No RCT reported any serious adverse event. Minor transient adverse events such as increased pain, muscle stiffness, and headache were reported 50% to 67% of the time in large case series of patients treated with SMT.

The authors concluded that among patients with acute low back pain, spinal manipulative therapy was associated with modest improvements in pain and function at up to 6 weeks, with transient minor musculoskeletal harms. However, heterogeneity in study results was large.

This meta-analysis has been celebrated by chiropractors around the world as a triumph for their hallmark therapy, SMT. But there have also been more cautionary voices – not least from the lead author of the paper. Patients undergoing spinal manipulation experienced a decline of 1 point in their pain rating, says Dr. Paul Shekelle, an internist with the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Rand Corporation who headed the study. That’s about the same amount of pain relief as from NSAIDs, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen. The study also found spinal manipulation modestly improved function. On average, patients reported greater ease and comfort engaging in two day-to-day activities — such as finding they could walk more quickly, were having less difficulty turning over in bed or were sleeping more soundly.

It’s not clear exactly how spinal manipulation relieves back pain. But it may reposition the small joints in the spine in a way that causes less pain, according to Dr. Richard Deyo, an internist and professor of evidence-based medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University. Deyo wrote an editorial published along with the study. Another possibility, Deyo says, is that spinal manipulation may restore some material in the disk between the vertebrae, or it may simply relax muscles, which could be important. There may also be mind-body interaction that comes from the “laying of hands” or a trusting relationship between patients and their health care provider, he says.

Deyo notes that there are many possible treatments for lower back pain, including oral medicine, injected medicine, corsets, traction, surgery, acupuncture and massage therapy. But of about 200 treatment options, “no single treatment is clearly superior,” he says.

In another comment by Paul Ingraham the critical tone was much clearer: “Claiming it as a victory is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of making lemonade out of science lemons! But I can understand the mistake, because the review itself does seem positive at first glance: the benefits of SMT are disingenuously summarized as “statistically significant” in the abstract, with no mention of clinical significance (effect size; see Statistical Significance Abuse). So the abstract sounds like good news to anyone but the most wary readers, while deep in the main text the same results are eventually conceded to be “clinically modest.” But even even that seems excessively generous: personally, I need at least a 2-point improvement in pain on a scale of 10 to consider it a “modest” improvement! This is not a clearly positive review: it shows weak evidence of minor efficacy, based on “significant unexplained heterogeneity” in the results. That is, the results were all over the place — but without any impressive benefits reported by any study — and the mixture can’t be explained by any obvious, measurable factor. This probably means there’s just a lot of noise in the data, too many things that are at least as influential as the treatment itself. Or — more optimistically — it could mean that SMT is “just” disappointingly mediocre on average, but might have more potent benefits in a minority of cases (that no one seems to be able to reliably identify). Far from being good news, this review continues a strong trend (eg Rubinstein 2012) of damning SMT with faint praise, and also adds evidence of backfiring to mix. Although fortunately “no RCT reported any serious adverse event,” it seems that minor harms were legion: “increased pain, muscle stiffness, and headache were reported 50% to 67% of the time in large case series of patients treated with SMT.” That’s a lot of undesirable outcomes. So the average patient has a roughly fifty-fifty chance of up to roughly maybe a 20% improvement… or feeling worse to some unknown degree! That does not sound like a good deal to me. It certainly doesn’t sound like good medicine.”

END OF QUOTE

As I have made clear in many previous posts, I do fully agree with these latter statements and would add just three points:

  1. We know that many of the SMT studies completely neglect reporting adverse effects. Therefore it is hardly surprising that no serious complications were on record. Yet, we know that they do occur with sad regularity.
  2. None of the studies controlled for placebo effects. It is therefore possible – I would say even likely – that a large chunk of the observed benefit is not due to SMT per se but to a placebo response.
  3. It seems more than questionable whether the benefits of SMT outweigh its risks.

CBC news (Canada) reported yesterday that, more than a decade ago, the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission had been tasked to review the cost effectiveness of chiropractic services. It therefore prepared a report in 2004 for the Manitoba province and the Manitoba Chiropractors Association. Since then, this report has been kept secret. The report makes 37 recommendations, including:

  • Manitoba Health should limit its funding to “chiropractic treatment of acute lower back pain.”
  • Manitoba Health should provide “limited coverage of the treatment of neck pain.” The report called the literature around the efficacy of chiropractic care for neck pain “ambiguous or at best weakly supportive” and noted such treatment carried a “not insignificant safety risk.”
  • Manitoba Health should not fund chiropractic treatment anyone under 18 “as the literature does not unequivocally justify” the “efficacy or safety” of such treatment.

