MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Monthly Archives: November 2019

This survey investigated how many chiropractors in the Canadian province of Alberta promote a theory of subluxation, which health ailments or improvements were linked to subluxation, and whether the subluxation discourse was used to promote chiropractic for particular demographics.

Using the search engine on the Canadian Chiropractic Associations’ website, the researchers made a list of all clinics in Alberta. They then used Google searches to obtain a URL for each clinic with a website, totalling 324 URLs for 369 clinics. They then searched on each website for “subluxation” and performed content analysis on the related content.

One hundred twenty-one clinics’ websites (33%) presented a theory of vertebral subluxation. The ailments and improvements discussed in relation to subluxation were wide-ranging; they included the following:

  • ADHD,
  • allergies,
  • asthma,
  • autism,
  • back pain,
  • bed wetting
  • blood pressure,
  • cold,
  • colitis,
  • constipation,
  • diarrhoea,
  • dizziness,
  • ear infection,
  • epilepsy,
  • fatigue,
  • fever,
  • flu,
  • headache,
  • heart disease,
  • hormonal imbalance,
  • inflammation,
  • learning problems,
  • menstrual cramps,
  • MS,
  • nausea,
  • pain,
  • Parkinson’s disease,
  • problems with hearing,
  • problems with vision,
  • prostate cancer,
  • respiratory disease,
  • sciatica,
  • scoliosis,
  • sleeping problems,
  • spinal decay,
  • sudden infant death syndrome,
  • and many more.

The marketing of chiropractic for children was observed on 8% of the clinic websites.

The researchers concluded that, based on the controversy surrounding vertebral subluxation, the substantial number of clinic websites aligning their practice with vertebral subluxation should cause concern for regulatory bodies.

Why do so many chiropractors cling so tightly to the long obsolete concept of subluxation? The way I see it there are at least three reasons:

  1.  If they abandoned subluxation, they would quickly become physiotherapists, only with a much reduced scope of practice.
  2. Using the subluxation myth avoids the need of the knowledge of any complicated pathophysiology.
  3.  Subluxation is ever so good for business, as it renders chiropractic manipulation a cure all.

D. D. Palmer, the magnetic healer who invented chiropractic about 120 years ago, claimed that a vital energy, which he called the “innate”, controls all body functions. In the presence of “vertebral subluxation,” it cannot work adequately, he postulated. In other words, subluxations block the flow of the innate which, in turn, is the cause of all disease. Palmer therefore developed spinal manipulations to correct such subluxations and de-block the flow of the innate. Palmer defined chiropractic as a system of healing based on the premise that the body requires unobstructed flow through the nervous system of innate intelligence. This effectively makes the adjustment of subluxation a panacea.

To put it simply: subluxation is the carte blanche required for making unlimited bogus claims, while ripping off the public.

 

Arianne Shahvisi is a lecturer in Ethics and Medical Humanities at the Brighton & Sussex Medical School. She has long had an interest is so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – see here, for instance. Now she has published another most intriguing paper.

In it, she explains that scientific medicine (SM) neglects the needs of women relative to those of men. Subsequently she discusses the many limitations of SCAM and describe concerns about its use. Despite SCAM’s shortcommings, it is the domain of women who not only use it more frequently than men but also tend to be the practitioners practising SCAM. Arianne Shahvisi argues that, despite being chosen by women in reaction to the shortcomings of SM, SCAM cannot offer greater patient autonomy and is more liable to be exploitative.

Here conclusions are unusually long and I provide them here in full (after changing her abbreviation ‘AM’ to mine ‘SCAM’):

Within this paper I have made the following argument: SM is patriarchal and under-serves women; women dominate SCAM, both as users and service providers; women who choose SCAM often cite dissatisfaction with SM and the desire for greater autonomy and personalization within the clinical encounter. Based on these premises, it is likely that women use SCAM because it promises to offer greater autonomy and personalization than SM. This segues into a second argument: autonomy in healthcare requires informed consent; informed consent is not possible for SCAM therapies since mechanisms are either not known or not plausible, and there is no evidence base. These premises entail that SCAM cannot help patients to realize autonomy. Combining these two conclusions, it seems that SCAM does not offer the control and autonomy that is sought. Whilst it may be argued that SCAM offers personalization and a satisfactory therapeutic encounter, it must also be noted that forfeiting an evidence base, plausible mechanisms, and the ability to make autonomous decisions is a heavy loss to patients and one for which SM must take some responsibility.

I have attempted to motivate each of the above premises in the preceding sections. In this section I reflect on the implications of these conclusions and make recommendations to ensure that women’s health needs are more adequately met.

