Alternative medicine suffers from what might be called ‘survey overload’: there are far too much such investigations and most of them are of deplorably poor quality producing nothing of value except some promotion for alternative medicine. Yet, every now and then, one finds a paper that is worth reading, and I am happy to say that this survey (even though it has several methodological shortcomings) belongs in this category.
This cross-sectional assessment of the views of general practitioners towards chiropractors and osteopaths was funded by the Department of Chiropractic at Macquarie University. It was designed as a quantitative descriptive study using an anonymous online survey that included closed and open-ended questions with opportunities provided for free text. The target population was Australian general practitioners. Inclusion criteria included current medical registration, membership of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and currently practicing as a general practitioner in Australia. The data being reported here were collected between May and December, 2014.
There were 630 respondents to the online survey during this period representing a response rate of 2.6 %. Results were not uniform for the two professions. More general practitioners believed chiropractic education was not evidence-based compared to osteopathic education (70 % and 50 % respectively), while the scope of practice was viewed as similar for both professions. A majority of general practitioners had never referred a patient to either profession (chiropractic: 60 %; osteopathy: 66 %) and indicated that they would not want to co-manage patients with either profession. Approximately two-thirds of general practitioners were not interested in learning more about their education (chiropractors: 68 %; osteopaths: 63 %).
The authors concluded that this study provides an indication of the current views of Australian general practitioners towards chiropractors and osteopaths. The findings suggest that attitudes may have become less favourable with a growing intolerance towards both professions. If confirmed, this has the potential to impact health service provision. The results from this cross-sectional study suggest that obtaining representative general practitioner views using online surveys is difficult and another approach is needed to supplement or replace the current recruitment strategy.
The authors do not speculate on the reasons why the attitudes of general practitioners towards chiropractic and osteopathy might have become more critical. Therefore I decided to offer a few possibilities here. The more negative views could be due to:
- better education of general practitioners,
- tightening of healthcare budgets,
- recent ‘bad press’ and loss of reputation (for instance, the BCA’s libel action against Simon Singh),
- the work of sceptics in informing the public about the numerous bogus claims made by osteopaths and chiropractors,
- the plethora of overtly bogus claims which nevertheless continue to be made by these practitioners on a daily basis,
- a more general realisation that these therapies can cause very serious harm,
- a mixture of the above factors.
Whatever the reasons are, the finding that there now seems to be a growing scepticism (in Australia, but hopefully elsewhere as well) about the value of chiropractic and osteopathy is something that cheers me up no end.
The risks of consulting a chiropractor have regularly been the subject of this blog (see for instance here, here and here). My critics believe that I am alarmist and have a bee in my bonnet. I think they are mistaken and believe it is important to warn the public of the serious complications that are being reported with depressing regularity, particularly in connection with neck manipulations.
It has been reported that the American model Katie May died earlier this year “as the result of visiting a chiropractor for an adjustment, which ultimately left her with a fatal tear to an artery in her neck” This is the conclusion drawn by the L.A. County Coroner.
According to Wikipedia, Katie tweeted on January 29, 2016, that she had “pinched a nerve in [her] neck on a photoshoot” and “got adjusted” at a chiropractor. She tweeted on January 31, 2016 that she was “going back to the chiropractor tomorrow.” On the evening of February 1, 2016, May “had begun feeling numbness in a hand and dizzy” and “called her parents to tell them she thought she was going to pass out.” At her family’s urging, May went to Cedars Sinai Hospital; she was found to be suffering a “massive stroke.” According to her father, she “was not conscious when we got to finally see her the next day. We never got to talk to her again.” Life support was withdrawn on February 4, 2016.
Katie’s death certificate states that she died when a blunt force injury tore her left vertebral artery, and cut off blood flow to her brain. It also says the injury was sustained during a “neck manipulation by chiropractor.” Her death is listed as accidental.
Katie’s family is said to be aware of the coroner’s findings. They would not comment on whether they or her estate would pursue legal action.