A Manitoba Ombudsman’s Office report from 2012 might shed some light on why the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission’s report was never made public. Someone had attempted to get a copy of the report, but large parts of it were redacted. “Access to this record was refused on the basis that disclosure would be harmful to a third party’s business interest,” the ombudsman report notes, “and harm the economic or financial interests or negotiating position of a public body.”

The report also challenged claims that chiropractic treatments can be address a wide variety of medical conditions. It stated that there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective in treating muscle tension, migraines, HIV, carpal tunnel syndrome, gastrointestinal problems, infertility or cancer, or as a preventive care treatment. It also said there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective for children.

The report urged Manitoba Health to establish a monitoring system to keep a closer eye on “the advertising practices of the Manitoba Chiropractors Association and its members to ensure claims regarding treatments are restricted to those for which proof of efficacy and safety exist.” It suggested the government should have regulatory powers over chiropractic ads.

A recent CBC I-Team investigation found Manitoba chiropractors advertising treatment for a wide range of conditions including Alzheimer’s, autism and pediatric services. The commission report contained sharp criticisms of previous reports that suggested funding chiropractic care could save the health-care system money. Dr. Pranlal Manga authored two widely cited reports which claim that by offering publicly funded chiropractic care, provinces can cut health-care costs. “The Manga study on Manitoba must be rejected as a guide to public policy,” the commission report states, “because its assumptions, methodology and costing of recommendations are all deeply flawed.” The reports states, “What limited evidence the Commission has suggests he [Manga] grossly exaggerates possible medical savings.” Dr. Manga did not respond to CBC’s repeated attempts to contact him.

The commission report also made recommendations around the use of X-ray machines by chiropractors. It suggested chiropractors not own and operate X-ray machines “Given the restrictive conditions under which X-rays are advisable, their poor correlation with low-back problems, their apparent limitation as a guide to appropriate treatment …[and] the apparent complete lack of monitoring [of] the use of X-ray by chiropractors.”  Instead, it recommended consulting with radiologists when imaging is deemed necessary. “The Commission is of the view that the public interest, and even chiropractic itself, would be better served if chiropractors had access to radiologists for this service, rather than perform it themselves,” the report said.

All three report authors declined comment. Calls to Dave Chomiak, who was health minister at the time the report was prepared, were not returned. In an email to CBC, Manitoba Chiropractors Association president Perry Taylor said, “I personally have never seen this 13-year-old document and [it] pre-dates my time as President. As such I have no comment on this.” The CBC I-Team offered to go through the report with Taylor but he did not respond.

MY COMMENT:

This report seems to confirm much of what we have discussed repeatedly on this blog: Chiropractic is not nearly as effective and safe as chiropractors try to make us believe. To hide this fact is certainly dishonest and unethical, but it is in some ways understandable: this knowledge would directly threaten the income of most chiropractors.

Yesterday I commented on another post: “the conflict of interest seems obvious: if homeopaths speak the truth, they are out of business. therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and eventually end up believing them. there is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent them from making false claims. if not, this will go on for another 200 years and damage many patients’ health”. In the light of the above report, I will now re-phrase this: the conflict of interest seems obvious: if chiropractors allowed the truth to be known, they would soon be out of business. Therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and many end up believing them. There is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent chiropractors from making false claims. If not, this abuse will go on for another 120 years and damage many patients’ health.

Charlotte Leboeuf-Yde, DC,MPH,PhD, is professor in Clinical Biomechanics at the University of Southern Denmark and works at the French-European Institute of Chiropractic in Paris. She is a chiropractor with extensive research experience, for example, she was one of the first chiropractors to have studied adverse reactions of spinal manipulation.

Charlotte certainly knows a thing or two about adverse effects of spinal manipulation, and I have always found her work interesting. Therefore, I was delighted to find a recent blog post where she discussed the Cassidy study of 2008 and two opposed views on the validity of this much-discussed paper.

One team (Paulus &Thaler) argued, Charlotte explained, that the Cassidy case-control study is faulty, because vertebro-basilar stroke in general was not separated from stroke specifically caused by vertebral artery dissections, the presumed culprit in cervical spinal manipulation. According to Paulus & Thaler, this would potentially result in a dilution of ‘real’ manipulative-related strokes among all other causes of stroke that are much more common. They argue that the Cassidy-analyses therefore were polluted by this misclassification, whereas the other team (Murphy et al) vehemently disagrees.

The final word is clearly not yet pronounced on this issue, Charlotte concluded, and both teams agree that research has to address various methodological challenges to obtain a trustable answer. Nevertheless, without an international collaboration involving prospective cases this seems an almost impossible task, particularly in view of the rarity of the condition; problems in capturing all cases (going from the reversible to the permanent injuries); the likely large anatomical and physiological variations between individuals; and the daunting task of obtaining relevant and precise descriptions of treatments from a multitude of practitioners.