First, to the extent that rejection of SM may be seen as a form of resistance, the cost of that resistance is borne largely by the resistors themselves. Those who begin witha sense of dissatisfaction with SM—in many cases stemming from SM’s failure to provide them with adequate healthcare or to inspire trust in its own decency—end up with healthcare that is on many counts less adequate.

With the ascendance of a post-factual culture, arguments relying on evidence, reproducibility, and consistency are liable to have ever less traction. By corollary, the features that have typically worked against SCAM—its lack of an evidence base—are likely to pose less of a barrier to its uptake. This ought to be a grave public health concern, since the well-being of entire populations depends on medicine earning and retaining the trust of all. To see this, one need only consider how easily herd immunity is lost when trust in vaccination is undermined, putting entire populations at risk of disease outbreaks (Casidayetal.2006). Recommending against vaccination is common amongst SCAM practitioners (especially within chiropractic, homoeopathy, and naturopathy) whose philosophies so often rely on emphasizing, and in many cases overstating, iatrogenic risk (Ernst 2001).

Not much can be done now to atone for medicine’s history except to openly accept its shortcomings and under take particular effortS to re-engage marginal health populations. While it is easy to suggest that researchers should be devoting more time to women’s health issues and their treatments, the bench-to-bedside timeline is long, and more immediate efforts are also necessary. As Ernst (2010) has noted, concentrating on the therapeutic relationship within SM seems like the most constructive way forward. Although patients often look to SM for the ‘science of medicine’, clearly many are turning to SCAM for the ‘art of medicine^ (Ernst 2010, 1473)—for a compassionate clinical encounter in which patients are humanized and power differentials are flattened. While SM may have the upper hand in terms of mechanisms, an evidence base, and social capital, there are inadequacies in the patient–practitioner relationship, and in this respect there is much to learn from SCAM modalities, where the therapeutic relationship is key to their appeal. Even the most resolute SCAM user inevitably encounters SM professionals on occasion. Provided broader pressures on health workers permit them the time and space, those encounters present the possibility of demonstrating that SM can be person-centred, equitable, and sensitive to the differential needs of marginalized patient groups.

As I described in section 4, many of those who choose SCAM do so following a long period of unsatisfactory encounters with medical professionals as they pursue the treatment or resolution of long-term chronic ailments (Furnham and Vincent 2000; Cant and Sharma 2004). The majority of these patients are women. While SCAM practitioners are unlikely to offer therapies that are effective beyond placebo, they are able to offer consultations which are longer, more participatory, and more personalized. It is likely that most of the placebo effect is interpersonal and stems from the ritual of healing within encounters with practitioners, rather than from any specific therapy (Miller et al. 2009). There is some evidence that open label placebos still confer a placebo effect, which suggests that the therapeutic relationship plays a significant role (Kaptchuk et al. 2010). In light of these insights, Blease (2012) suggests that the placebo effect instead be referred to as the ‘positive care effect’. Given the importance of communication and autonomy amongst patients choosing SCAM, it is interesting to note that a surgical study shows that the extent of the positive care effect is contingent on the quality of the clinical encounter, with communication skills aimed at empowering patients being predictive of better clinical outcomes (Trummer et al. 2006).

Focusing on the U.K. healthcare system, I therefore recommend that general practitioners, who are the gatekeepers of the medical profession, make efforts to address the inadequacies in the clinical encounter, specifically for those with long-term health conditions or medically unexplained symptoms. As it stands, general practitioners in the United Kingdom spend ten minutes with each patient and are encouraged to focus on a single health issue. It is therefore unsurprising to note that dissatisfaction with the clinical encounter is shared by clinicians. In a recent survey, 55 per cent of general practice surgeries in the United Kingdom reported concerns about the quality of care they could provide and described their workload as unmanageable most of the time; 13 per cent reported that it was unmanageable all of the time (Iacobucci 2016). In another study, 68 percent  of general practitioners expressed the view that care could be improved by longer, higher-quality consultations, while 67 percent felt that patients with long-term conditions should be afforded longer consultations (Rimmer 2015). It has been demonstrated that longer consultation times correlate with a greater likelihood of taking a thorough medical history and conducting examinations in accordance with good practice, a lower prescribing rate, a greater likelihood of offering advice about preventative healthcare, and fewer follow-up consultations (Wilson and Childs 2002).