The coroner’s verdict ends the uncertainty about Katie’s tragic death which was well and wisely expressed elsewhere:
“…The bottom line is that we don’t know for sure. We can’t know for sure. If you leave out the chiropractic manipulations of her neck, her clinical history—at least as far as I can ascertain it from existing news reports—is classic for a dissection due to neck trauma. She was, after all, a young person who suffered a seemingly relatively minor neck injury that, unbeknownst to her, could have caused a carotid artery dissection, leading to a stroke four or five days later… Thus, it seems to be jumping to conclusions for May’s friend Christina Passanisi to say that May “really didn’t need to have her neck adjusted, and it killed her.” … Her two chiropractic manipulations might well have either worsened an existing intimal tear or caused a new one that led to her demise. Or they might have had nothing to do with her stroke, her fate having been sealed days before when she fell during that photoshoot. There is just no way of knowing for sure. It is certainly not wrong to suspect that chiropractic neck manipulation might have contributed to Katie May’s demise, but it is incorrect to state with any degree of certainty that her manipulation did kill her.”
My conclusions are as before and I think they need to be put as bluntly as possible: avoid chiropractors – the possible risks outweigh the documented benefits – and if you simply cannot resist consulting one: DON’T LET HIM/HER TOUCH YOUR NECK!
This is your occasion to meet some of the most influential and progressive people in health care today! An occasion too good to be missed! The future of medicine is integrated – we all know that, of course. Here you can learn some of the key messages and techniques from the horses’ mouths. Book now before the last places have gone; at £300, this is a bargain!!!
The COLLEGE OF MEDICINE announced the event with the following words:
This two-day course led by Professor David Peters and Dr Michael Dixon will provide an introduction to integrated health and care. It is open to all clinicians but should be particularly helpful for GPs and nurses, who are interested in looking beyond the conventional biomedical box.
The course will include sessions on lifestyle approaches, social prescribing, mind/body therapies and cover most mainstream complementary therapies.
The aim of the course will be to demonstrate our healing potential beyond prescribing and referral, to provide information that will be useful in discussing non-conventional treatment options with patients and to teach some basic skills that can be used in clinical practice. The latter will include breathing techniques, basic manipulation and acupuncture, mind/body therapies including self-hypnosis and a limited range of herbal remedies. There will also be an opportunity to discuss how those attending might begin to integrate their everyday clinical practice.
The course will qualify for Continuing Professional Development hours and can provide a first stage towards a Fellowship of the College.
Both Dixon and Peters have been featured on this blog before. I have also commented regularly on the wonders of integrated (or was it integrative?) medicine. And I have even blogged about the College of Medicine and what it stands for. So readers of this blog know about the players as well as the issues for this event. Now it surely must be time to learn more from those who are much better placed than I to teach about bogus claims, phoney theories and unethical practices.
What are you waiting for? Book now – they would love to have a few rationalists in the audience, I am sure.
Chiropractors may not be good at treating diseases or symptoms, but they are certainly good at promoting their trade. As this trade hardly does more good than harm, one could argue that chiropractors are promoting bogus and potentially harmful treatments to fill their own pockets.
Does that sound too harsh? If you think so, please read what Canadian researchers have just published:
This study aimed to investigate the presence of critiques and debates surrounding efficacy and risk of Spinal Manipulative Therapy (SMT) on the social media platform Twitter. Specifically, it examined whether there is presence of debate and whether critical information is being widely disseminated.
An initial corpus of 31,339 tweets was compiled through Twitter’s Search Application Programming Interface using the query terms “chiropractic,” “chiropractor,” and “spinal manipulation therapy.” Tweets were collected for the month of December 2015. Post removal of tweets made by bots and spam, the corpus totalled 20,695 tweets, of which a sample (n=1267) was analysed for sceptical or critical tweets.
The results showed that there were 34 tweets explicitly containing scepticism or critique of SMT, representing 2.68% of the sample (n=1267). As such, there is a presence of 2.68% of tweets in the total corpus, 95% CI 0-6.58% displaying explicitly sceptical or critical perspectives of SMT. In addition, there are numerous tweets highlighting the health benefits of SMT for health issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), immune system, and blood pressure that receive scant critical attention. The presence of tweets in the corpus highlighting the risks of “stroke” and “vertebral artery dissection” is also minute (0.1%).