In the meantime, Charlotte concluded, “practitioners and patients have to make a decision, similarly to judging risk in other walks of life, such as, should I take the plane or stay at home?”

I have always thought highly of Charlotte’s work, however, her conclusion made me doubt whether my high opinion of her reasoning was justified.

Should I take the plane or stay at home?

This question is not remotely similar to the question “should I have chiropractic upper neck manipulation or not?”

Here are a the two main reasons why:

  • Taking the plane of demonstrably effective in transporting you from A to B, while neck manipulation is not demonstrably effective for anything.
  • If you want to go from A to B [assuming B is far way], you need to fly. If you have neck pain or other symptoms, you can employ plenty of therapies other than neck manipulations.

Charlotte Leboeuf-Yde, DC,MPH,PhD, may be a professor in Clinical Biomechanics etc., etc., however, logical and critical thinking do not seem to be her forte.

So, how should we deal with the risks of chiropractic neck manipulations? I think, we should deal with them as responsible healthcare professionals deal with any other suspected therapeutic risks: we must ask whether the known risks of the treatment outweigh the known benefits (as they do with spinal manipulation). If that is so, we have an ethical, legal and moral duty not to employ the therapy in question in routine care. At the same time, we must focus or research efforts on producing full clarity about the open questions. It’s called the precautionary principle!

Is spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) dangerous? This question has kept us on this blog busy for quite some time now. To me, there is little doubt that SMT can cause adverse effects some of which are serious. But many chiropractors seem totally unconvinced. Perhaps this new overview of reviews might help to clarify the issue. Its aim was to elucidate and quantify the risk of serious adverse events (SAEs) associated with SMT.

The authors searched five electronic databases from inception to December 8, 2015 and included reviews on any type of studies, patients, and SMT technique. The primary outcome was SAEs. The quality of the included reviews was assessed using a measurement tool to assess systematic reviews (AMSTAR). Since there were insufficient data for calculating incidence rates of SAEs, they used an alternative approach; the conclusions regarding safety of SMT were extracted for each review, and the communicated opinion were judged by two reviewers independently as safe, harmful, or neutral/unclear. Risk ratios (RRs) of a review communicating that SMT is safe and meeting the requirements for each AMSTAR item, were calculated.

A total of 283 eligible reviews were identified, but only 118 provided data for synthesis. The most frequently described adverse events (AEs) were stroke, headache, and vertebral artery dissection. Fifty-four reviews (46%) expressed that SMT is safe, 15 (13%) expressed that SMT is harmful, and 49 reviews (42%) were neutral or unclear. Thirteen reviews reported incidence estimates for SAEs, roughly ranging from 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 250,000,000 manipulations. Low methodological quality was present, with a median of 4 of 11 AMSTAR items met (interquartile range, 3 to 6). Reviews meeting the requirements for each of the AMSTAR items (i.e. good internal validity) had a higher chance of expressing that SMT is safe.

The authors concluded that it is currently not possible to provide an overall conclusion about the safety of SMT; however, the types of SAEs reported can indeed be significant, sustaining that some risk is present. High quality research and consistent reporting of AEs and SAEs are needed.

This article is valuable, if only for the wealth of information one can extract from it. There are, however, numerous problems. One is that the overview included mostly reviews of the effectiveness of SMT for various conditions. We know that studies of SMT often do not even mention AEs. If such studies are then pooled in a review, they inevitably generate an impression of safety. But this would, of course, be a false-positive result!

The authors of the overview are aware of this problem and address it in the following paragraph: “When only considering the subset of reviews, where the objective was to investigate AEs (37 reviews), then 8 reviews (22%) expressed that SMT is safe, 13 reviews (35%) expressed that SMT is harmful and 16 reviews (43%) were neutral or unclear regarding the safety of SMT. Hence, there is a tendency that a bigger proportion of these reviews are expressing that SMT is harmful compared to the full sample of reviews…”

To my surprise, I found several of my own reviews in the ‘neutral or unclear’ category. Here are the verbatim conclusions of three of them:

  1. It is concluded that serious cerebrovascular complications of spinal manipulation continue to be reported.
  2. The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome.
  3. These data indicate that mild and transient adverse events seem to be frequent. Serious adverse events are probably rare but their incidence can only be estimated at present.