General practitioners are currently able to make referrals to specialists in various clinical disciplines. In addition to lengthening standard consultation times, the option of making general referrals may be a constructive way forward, i.e. arranging for the patient to have a lengthier consultation with a general practitioner rather than being siloed into a specialist referral (which is liable to be  an even less holistic encounter) or sent away. Given the importance of the therapeutic encounter, it is also worth considering increasing the number of talking therapies referrals for long-term physical health problems. As it stands, talking therapies are recommended within the U.K. National Health Service for a range of social, mental, and physical conditions. This could be broadened, so that those whose physical symptoms are not being satisfactorily resolved within the biomedical paradigm are able to benefit from a personalized therapeutic relationship which does not rely on implausible mechanisms (NHS Choices 2016).

That women may be less likely to benefit from medicine and therefore more likely to spend time and money  seeking therapies whose claims are questionable, whose benefits are negligible, and whose potential for exploitation is considerable, is a grave matter. Researchers and clinicians must take responsibility by consciously modernizing biomedicine to ensure that its goods are accessible to all and that the benefits of a positive therapeutic encounter are acknowledged and prioritized in the delivery of care.

One does not need to be a feminist to see that Arianne Shahvisi is correct in her line of arguing. Her insights are important and very well-put. Yet, they represent merely one aspect of SCAM, and there are many others. For instance, many consumers are not motivated to try SCAM by a disenchantment with SM. In fact, most of the research shows that this is not the main reason for becoming a SCAM proponent.

But, whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that those who subscribe to SCAM are getting a poor bargain. Arianne Shahvisi is therefore entirely correct in demanding that SM has to get its act together to avoid this from happening. I must have written and said it hundreds of times: whatever SCAM is, it is a poignant criticism of SM which must be used constructively for improving SM.

I receive all the energy I need by charging my butthole in the sunlight!

Actually, I don’t, but some people do!

The new so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) of ‘perineum sunning’ has become all the rage. It gives an entirely new meaning to the word ‘holism’. And, like all good SCAMs, it has a long tradition. This article explains:

Butt chugging, or ‘perineum sunning’, is the latest wellness and health trend to take over Instagram, but should you be stripping off?

What if I told you there was a 30-second trick to having a healthier libido, getting deeper sleep, boosting your creativity, super-charging your focus and having more balanced hormone function?

Well, apparently all you need to do is remove your Bonds and let your nether regions soak in some vitamin D. Gird your loins, friends, apparently “butt chugging” is a legitimate wellness trend and we’re completely and utterly perplexed.

Bringing “butt chugging”, or “perineum sunning” if you want to get official about it, into the cultural lexicon is self-proclaimed healer, teacher and micro-influencer Metaphysical Meagan. This week, the superfood lover went veritably viral after preaching about the “profound” benefits of perineum sunning on Instagram. Cue: much laughter, then much confusion.

 

A fan explained on Instagram:

30 seconds of sunlight on your butthole is the equivalent of a full day of sunlight with your clothes on,” and that it is “an ancient Taoist practice that’s been around for a while!” (Yes, because that is what “ancient” means.) A few weeks after her initial post, presumably because more and more people went to her page to comment after finding various jokes about it online, Metaphysical Meagan posted the photo on Instagram for a second time, now with an outrageously long caption meant to correct any misinformation. She explains that suntanning your asshole is meant to promote the “health & longevity of the physical body,” increase “creativity and creative output” and aid “in a healthy libido & balanced sexual energy.” It is definitely “NOT TO TAN YOUR BUTTHOLE‼️‼️” Also, “sunscreen is not required.

So, perineum sunning is an ancient Taoist practice. That makes sense: rituals and exercises aimed at aligning oneself spiritually with cosmic forces, at undertaking ecstatic spiritual journeys, or at improving physical health are all-important elements of Taoism. And if it’s got such a noble, long tradition, perineum sunning must be good, mustn’t it? No evidence needed!

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing this SCAM. But now I am tempted, of course. As soon as the sun is out, I will try it in my garden. I do wonder, however, what the neighbours will think!

On this blog and elsewhere, I have repeatedly claimed that as early as 2002 I published data to show that UK homeopaths advise their patients against vaccinations.

So sorry, but this not entirely true!

The truth is that I had forgotten about this article published 1995 in the British Journal of General Practice. As it is quite short and reveals several interesting facts, allow me to provide it here in full:

Homoeopathic remedies are believed by doctors and patients to be almost totally safe. Is homoeopathic advice safe, for example on the subject of immunization? In order to answer this question, a questionnaire survey was undertaken in 1995 of all 45 homoeopaths listed in the Exeter ‘yellow pages’ business directory. A total of 23 replies (51%) were received, 10 from medically qualified and 13 from non-medically qualified homoeopaths.