The authors drew the following conclusions: In the abundance of tweets substantiating and promoting chiropractic and SMT as sound health practices and valuable business endeavors, the debates surrounding the efficacy and risks of SMT on Twitter are almost completely absent. Although there are some critical voices of SMT proving to be influential, issues persist regarding how widely this information is being disseminated.
I have no doubt that this paper will be sharply criticised by chiropractors, other manipulators and lobbyists of quackery. Yet I think it is an interesting and innovative approach to describe what is and is not being said on public media. The fact that chiropractors hardly ever publicly criticise or challenge each other on Twitter or elsewhere for even the most idiotic claims is, in my view, most telling.
Few people would doubt that such platforms have become hugely important in forming public opinions, and it seems safe to assume that consumers views about SMT are strongly influenced by what they read on Twitter. If we accept this position, we also have to concede that Twitter et al. are a potential danger to public health.
The survey is, however, not flawless, and the authors are the first to point that out: Given the nature of Twitter discussions and the somewhat limited access provided by Twitter’s API, it can be challenging to capture a comprehensive collection of tweets on any topic. In addition, other potential terms such as “chiro” and “spinal adjustment” are present on Twitter, which may produce datasets with somewhat different results. Finally, although December 2015 was chosen at random, there is nothing to suggest that other time frames would be significantly similar or different. Despite these limitations, this study highlights the degree to which discussions of risk and critical views on efficacy are almost completely absent from Twitter. To this I would add that a comparison subject like nursing or physiotherapy might have been informative, and that somehow osteopaths have been forgotten in the discussion.
The big question, of course, is: what can be done about creating more balance on Twitter and elsewhere? I wish I had a practical answer. In the absence of such a solution, all I can offer is a plea to everyone who is able of critical thinking to become as active as they can in busting myths, disclosing nonsense and preventing the excesses of harmful quackery.
Let’s all work tirelessly and effectively for a better and healthier future!
Low back pain (LBP) is a ‘minor complaint’ in the sense that it does not cost patients’ lives. At the same time, LBP is amongst the leading causes of disability and one of the most common reasons for patients to seek primary care. Chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists and general practitioners are among those treating LBP patients, but there is only limited evidence regarding the effectiveness offered by these provider groups.
The aim of this systematic review was to estimate the clinical effectiveness and to systematically review economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to other commonly used approaches among adult patients with non-specific LBP.
A comprehensive search strategy was conducted to identify 1) pragmatic randomized clinical trials (RCTs) and/or 2) full economic evaluations of chiropractic care for low back pain compared to standard care delivered by other healthcare providers. Studies published between 1990 and 4th June 2015 were considered. The primary outcomes included pain, functional status and global improvement. Study selection, critical quality appraisal and data extraction were conducted by two independent reviewers. Data from RCTs with low risk of bias were included in a meta-analysis to determine estimates of effect sizes. Cost estimates of full economic evaluations were converted to 2015 USD and results summarized.
Six RCTs and three full economic evaluations were included. Five RCTs with low risk of bias compared chiropractic care to exercise therapy (n = 1), physical therapy (n = 3) and medical care (n = 1). The authors found similar effects for chiropractic care and the other types of care. Three low to high quality full economic evaluations studies (one cost-effectiveness, one cost-minimization and one cost-benefit) compared chiropractic to medical care. Highly divergent conclusions (favours chiropractic, favours medical care, equivalent options) were noted for economic evaluations of chiropractic care compared to medical care.
The authors drew the following conclusions: moderate evidence suggests that chiropractic care for LBP appears to be equally effective as physical therapy. Limited evidence suggests the same conclusion when chiropractic care is compared to exercise therapy and medical care although no firm conclusion can be reached at this time. No serious adverse events were reported for any type of care. Our review was also unable to clarify whether chiropractic or medical care is more cost-effective. Given the limited available evidence, the decision to seek or to refer patients for chiropractic care should be based on patient preference and values. Future studies are likely to have an important impact on our estimates as these were based on only a few admissible studies.
This is a thorough and timely review. Its results are transparent and clear, however, its conclusions are, in my view, more than a little odd.
Let me try to re-formulate them such that they are better supported by the actual data: There is no good evidence to suggest that chiropractic care is better or worse that conventional therapeutic approaches currently used for LBP. The pooled sample size dimensions too small to allow any statements about the risks of the various approaches. The data are also too weak for any pronouncements on the relative cost-effectiveness of the various options. Given these limitations, the decision which approach to use should be based on a more comprehensive analysis of the therapeutic risks.