I find it puzzling how this could be classified as neutral or unclear. The solution of the puzzle might lie in the methodology used: “we appraised the communicated opinions of each review concerning the safety of SMT based on their conclusions regarding the AEs and SAEs. This was done by two reviewers independently (SMN, LK), who judged the communicated opinions as either ‘safe’, ‘neutral/unclear’ or ‘harmful’, based on the qualitative impression the reviewers had when reading the conclusions. The reviewers had no opinion about the safety/harmfulness of SMT before commencing the judgements. Cohen’s weighted Kappa was calculated for the agreement between the reviewers, with a value of 0.40–0.59 indicating ‘fair agreement’, 0.60–0.74 indicating ‘good agreement’ and ≥0.75 indicating ‘excellent agreement’. Disagreements were resolved by a third reviewer (MH).”

In other words, the categorisation was done on the basis of subjective judgements of two researchers. It seems obvious that, if their attitude was favourable towards SMT, their judgements would be influenced. The three examples from my own work cited above indicates to me that their verdicts were indeed far from objective.

So what is the main message here? In my view, it can be summarized in the following quote from the overview: “a bigger proportion of these reviews are expressing that SMT is harmful …”

Yes, yes, yes – I know that, if you are a chiropractor (or other practitioner using mostly SMT), you are unlikely to agree with this!

Perhaps you can agree with this statement then:

As long as there is reasonable doubt about the safety of SMT, and as long as we cannot be sure that SMT generates more good than harm, we should be very cautious using it for routine healthcare and do rigorous research to determine the truth (it’s called the precautionary principle and applies to all types of healthcare).

THE CHRONICLE OF CHIROPRACTIC is not a publication I usually read, I have to admit. But perhaps I should, because this article from its latest edition is truly fascinating. Here are the crucial excerpts:

“A so called “debate” on vertebral subluxation was held at the recent chiropractic educational conference held by the controlling factions of the Chiropractic Cartel: The World Federation of Chiropractic, the Association of Chiropractic Colleges and the American Chiropractic Association. Every few years this faction of the profession makes an attempt to disparage vertebral subluxation and those who practice in a subluxation model by trotting out its long list of Subluxation Deniers.

This year was no different.

David Newell, who is a Senior Lecturer at the Anglo European College of Chiropractic, made a number of unsubstantiated claims and engaged in logical fallacies that would shock even the casual observer. As an example, Newell made the statement:

“The subluxation as vitalistic concept, an impediment in and of itself to health and well being, impeding the expression of higher intelligence is not only entirely bereft of any evidence whatsoever but is a complete non starter even as a scientific question.”

…Newell claimed that what is dangerous about the use of vertebral subluxation are concepts and behavior associated with its use. Newell stated that subluxations are used by some in the profession to “scare or misinform patients” and gave the following examples of claims he has issues with:

  • You cannot be healthy with them
  • They will lead to serious disease
  • Chiropractors are the only ones that can help
  • A chiropractic manipulation is unique
  • You need to come back for the rest of your life
  • You need to bring your children otherwise they will not develop properly

Newell claimed that such statements are “confusing, un-evidenced and detrimental to our standing as a profession in the outside world” and that “at worse, sometimes used to justify approaches to care and practice models that are unacceptable both inside and outside of the profession.”

Newell … continued his tirade against his perceived threat to public health stating vertebral subluxation and the concepts attached to it are: “. . . used to generate dependancy through fear or coercion. Here, use of such words and concepts essentially as smoke screens for a model of care dominated by a coercive business ethic are strongly reputationally damaging and are not OK.” …Newell further claimed that the concept of ” . . . subluxation as an impediment to innate intelligence is bereft of science and evidence” and that “. . . this approach will be inadmissible to characterise a modern healthcare profession. Describing the profession in such language will further isolate and marginalise.”…”The irony” he states “. . . is of course that there are much better explanations, concepts and terms. Much of what is seen in practice can be explained by sound science and scientific language and so a subluxation model isn’t even needed.”

He went on to engage in further expressions of logical fallacies by stating: “Even on a simple level, science has yet to answer questions as to what a subluxation is as a defined entity, can it be validly and reliably identified, can it be validly and reliably shown to have gone post manipulation and is such disappearance associated with meaningful clinical change in patients.”

In reality, there is a rich evidence base that demonstrates the validity and reliability of numerous methods of measurements focused on the various components of vertebral subluxation as well as evidence demonstrating reduction or correction of it with resulting positive health outcomes.

Unfortunately, most simply go along with statements such as Newell’s either out of ignorance, simple aquiesence or collegiality.

Imagine the plight of students in a chiropractic program being exposed to Newell’s dogma, scientism and denial of even the existence of vertebral subluxation. That he is even given a stage and an audience is a failure of leadership within the ranks of those who purport to embrace the vitalistic concept of vertebral subluxation.

We laugh and mock those who contend the Earth is flat, yet Subluxation Deniers are given voice by schools and political organizations along with a role in determining the subluxation research agenda. And its the leadership on the traditional, conservative side of the profession that does this – as evidenced by his even being entertained at an educational conference billed as the largest and most important gathering of chiropractic educators and researchers.