The homoeopaths were asked to suggest which conditions they perceived as being most responsive to homoeopathy. The three most frequently cited conditions were allergies (suggested by 10 respondents), gynaecological problems (seven) and bowel problems (five). They were then asked to estimate the proportion of patients that were referred to them by orthodox doctors and the proportion that they referred to orthodox doctors. The mean estimated percentages were 1 % and 8%, respectively. The 23 respondents estimated that they spent a mean of 73 minutes on the first consultation.

The homoeopaths were asked whether they used or recommended orthodox immunization for children and whether they only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization. Seven of the 10 homoeopaths who were medically qualified recommended orthodox immunization but none of the 13 non-medically qualified homoeopaths did. One non-medically qualified homoeopath only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization.

Homoeopaths have been reported as being against orthodox immunization and advocating homoeopathic immunization for which no evidence of effectiveness exists. As yet there has been no attempt in the United Kingdom to monitor homoeopaths’ attitudes in this respect. The above findings imply that there may be a problem.

The British homoeopathic doctors’ organization (the Faculty of Homoeopathy) has distanced itself from the polemic of other homoeopaths against orthodox immunization, and editorials in the British Homoeopathic Journal call the abandonment of mass immunization ‘criminally irresponsible’ and ‘most unfortunate, in that it will be seen by most people as irresponsible and poorly based’.’ Homoeopathic remedies may be safe, but do all homoeopaths merit this attribute?

Yes indeed! These findings indicate that there may be a problem with non-medically trained homeopaths in the UK. It is good to see that now (24 years later) the NHS has taken note of it. At the same time, it is not at all good to see that non-medically trained homeopaths and their professional organisations have managed to remain in complete denial of it.

The UK homeopathy sector have issued a joint statement. The reason for this action is a series of allegedly negative press stories about homeopathy. Here is the full statement:

Homeopathy registers including the Society of Homeopaths, Faculty of Homeopathy and Alliance of Registered Homeopaths in conjunction with other homeopathy partners have come together to provide clarification for patients seeking advice and homeopathy treatment.

The joint homeopathy sector statement

“Recent media reports have incorrectly linked homeopathy to the anti-vaccination movement. A registered homeopath provides care according to the guidelines outlined in the Code of Practice of their registering body. This code ensures that the homeopath operates professionally, safely, and within their bounds of competence. Homeopathic medicines are prescribed on an individual basis to match a patient’s specific symptoms. Questions about vaccination from the public to a registered homeopath should be deferred to those medically trained to answer them, such as GPs.”

Emily Buttrum Chief Executive of the Society of Homeopaths commented that she was positive the joint statement would bring the homeopathic community together and protect the future of homeopathy and in turn patient choice. The joint statement reflects the Society’s clear guidance on professional standards.

The Society’s position statements may be viewed here 

The Homeopathy sector statement may be viewed here 

_____________________________________________________________

When homeopaths try to issue a serious ‘statement’, hilarity is rarely very far. Let me suggest what, in my view, the main reasons for hilarity are in the recent outburst:

  • Homeopaths and homeopathic organisations are hubs of anti-vaccination propaganda. To deny this means being in denial.
  • The anti-vaccination stance of UK lay homeopaths has  repeatedly been demonstrated (we have shown this already in 2002).
  • The recent media reports were not incorrect.
  • These reports were necessary steps to protect the public from charlatans.
  • Homeopaths provide care according to guidelines, unless they violate them.
  • Violations have happened repeatedly.
  • The homeopathic organisations have a long history of failing to adequately address this problem.
  • Arguably, homeopaths do not operate within any bounds of competence; if they did, they would not prescribe ineffective treatments.
  • Homeopathic remedies are individualised, except in ‘clinical homeopathy’ where they are not.
  • Questions about vaccination should be referred to GPs; except they are often not, as the recent evidence has shown.

I am glad to hear that Mrs Buttrum believes that a bunch of pranks, porkies and outright falsehoods will bring homeopaths together. In fact, I am optimistic they will, not lease because, for more than 200 years, homeopathy is being held together by little more than that.

On 6 November the Guardian published an article in which acupuncture and its risks were briefly mentioned. It prompted a complaint by the British Acupuncture Council which, I think, is sufficiently interesting to merit a discussion. The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) has a membership of around 3,000 professionally qualified acupuncturists. It is the UK’s largest professional/ self-regulatory body for the practice of traditional acupuncture. Here is their complaint in full:

Re: Guardian article ‘Doctors call for tighter regulation of traditional Chinese medicine’, published 6 November 2019. We wish to respond to the article referenced above, specifically with regards to the two sentences relating to the safety of acupuncture. We request you correct the misleading comments made in the article and publish this letter online.