The point I am trying to make is quite simple:
- The fact that RCTs fail to show adverse effects could be due to the small collective sample size and/or to the well-known phenomenon that, in well-controlled trials, adverse effects tend to be significantly rarer than in routine care.
- Hundreds of serious adverse events have been reported after chiropractic spinal manipulations; to these we have to add the fact that ~50% of all chiropractic patients suffer from transient, mild to moderate adverse effects after spinal manipulations.
- If we want to generate a realistic picture of the safety of a therapy, we need to include case-reports, case-series and other non-RCT evidence.
- Conventional treatments of LBP may not be free of adverse effects, but some are relatively safe.
- It seems reasonable, necessary and ethical to consider a realistic picture of the relative risks when deciding which therapy amongst equally (in)effective treatments might be best.
To me, all this seems almost painfully obvious, and I ask myself why the authors of this otherwise sound review failed to consider such thoughts. As one normally is obliged to, the authors included a section about the limitations of their review:
Our review has limitations. First, we did not search the grey literature for clinical effectiveness studies. McAuley et al. showed that the inclusion of results from the grey literature tend to decrease effectiveness estimates in meta-analyses because the unpublished studies tend to report smaller treatment effects. Second, critical appraisal requires scientific judgment that may vary among reviewers. This potential bias was minimized by training reviewers to use a standardized critical appraisal tool and using a consensus process among reviewers to reach decisions regarding scientific admissibility. Most of the original between-group differences and pooled estimates in our meta-analysis did not favour a specific provider group, and we believe it is unlikely that the inclusion of unpublished grey literature would change our conclusions. Third, the low number of clinical trials prevents us from conducting a meaningful investigation for publication bias. Fourth, the majority of the included clinical effectiveness studies (three out of five) and all three economic evaluations were conducted in the United States. Caution should therefore be used when generalizing our findings to other settings or jurisdictions. With respect to economic evaluations in particular, local healthcare systems and insurance plans may have a higher impact on cost than the type of healthcare provider.
Remarkably, this section does not mention their useless assessment of the risks with one word. Why? One answer might be found in the small-print of the paper:
The authors … have the following competing interests: MAB: Personal fees from Ordre des chiropraticiens du Québec for one teaching presentation, outside the submitted work. MJS: Position at the Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics is funded by the Danish Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication. RBDS: Nothing to disclose. JB: Nothing to disclose. PH: Nothing to disclose. AB: Position at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University is funded by the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation. The Foundation had no role in the study design; in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript; or in the decision to submit the article for publication.
At first, I thought this survey would be yet another of those useless and boring articles that currently seem to litter the literature of alternative medicine. It’s abstract seemed to confirm my suspicion: “Fifty-two chiropractors in Victoria, Australia, provided information for up to 100 consecutive encounters. If patients attended more than once during the 100 encounters, only data from their first encounter were included in this study. Where possible patient characteristics were compared with the general Australian population…” But then I saw that the chiropractors were also asked to record their patients’ main complaints. That, I thought, was much more interesting, and I decided to do a post that focusses on this particular point.
The article informs us that 72 chiropractors agreed to participate (46 % response rate of eligible chiropractors approached). During the study, 20 (28 %) of these chiropractors withdrew and did not provide any data. Fifty two chiropractors (72 % of those enrolled) completed the study, providing information for 4464 chiropractor-patient encounters. Of these, 1123 (25 %) encounters were identified as repeat patient encounters during the recording period and were removed from further analyses, leaving 3287 unique patients.
The results that I want to focus on indicated that chiropractors give the following reasons for treating patients:
- maintenance: 39%
- spinal problems: 33%
- neck problems: 18%
- shoulder problems: 6%
- headache: 6%
- hip problems: 3%
- leg problems: 3%
- muscle problems: 3%
- knee problems: 2%
(the percentage figures refer to the percentages of patients with the indicated problem)
Yes, I know, there is lots to be criticised about the methodology used for this survey. But let’s forget about this for the moment and focus on the list of reasons or indications which these chiropractors give for treating patients. For which of these is there enough evidence to justify this decision and the fees asked for the interventions? Here is my very quick run-down of the evidence:
- maintenance: no good evidence.