Not a single objection to his, or any other Deniers, participation by the leadership in the vitalistic faction. In fact, quite the opposite – he was given the opportunity to spew his Flat Earth nonsense to a wide audience who educate the future of this profession.

Imagine a meeting at NASA where a Flat Earther is given a voice and a vote on the Mars Mission.

This was and is a failure of leadership within the vitalistic, conservative, traditional faction of the chiropractic profession.”

END OF EXCERTS

On this blog, we have heard again and again that the chiropractic profession is in the middle of a fundamental reform, that it has given up the idiotic concepts of its founders, that it has joined the 21st century, that it is becoming evidence-based, that progress is being made etc. etc. However, sceptics have always doubted these claims and pointed out that chiropractic minus its traditional concepts would merely become a limited type of physiotherapy.

From the above article, I get the impression that the notion of reform might be a bit optimistic. The old guard seems to be as alive and powerful as ever, fighting as fiercely as always to preserve chiropractic’s nonsensical cult.

Some will, of course, claim that the above article shows exactly the opposite of what I just stated. They will try to persuade us that it is evidence for the struggle of the new generation of chiropractors instilling reason into their brain-dead peers. It is evidence, they will claim, for the fact that there is a healthy discussion within the profession.

Yet this is simply not true: The maligned Mr Newell is NOT a chiropractor!

To me, the above article suggests that, for the foreseeable future, chiropractic will remain where it always has been: firmly anchored in the realm of quackery.

We use too many opioids; some experts even speak of an epidemic of opioid over-use. This is a serious problem not least because opioids are addictive and have other serious adverse-effects. But what can be done about it? Currently many experts are trying to answer this very questions.

It must be clear to any observer of the ‘alternative medicine scene’ that charlatans of all types would sooner or later try to jump on the ‘opioid band-waggon’.  And indeed exactly this has already happened!

In particular, chiropractors have been busy in this respect. For instance, Alison Dantas, CEO, Canadian Chiropractic Association (CCA) has been quoted in a press-release by the CCA stating that “Chiropractic services are an important alternative to opioid prescribing… We are committed to working collaboratively to develop referral tools and guidelines for prescribing professions that can help to prioritize non-pharmacological approaches for pain management and reduce the pressure to prescribe… We are looking to build an understanding of how to better integrate care that is already available in communities across Canada… Integrating chiropractors into interprofessional care teams has been shown to reduce the use of pharmacotherapies and improve overall health outcomes. This effort is even more important now because the new draft Canadian prescribing guidelines strongly discourage first use of opioids.”

I find it hard to call this by any other name than ‘CHIROPRACTIC MEGALOMANIA’.

Do chiropractors really believe that their spinal manipulations can serve as an ‘alternative to opioid prescribing’?

Do they not know that there is considerable doubt over the efficacy of chiropractic manipulation for back pain?

Do they not know that, for all other indications, the evidence is even worse or non-existent?

Do they really think they are in a position to ‘develop referral tools and guidelines for prescribing professions’?

Do they forget that their profession has never had prescribing rights, understands almost nothing about pharmacology, and is staunchly against drugs of all kinds?

Do they really believe there is good evidence showing that ‘integrating chiropractors into interprofessional care teams… reduce(s) the use of pharmacotherapies and improve overall health outcomes’?

Personally, I cannot imagine so.

Personally, I fear that, if they do believe all this, they suffer from megalomania.

Personally, I think, however, that their posturing is little more than yet another attempt to increase their cash-flow.

Personally, I get the impression that they rate their income too far above public health.

 

The ‘CHRONICLE OF CHIROPRACTIC’ recently reported on the relentless battle within the chiropractic profession about the issue of ‘subluxation’. Here is (slightly abbreviated) what this publication had to say:

START OF QUOTE

Calling subluxation based chiropractors “unacceptable creatures” chiropractic researcher Keith H Charlton DC, MPhil, MPainMed, PhD, FICC, recently stated “. . . that it is no longer scientifically acceptable for any responsible chiropractic clinician to ever use the word subluxation except as theory . . .” Charlton made the comment to members of the Chiropractic Research Alliance a group of subluxation deniers who routinely disparage the concept of subluxation.

Charlton is a well known “Subluxation Denier” and frequently attacks subluxation based chiropractors in his peer reviewed research papers and on Facebook groups. According to Charlton in a paper published in the journal Chiropractic and Osteopathy: “The dogma of subluxation is perhaps the greatest single barrier to professional development for chiropractors. It skews the practice of the art in directions that bring ridicule from the scientific community and uncertainty among the public.”

