A systematic review of the evidence for effectiveness and harms of specific spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) techniques for infants, children and adolescents has been published by Dutch researchers. I find it important to stress from the outset that the authors are not affiliated with chiropractic institutions and thus free from such conflicts of interest.
They searched electronic databases up to December 2017. Controlled studies, describing primary SMT treatment in infants (<1 year) and children/adolescents (1–18 years), were included to determine effectiveness. Controlled and observational studies and case reports were included to examine harms. One author screened titles and abstracts and two authors independently screened the full text of potentially eligible studies for inclusion. Two authors assessed risk of bias of included studies and quality of the body of evidence using the GRADE methodology. Data were described according to PRISMA guidelines and CONSORT and TIDieR checklists. If appropriate, random-effects meta-analysis was performed.
Of the 1,236 identified studies, 26 studies were eligible. In all but 3 studies, the therapists were chiropractors. Infants and children/adolescents were treated for various (non-)musculoskeletal indications, hypothesized to be related to spinal joint dysfunction. Studies examining the same population, indication and treatment comparison were scarce. Due to very low quality evidence, it is uncertain whether gentle, low-velocity mobilizations reduce complaints in infants with colic or torticollis, and whether high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulations reduce complaints in children/adolescents with autism, asthma, nocturnal enuresis, headache or idiopathic scoliosis. Five case reports described severe harms after HVLA manipulations in 4 infants and one child. Mild, transient harms were reported after gentle spinal mobilizations in infants and children, and could be interpreted as side effect of treatment.
The authors concluded that, based on GRADE methodology, we found the evidence was of very low quality; this prevented us from drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of specific SMT techniques in infants, children and adolescents. Outcomes in the included studies were mostly parent or patient-reported; studies did not report on intermediate outcomes to assess the effectiveness of SMT techniques in relation to the hypothesized spinal dysfunction. Severe harms were relatively scarce, poorly described and likely to be associated with underlying missed pathology. Gentle, low-velocity spinal mobilizations seem to be a safe treatment technique in infants, children and adolescents. We encourage future research to describe effectiveness and safety of specific SMT techniques instead of SMT as a general treatment approach.
We have often noted that, in chiropractic trials, harms are often not mentioned (a fact that constitutes a violation of research ethics). This was again confirmed in the present review; only 4 of the controlled clinical trials reported such information. This means harms cannot be evaluated by reviewing such studies. One important strength of this review is that the authors realised this problem and thus included other research papers for assessing the risks of SMT. Consequently, they found considerable potential for harm and stress that under-reporting remains a serious issue.
Another problem with SMT papers is their often very poor methodological quality. The authors of the new review make this point very clearly and call for more rigorous research. On this blog, I have repeatedly shown that research by chiropractors resembles more a promotional exercise than science. If this field wants to ever go anywhere, if needs to adopt rigorous science and forget about its determination to advance the business of chiropractors.
I feel it is important to point out that all of this has been known for at least one decade (even though it has never been documented so scholarly as in this new review). In fact, when in 2008, my friend and co-author Simon Singh, published that chiropractors ‘happily promote bogus treatments’ for children, he was sued for libel. Since then, I have been legally challenged twice by chiropractors for my continued critical stance on chiropractic. So, essentially nothing has changed; I certainly do not see the will of leading chiropractic bodies to bring their house in order.
May I therefore once again suggest that chiropractors (and other spinal manipulators) across the world, instead of aggressing their critics, finally get their act together. Until we have conclusive data showing that SMT does more good than harm to kids, the right thing to do is this: BEHAVE LIKE ETHICAL HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS: BE HONEST ABOUT THE EVIDENCE, STOP MISLEADING PARENTS AND STOP TREATING THEIR CHILDREN!