- spinal problems: if they mean back pain by this nebulous term, an optimist might grant that there is some promising but by no means conclusive evidence.
- neck problems: again some promising but by no means conclusive evidence.
- shoulder problems: no good evidence.
- headache: again some promising but by no means conclusive evidence
- hip problems: no good evidence.
- leg problems: no good evidence.
- muscle problems: no good evidence.
- knee problems: no good evidence.
As I said, this is merely a very quick assessment. I imagine that many chiropractors will disagree with it – and I invite them to present their evidence in the comments section below. However, if I am correct (or at least not totally off the mark), this new survey seems to show that most of the things these chiropractors do is not supported by good evidence. One could be more blunt and phrase this differently:
- these chiropractors are misleading their patients;
- they are not behaving ethically;
- they are not adhering to EBP.
Yes, we (I mean rationalists who know about EBM) did suspect this all along – but now we can back it up with quite nice data from a recent survey done by chiropractors themselves.
As has been discussed on this blog many times before, the chiropractic profession seems to be in a bit of a crisis (my attempt at a British understatement). The Australian chiropractor, Bruce Walker, thinks that, with the adoption of his ten point plan, “the chiropractic profession has an opportunity to turn things around within a generation. Importantly, it has an obligation to the public and to successive generations of chiropractors ahead of it. By embracing this plan the profession can be set on a new path, a new beginning and a new direction. This plan should be known as the new chiropractic.”
And now you are. of course, dying to hear this 10 point plan – well, here it is [heavily abbreviated, I am afraid (the footnotes [ ] and the comments referring to them are mine)]:
- There is a need to improve pre professional education for chiropractors.
Universities or private colleges?
Chiropractic education should where possible be conducted at universities  and this does not mean small single purpose institutions that are deemed universities in name only. Why is this recommended? Primarily because unlike some private colleges, government funded universities insist on intellectual evidence based rigour  in their learning and teaching and importantly require staff to be research active. Chiropractic courses need to have an underpinning pedagogy that insists that content  is taught in the context of the evidence  and that students obtain the necessary training to question and critically appraise …
Underpinning chiropractic education is program accreditation and this is also in need of review particularly where vitalistic subluxation  based courses have been legitimised by the accreditation process…
Chiropractic education should also involve specifically relevant hospital access or work experience such as hospital rounds so that students can observe patients that are truly unwell and observe the signs and symptoms taught in their theory classes. Hospital rounds would also allow chiropractic students to interact with other health providers and increase the likelihood of legitimate partnership and respect between health professions .
Who should teach chiropractic students?…
- There is a need to establish a progressive identity.
Chiropractors need to become solely musculoskeletal practitioners with a special emphasis on spinal pain . If the profession becomes the world’s experts in this area it will command the respect deserved . Importantly it will not be seen as a collective of alternative medicine practitioners with a strange belief system …
- The profession should develop a generalised special interest.
…Chiropractic as a profession should also develop a special interest area in the health sciences that can make a worldwide contribution to other related health sciences. This could be either research based or clinically based or indeed both. Some possibilities are: the further development and refinement of evidence based practice , improved posture through motor control, musculoskeletal care for the aged and elderly, improving bone density or the very important area of translating research into practice via implementation science. Whatever chosen we need to develop a special interest that sets us apart as experts in a distinctive area .
- Marginalisation of the nonsensical elements within the profession.
As professionals chiropractors should not tolerate colleagues or leadership in the profession who demonstrate aberrant ideas. If colleagues transgress the boundaries or professionalism they should be reported to authorities and this should be followed up with action by those authorities …
- The profession and individual practitioners should be pro public health.
It is important to speak up openly in favour of evidence-based public health measures and to join public health associations and agencies … For example, chiropractors promoting anti-vaccination views need to be countered …
- Support legitimate organised elements of the profession.
Practitioners should support and become involved in chiropractic organisations that are clearly ethical and evidence based  and add value to them…
…Regular collective professional advertising of the benefits of chiropractic for back pain, for example, is a worthy undertaking but the advertisements or media offerings must be evidence based .