On January 5, 2017 Charlton further stated: “We need NOW in 2017 and beyond to get rid of the quacks that do us so much harm. They need to be treated personally and professionally as utterly unacceptable creatures to be shunned and opposed at every turn. Time to get going on cleaning out the trash. And that includes all signs, websites, literature, handouts and speech of staff and chiropractors.”

…Charlton has testified against subluxation based chiropractors in regulatory board actions and appears to revel in it.

In his most recent pronouncement Charlton states that he is okay with subluxation as a “regional spine shape distortion” and asserts that this is a CBP subluxation. This contention is common with subluxation deniers who are willing to accept an orthopedic definition of subluxation absent the neurological component.

…Charlton states he uses the following techniques on his website:

  • Applied Kinesiology
  • Diversified
  • Motion Palpation
  • Sacro-Occipital Technique
  • Activator
  • Logan Basic

When this self-declared scientist was confronted with his use of Applied Kinesiology and these other techniques his response was essentially that he is engaging in a “bait and switch” and that he just has those on his website to get patients who are looking for those things. Charlton lists 21 “research papers” on his curriculum vitae though they are all simply commentaries or reviews not original clinical research. The majority of these opinion pieces are attacks on subluxation and the chiropractors who focus on it.

END OF QUOTE

What does this tell us?

  • It seems to me that the ‘anti-subluxation’ movement with in the chiropractic profession is by no means winning the battle against the ‘hard-core subluxationists’.
  • Chiropractors cannot resist the temptation to use ad hominem attacks instead of factual arguments. I suppose this is because the latter are in short supply.
  • The ‘anti-subluxationists’ present themselves as the evidence-based side of the chiropractic spectrum. This impression might well be erroneous. Giving up the myth of subluxation obviously does not necessarily mean abandoning other forms of quackery.

At a recent conference in Montréal (October 2016), the WFC (World Federation of Chiropractic) and the ACC (Association of Chiropractic Colleges) reached a consensus on education. Consequently, recommendations were produced that offer 12 key ‘take away messages’. I take the liberty of reproducing these statements entitled ‘Training Tomorrow’s Spine Care Experts’ (the square brackets were inserted by me and refer to brief comments I made below).

START OF QUOTE

1. Chiropractic educational institutions have a  responsibility to equip students with the skills and  attributes necessary to become future spinal health care experts. This includes a commitment to astute diagnostic ability, a comprehensive knowledge of spine-related disorders [1], appreciation for the contributions of other health professionals and a commitment to collaborative, patient-centered and evidence-informed care [2].

2. Technological advances [3] provide an opportunity for the chiropractic profession to enhance, evolve and standardize core education and practice. This is relevant to the teaching of chiropractic skills, sharing of learning resources and assessment of performance. Emerging technologies that support the development of clinically-competent practitioners should be embedded within chiropractic programs.

3. The teaching and learning of specialized manual assessment and treatment skills should remain a key distinguishing element of chiropractic curricula.

4. Surveys of the public have a demonstrated a desire for consistency in the provision of chiropractic services. Such consistency need not compromise the identities of individual institutions but will cultivate public trust and cultural authority [4].

5. Globally consistent educational and practice standards will facilitate international portability [5] and promote greater health equity in the delivery of spine care.

6. Chiropractic programs should espouse innovation and leadership in the context of ethical [6], sustainable business [7] practices.

7. Chiropractic educational curricula should reflect current evidence [8] and high quality guidelines [9], and be subjected to regular review to ensure that students are prepared to work in collaborative health care environments.

8. The training of tomorrow’ s spine care experts should incorporate current best practices in education.

9. Interdisciplinary collaboration and strategic partnerships present opportunities to position chiropractors as leaders [10] and integral team players in global spine care.

10. Chiropractic educational institutions should champion the integration of evidence informed clinical practice [11], including clinical practice guidelines, in order to optimize patient outcomes. This will in turn foster principles of lifelong learning and willingness to adapt practice methods in the light of emerging evidence [12].

11. Students, faculty, staff and administrators must all contribute to a learning environment that fosters cultural diversity, critical thinking [13], academic responsibility and scholarly activity.

12. Resources should be dedicated to embed and promote educational research activity in all chiropractic institutions.

END OF QUOTE

And here are my brief comments:

[1] Some chiropractors believe that all or most human conditions are ‘spine-related disorders’. We would need a clear statement here whether the WFC/ACC do support or reject this notion and what conditions we are actually talking about.

[2] ‘Evidence-informed’??? I have come across this term before; it is used more and more by quacks of all types. It is clearly not synonymous with ‘evidence-based’, but aims at providing a veneer of respectability by creation an association with EBM. In concrete terms, asthma, for instance, might, in the eyes of some chiropractors, be an evidence-informed indication for chiropractic. In other words, ‘evidence-informed’ is merely a card blanch for promoting all sorts of nonsense.

[3] It would be good to know which technical advances they are thinking of.

[4] Public trust is best cultivated by demonstrating that chiropractic is doing more good than harm; by itself, this point sounds a bit like PR for maximising income. Sorry, I am not sure what they mean by ‘cultural authority’ – chiropractic as a cult?

[5] ‘International portability’ – nice term, but what does it mean?

[6] I get the impression that many chiropractors do not know what is meant by the term ‘ethics’.

[7] But they certainly know much about business!

[8] That is, I think, the most relevant statement in the entire text – see below.

[9] Like those by NICE which no longer recommend chiropractic for back pain? No? They are not ‘high quality’? I see, only those that recommend chiropractic fulfil this criterion!

[10] Chiropractors as leaders? Really? With their (largely ineffective) manipulations as the main contribution to the field? You have to be a chiropractor to find this realistic, I guess.

[11] Again ‘evidence-informed’ instead of ‘evidence-based’ – who are they trying to kid?

[12] The evidence that has been emerging since many years is that chiropractic manipulations fail to generate more good than harm.

[13] In the past, I got the impression that critical thinking and chiropractic are a bit like fire and water.

MY CONCLUSION FROM ALL THIS

What we have here is, in my view, little more than a mixture between politically correct drivel and wishful thinking. If chiropractors truly want chiropractic educational curricula to “reflect current evidence”, they need to teach the following main tenets:

  • Chiropractic manipulations have not been shown to be effective for any of the conditions they are currently used for.
  • Other forms of treatment are invariably preferable.
  • Subluxation, as defined by chiropractors, is a myth.
  • Spine-related disorders, as taught in many chiropractic colleges, are a myth.
  • ‘Evidence-informed’ is a term that has no meaning; the proper word is ‘evidence-based’ – and evidence-based chiropractic is a contradiction in terms.

Finally, chiropractors need to be aware of the fact that any curriculum for future clinicians must include the core elements of critical assessment and medical ethics. The two combined would automatically discontinue the worst excesses of chiropractic abuse, such as the promotion of bogus claims or the financial exploitation of the public.

But, of course, none of this is ever going to happen! Why? Because it would mean teaching students that they need to find a different profession. And this is why I feel that statements like the above are politically correct drivel which can serve only one purpose: to distract everyone from the fundamental problems in that profession.

Yes, to a large extend, quacks make a living by advertising lies. A paper just published confirms our worst fears.

This survey was aimed at identifying the frequency and qualitative characteristics of marketing claims made by Canadian chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths and acupuncturists relating to the diagnosis and treatment of allergy and asthma.

A total of 392 chiropractic, naturopathic, homeopathic and acupuncture clinic websites were located in 10 of the largest metropolitan areas in Canada. The main outcome measures were: mention of allergy, sensitivity or asthma, claim of ability to diagnose allergy, sensitivity or asthma, claim of ability to treat allergy, sensitivity or asthma, and claim of allergy, sensitivity or asthma treatment efficacy. Tests and treatments promoted were noted as qualitative examples.

The results show that naturopath clinic websites had the highest rates of advertising at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy or sensitivity (85%) and asthma (64%), followed by acupuncturists (68% and 53%, respectively), homeopaths (60% and 54%) and chiropractors (33% and 38%). Search results from Vancouver were most likely to advertise at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy or sensitivity (72.5%) and asthma (62.5%), and results from London, Ontario were least likely (50% and 40%, respectively). Of the interventions advertised, few are scientifically supported; the majority lack evidence of efficacy, and some are potentially harmful.

[Legend to figure above: Percentage of alternative medicine clinic websites advertising at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy/sensitivity or asthma. Presenting the data in this way demonstrates that the Canadian naturopath, homeopath and acupuncturist websites studied have >50% rates of making at least one health-related claim for both allergy/sensitivity and asthma.]

The authors concluded that the majority of alternative healthcare clinics studied advertised interventions for allergy and asthma. Many offerings are unproven. A policy response may be warranted in order to safeguard the public interest.

In the discussion section, the authors state: “These claims raise ethical issues, because evidence in support of many of the tests and treatments identified on the websites studied is lacking. For example, food-specific IgG testing was commonly advertised, despite the fact that the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has recommended not to use this test due to the absence of a body of research supporting it. Live blood analysis, vega/electrodiagnostic testing, intravenous vitamin C, probiotics, homeopathic allergy remedies and several other tests and treatments offered all lack substantial scientific evidence of efficacy. Some of the proposed treatments are so absurd that they lack even the most basic scientific plausibility, such as ionic foot bath detoxification…

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that several proposed treatments for allergy, sensitivity or asthma are potentially harmful. These include intravenous hydrogen peroxide, spinal manipulation and possibly others. Furthermore, a negative effect of the use of invalid and inaccurate allergy testing is the likelihood that such testing will lead to alterations and exclusions in diets, which can subsequently result in malnutrition and other physiological problems…”

This survey originates from Canada, and one might argue that elsewhere the situation is not quite as bad. However, I would doubt it; on the contrary, I would not be surprised to learn that, in some other countries, it is even worse.