- The profession should strive to improve clinical practice.
Chiropractors contribute to the public health by the aggregated benefit of positive outcomes to health from their clinical practices … Where restrictive practice laws relating to chiropractors prescribing medication exist the profession should seek to overturn them …
- The profession should embrace evidence based practice.
EBP is the amalgam of best scientific evidence plus clinical expertise plus patient values and circumstances. So what could be missing from this equation? It is clear that in the opinion of a sizable minority of the profession the elements that are missing are “practitioner ideology” and “practitioner values and circumstances”. These additional self- serving and dangerous notions should not be entertained. The adoption of evidence based practice is critical to the future of chiropractic and yet there is resistance by elements within the profession. Soft resistance occurs with attempts to change the name of “Evidence-based practice” (EBP) to “Evidence-informed practice” (EIP). It is worth noting that currently there are over 13,000 articles listed in PUBMED on EBP but less than 100 listed on EIP. So why are some of our profession so keen to use this alternate and weaker term?
Hard resistance against EBP occurs where it is stated that the best evidence is that based on practice experience and not research. This apparently is known as Practice Based Evidence (PBE) and has a band of followers …
- The profession must support research.Research needs to become the number one aspiration of the profession. Research informs both practice and teaching. Without research the profession will not progress. Sadly, the research contribution by the chiropractic profession can only be described as seed like. Figure 1 is a comparison of articles published in the past 45 years by decade using the key words “Physiotherapy” or “Physical Therapy” versus “Chiropractic” (source PUBMED). The Y axis is the number of articles published and the X axis is the decade, the red represents physiotherapy articles, the blue chiropractic. The difference is stark and needs urgent change .If the profession at large ignores research whether in its conduct, administration or its results the profession will wither on the vine …
- Individual chiropractors need to show personal leadership to effect change.
Change within the profession will likely only occur if individual chiropractors show personal leadership….
As part of this personal leadership it will be critical to speak out within the profession. Speak out and become a mentor to less experienced colleagues …
Anyone you thinks that with such a strategy “the chiropractic profession has an opportunity to turn things around within a generation” is, in my view, naïve and deluded. The 10 points are not realistic and woefully incomplete. The most embarrassing omission is a clear statement that chiropractors are fully dedicated to making sure that they serve the best interest of their patients by doing more good than harm.
Several investigations have suggested that chiropractic care can be cost-effective. A recent review of 25 studies, for instance, concluded that cost comparison studies suggest that health care costs were generally lower among patients whose spine pain was managed with chiropractic care. However, its authors cautioned that the studies reviewed had many methodological limitations. Better research is needed to determine if these differences in health care costs were attributable to the type of HCP managing their care.
Better research might come from the US ‘Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services’ (CMS); they conduced a two-year demonstration of expanded Medicare coverage for chiropractic services in the treatment of beneficiaries with neuromusculoskeletal (NMS) conditions affecting the back, limbs, neck, or head.
The demonstration was conducted in 2005–2007 in selected counties of Illinois, Iowa, and Virginia and the entire states of Maine and New Mexico. Medicare claims were compiled for the preceding year and two demonstration years for the demonstration areas and matched comparison areas. The impact of the demonstration was analyzed through multivariate regression analysis with a difference-in-difference framework.
Expanded coverage increased Medicare expenditures by $50 million or 28.5% in users of chiropractic services and by $114 million or 10.4% in all patients treated for NMS conditions in demonstration areas during the two-year period. Results varied widely among demonstration areas ranging from increased costs per user of $485 in Northern Illinois and Chicago counties to decreases in costs per user of $59 in New Mexico and $178 in Scott County, Iowa.
The authors concluded that the demonstration did not assess possible decreases in costs to other insurers, out-of-pocket payments by patients, the need for and costs of pain medications, or longer term clinical benefits such as avoidance of orthopedic surgical procedures beyond the two-year period of the demonstration. It is possible that other payers or beneficiaries saved money during the demonstration while costs to Medicare were increased.
In view of such results, I believe chiropractors should stop claiming that chiropractic care is cost-effective.
In 2010, we published an investigation of 200 chiropractor websites and 9 chiropractic associations’ World Wide Web claims in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The outcome measure was claims (either direct or indirect) regarding the eight reviewed conditions, made in the context of chiropractic treatment.
We found evidence that 190 (95%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims regarding at least one of the conditions. When colic and infant colic data were collapsed into one heading, there was evidence that 76 (38%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims about all the conditions not supported by sound evidence. Fifty-six (28%) websites and 4 of the 9 (44%) associations made claims about lower back pain, whereas 179 (90%) websites and all 9 associations made unsubstantiated claims about headache/migraine. Unsubstantiated claims were made about asthma, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain.
At the time, we concluded that the majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue.
Have things changed since?
I fear not! I regularly come across websites of chiropractors where they happily make bogus claims. On this website, for instance, chiropractor Karen Smith claims that muscles in the upper neck affect the ear canals. “We don’t actually treat the ear infection, or the symptoms. What we do is, we assist the body’s natural healing ability,” says Smith. “So if there’s something going on with the joints and the muscles soft tissue, the nerves coming out that supply those muscles, those muscles can’t relax, so then they’re almost tight and in spasm, so that can’t allow the drainage to happen properly.”
When fluid builds up in the ears, it’s a breeding ground for bacteria and infection. Smith says specific, gentle adjustments, can help the body drain those fluids through the nose. “What we do is we get some motion in the upper neck, with my hands, or I might use an instrument as well,” says Smith. “There’s a few other techniques that we can do. We can do some sinus drainage. We can drain some of the fluid in the ear.”
A simple ear pull technique can also help. “So what we do is, we just take the ear of the child and we do a little pull and that can actually drain the fluid as well,” says Smith. Smith says a child’s overall health and immune system impacts how quickly they see results from the treatment. In some cases, relief can be instant. “What we notice right after an adjustment is a lot of times you’ll actually see the fluid drain through the nose,” says Smith… Smith says she also treats adults who have had chronic ear issues as a child or who are experiencing pain in the ear.
When I or others expose such nonsense, the apologists say that these are just a few ‘rotten apples’, and that the chiropractic profession is fast progressing. Yet, I very much doubt this claim. For any fast progression, one would want to see the profession taking decisive and effective action against the ‘rotten apples’. This is clearly not happening, at least not to an extend that would stop such dangerous quackery.
What practical lesson can be learnt from such insights?
The only responsible advice I can think of is this: IF YOU OR YOUR CHILD IS ILL, AVOID CONSULTING A CHIROPRACTOR.
Recently, I came across a good article where someone had assessed 100 websites by UK osteopaths. The findings are impressive:
57% of websites in the survey published the ‘self-healing’ claim
70% publicised the fact they offered cranial therapy;
61% made a claim to treat one or more specific ailments not related to the musculoskeletal system;
48% of practitioners also personally offered another CAM therapy;
71% of all sites surveyed located in a setting where other CAM was immediately available.
In total, 93% of the randomly selected websites checked at least one, often more, of the criteria for pseudoscientific claims. The author concluded that quackery is far from existing only on the fringe of osteopathic practice.
In a previous article, the author had stated that “there’s some (not strong) evidence that manual therapy may have some benefit in the case of lower back pain.” This evidence for the assumption that osteopathy works for back pain seems to rely heavily on one researcher: Licciardone JC. He comes from ‘The Osteopathic Research Center, University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth‘. which also is the flag-ship of research into osteopathy with plenty of funds and a worldwide reputation.
In 2005, he and his team published a systematic review/meta-analysis of RCTs which concluded that “osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT) significantly reduces low back pain. The level of pain reduction is greater than expected from placebo effects alone and persists for at least three months. Additional research is warranted to elucidate mechanistically how OMT exerts its effects, to determine if OMT benefits are long lasting, and to assess the cost-effectiveness of OMT as a complementary treatment for low back pain.”