Several national regulators have, at long last, become aware of the dangers of advertising of outright quackery. Consequently, some measures are now beginning to be taken against it. I would nevertheless argue that these actions are far too slow and by no means sufficiently effective.

We easily forget that asthma, for instance, is a potentially life-threatening disease. Advertising of bogus claims is therefore  much more than a forgivable exaggeration aimed at maximising the income of alternative practitioners – it is a serious threat to public health.

We must insist that regulators protect us from such quackery and prevent the serious harm it can do.

The boom of alternative medicine in the US – and consequently in the rest of the developed world – is intimately connected with a NHI centre now called NCCIH (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health). It was founded in the early 1990s because some politicians were bent on promoting quackery. Initially the institution had modest funding but, after more political interference, it had ample cash to pursue all sorts of activities, including sponsoring research into alternative therapies at US universities. A most interesting video summarising the history of the NCCIH can be seen here.

No other institution in the world had more funds for research into alternative medicine than the NCCIH, and it soon became the envy of alt med researchers globally. I have been invited by the NCCHI on several occasions and invariably was impressed by their apparent affluence. While we Europeans usually had to do our research on a shoe-string, our American colleagues seemed to be ‘rolling in it’.

I was often far less impressed with the research they sponsored. Not only it was invariably eye-wateringly expensive, but also its quality seemed often dismal. Sometimes, I even got the impression that research was used as a means of mainstreaming quackery for the unsuspecting American – and consequently world-wide – public.

An example of this mainstreaming is an article in JAMA published yesterday. Here is a short but telling excerpt:

Researchers led by Richard L. Nahin, PhD, MPH, lead epidemiologist at the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), examined efficacy and safety evidence in 105 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) conducted between January 1966 and March 2016. The review—geared toward primary care physicians as part of the journal’s Symposium on Pain Medicine—focused on popular complementary approaches to common pain conditions.

Unlike a typical systematic review that assigns quality values to the studies, the investigators conducted a narrative review, in which they simply looked at the number of positive and negative trials. “If there were more positives than negatives then we generally felt the approach had some value,” Nahin explained. “If there were more negatives, we generally felt the approach had less value.” Trials that were conducted outside of the United States were excluded from the review.

Based on a “preponderance” of positive vs negative trials, complementary approaches that may offer pain relief include acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Several other techniques had weaker evidence, according to the qualitative assessments, for specific pain conditions (see “Selected Complementary Health Approaches for Pain”). The treatments were generally safe, with no serious adverse events reported.

To me, this looks that NCCIH has now managed to persuade even the editors of JAMA to white-wash their dodgy science. The review referred to here is a paper we discussed some time ago on this blog. I then stated about it the following:

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.

I find it puzzling that the ‘lead epidemiologist at the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’ would publish such dubious research. Why does he do it? If you have watched the video mentioned above, you are inclined to think that it might be because of political interference.

However, I suggest another, in a way much more damming reason or contributing factor: the NCCIH has so long indulged in such poor science that even its top people have forgotten what good science looks like. I know this is a bold hypothesis; so, let me try to support it with some data.

Several years ago, my team together with several other researches have looked at the NCCIH-sponsored research systematically according to 4 different subject areas. Here are the conclusions of our articles reporting the findings:

ACUPUNCTURE

Seven RCTs had a low risk of bias. Numerous methodological shortcomings were identified. Many NCCAM-funded RCTs of acupuncture have important limitations. These findings might improve future studies of acupuncture and could be considered in the ongoing debate regarding NCCAM-funding. [Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 17(1) March 2012 15–21]

HERBAL MEDICINE

This independent assessment revealed a plethora of serious concerns related to NCCAM studies of herbal medicine. [Perfusion 2011; 24: 89-102]

ENERGY MEDICINE

In conclusion, the NCCAM-funded RCTs of energy medicine are prime examples of misguided investments into research. In our opinion, NCCAM should not be funding poor-quality studies of implausible practices. The impact of any future studies of energy medicine would be negligible or even detrimental. [Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 16(2) June 2011 106–109 ]

CHIROPRACTIC

In conclusion, our review demonstrates that several RCTs of chiropractic have been funded by the NCCAM. It raises numerous concerns in relation to these studies; in particular, it suggests that many of these studies are seriously flawed. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21207089]

I think I can rest my case and urge you to watch the video mentioned above.

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