This is the article cited regularly to support the statement that osteopathy is an effective therapy for back pain. As the paper is now over 10 years old, we clearly need a more up-to-date systematic review. Such an assessment of clinical research into osteopathic intervention for chronic non-specific low back pain (CNSLBP) was recently published by an Australian team. A thorough search of the literature in multiple electronic databases was undertaken, and all articles were included that reported clinical trials; had adult participants; tested the effectiveness and/or efficacy of osteopathic manual therapies applied by osteopaths, and had a study condition of CNSLBP. The quality of the trials was assessed using the Cochrane criteria. Initial searches located 809 papers, 772 of which were excluded on the basis of abstract alone. The remaining 37 papers were subjected to a detailed analysis of the full text, which resulted in 35 further articles being excluded. There were thus only two studies assessing the effectiveness of manual therapies applied by osteopaths in adult patients with CNSLBP. The results of one trial suggested that the osteopathic intervention was similar in effect to a sham intervention, and the other implies equivalence of effect between osteopathic intervention, exercise and physiotherapy.
In other words, there seems to be an overt contradiction between the conclusions of Licciardone JC and those of the Australian team. Why? we may well ask. Perhaps the Osteopathic Research Center is not in the best position to be impartial? In order to check them out, I decided to have a closer look at their publications.
This team has published around 80 articles mostly in very low-impact osteopathic journals. They include several RCTs, and I decided to extract the conclusions of the last 10 papers reporting RCTs. Here they are:
RCT No 1 (2016)
Subgrouping according to baseline levels of chronic LBP intensity and back-specific functioning appears to be a simple strategy for identifying sizeable numbers of patients who achieve substantial improvement with OMT and may thereby be less likely to use more costly and invasive interventions.
RCT No 2 (2016)
The OMT regimen was associated with significant and clinically relevant measures for recovery from chronic LBP. A trial of OMT may be useful before progressing to other more costly or invasive interventions in the medical management of patients with chronic LBP.
RCT No 3 (2014)
Overall, 49 (52%) patients in the OMT group attained or maintained a clinical response at week 12 vs. 23 (25%) patients in the sham OMT group (RR, 2.04; 95% CI, 1.36-3.05). The large effect size for short-term efficacy of OMT was driven by stable responders who did not relapse.
RCT No 4 (2014)
These findings suggest that remission of psoas syndrome may be an important and previously unrecognized mechanism explaining clinical improvement in patients with chronic LBP following OMT.
RCT No 5 (2013)
The large effect size for OMT in providing substantial pain reduction in patients with chronic LBP of high severity was associated with clinically important improvement in back-specific functioning. Thus, OMT may be an attractive option in such patients before proceeding to more invasive and costly treatments.
RCT No 6 (2013)
The OMT regimen met or exceeded the Cochrane Back Review Group criterion for a medium effect size in relieving chronic low back pain. It was safe, parsimonious, and well accepted by patients.
RCT No 7 (2012)
This study found associations between IL-1β and IL-6 concentrations and the number of key osteopathic lesions and between IL-6 and LBP severity at baseline. However, only TNF-α concentration changed significantly after 12 weeks in response to OMT. These discordant findings indicate that additional research is needed to elucidate the underlying mechanisms of action of OMT in patients with nonspecific chronic LBP.
RCT No 8 (2010)
Osteopathic manipulative treatment slows or halts the deterioration of back-specific functioning during the third trimester of pregnancy.
RCT No 8 (2004)
The OMT protocol used does not appear to be efficacious in this hospital rehabilitation population.
RCT No 9 (2003)
Osteopathic manipulative treatment and sham manipulation both appear to provide some benefits when used in addition to usual care for the treatment of chronic nonspecific low back pain. It remains unclear whether the benefits of osteopathic manipulative treatment can be attributed to the manipulative techniques themselves or whether they are related to other aspects of osteopathic manipulative treatment, such as range of motion activities or time spent interacting with patients, which may represent placebo effects.
RCT No 10
Sorry, there is no 10th paper reporting an RCT.
Most of the remaining articles listed on Medline are comments and opinion papers. Crucially, it would be erroneous to assume that they conducted a total of 9 RCTs. Several of the above cited articles refer to the same RCT.
However, the most remarkable feature, in my view, is that the conclusions are almost invariably positive. Whenever I find a research team that manages to publish almost nothing but positive findings on one subject which most other experts are sceptical about, my alarm-bells start ringing.
In a previous blog, I have explained this in greater detail. Suffice to say that, according to my theory, the trustworthiness of the ‘Osteopathic Research Center’ is nothing to write home about.
What, I wonder, does that tell us about the reliability of the claim that osteopathy is effective for back pain?