1. ‘And acupuncture, they will say, “is not necessarily harmless.”’

Yes, of course it may not be harmless: it involves piercing the skin with a sharp object. Hence the need for proper training of acupuncturists, together with evidenced guidelines, a robust code of safe practice and regulatory teeth. These components are all in place for members of the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC). Acupuncture has not been taken into state control in the UK precisely because it has been found to be so safe; instead, the BAcC is entrusted with self-regulation and is an accredited member of the Professional Standards Authority. Statements about the safety of acupuncture commonly conclude: ‘Acupuncture seems, in skilled hands, one of the safer forms of medical intervention’ (White 2001).

2. ‘…A review in 2017 found many injuries, infections and adverse reactions.’
That first part of your acupuncture safety comment was a direct quote from the FEAM/EASAC statement, which was the focus of the article, but it then departs from the script to manufacture the colourful soundbite above. You refer to the same acupuncture safety overview paper (Chan et al 2017) that FEAM/EASAC drew on, but then substantially misrepresent its content and messages. It is neither a quote from the FEAM/EASAC statement, nor from the overview paper. In fact, the latter sums up the findings of the 17 included reviews thus:  ‘However, all the reviews have suggested that adverse events are rare and often minor.’ Your statement about many injuries, infections and adverse reactions gives a very different message to the paper’s authors.
The Guardian article appears to have been written with little understanding of the science involved in investigating medical adverse events. In particular, it is impossible to establish the significance of the numbers of adverse events reported without knowing how many treatments they came from. Chan et al (2017) noted that incidence rates could not be calculated ‘because many adverse events came from case reports and many of the reviews did not include full details about the number of participants in their included studies’. The 17 reviews between them covered literature from 1950 to 2014 and countries across the globe, so potentially millions and millions of treatments. No wonder they turned up plenty of incidents!
One of the ‘gold standard’ acupuncture safety reviews (Xu et al 2013), which was included in Chan’s overview, provides the following information on this issue:

‘Incidence rates for major AEs [adverse events] of acupuncture are best estimated from large prospective surveys of practitioners. Four recent surveys of acupuncture safety among regulated, qualified practitioners, two conducted in Germany (Melchart 2004; Witt 2009), and two in the United Kingdom (MacPherson 2001; White 2001), confirm that serious adverse events after acupuncture are uncommon. Indeed, of these surveys, covering more than 3 million acupuncture treatments all together, there were no deaths or permanent disabilities, and all those with AEs fully recovered (Witt 2011). Thus, it can be concluded that acupuncture has a very low rate of AEs, when conducted among licensed, qualified practitioners in the West.’

The overview authors also raised this concern: ‘A major limitation of the presented information was that no causality could be determined’. In other words there is often no evidence to link acupuncture to the reported event: it is implicated just because it was around at the time. Adverse events only become adverse reactions (your words) if there is a substantiated link.
Your article (and indeed the FEAM/EASAC statement) completely omits perhaps the most important consideration: how does acupuncture compare to other available treatment options? It is most often used by people for chronic pain. The evidence base for this is good (Vickers 2018) and supports acupuncture’s effectiveness compared to conventional treatments (Trinh 2019). The potential harms of opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are well known and acupuncture is associated with fewer adverse events than medications in controlled trials across a wide range of conditions (Cao 2018; Xu 2018; Lu 2016).  It was estimated that one in 1,200 people taking NSAIDS for at least two months will die of gastrointestinal complications (Tramer 2000). Six percent of hospitalisations in developed countries are due to adverse drug reactions (Angamo 2016).

On safety grounds there is no comparison: no serious adverse events were reported in a survey covering 34,407 acupuncture treatments given by BAcC members (Macpherson 2001). Of the mild transient reactions reported, the most frequent were ‘feeling relaxed’, and ‘feeling energised’. This is not to downplay the potential harms, for they can be serious, but as with any medical intervention there should be a proper assessment of how likely this is, which the Guardian article signally failed to do.
Yours sincerely

Mark Bovey Research Manager British Acupuncture Council

___________________________________________________________________________

I had no involvement in the Guardian article; I nevertheless feel that several things need to be pointed out about this bizarre complaint:

  1. The quote attributed to White A is, in fact, by White, Hayhoe, Hart and Ernst (yes, petty point), and our investigation showed (not petty point) that there were 43 significant minor adverse events reported, a rate of 14 per 10,000, of which 13 (30%) interfered with daily activities. One patient suffered a seizure (probably reflex anoxic) during acupuncture, but no adverse event was classified as serious. Avoidable events included forgotten patients, needles left in patients, cellulitis and moxa burns. This, I think, entirely justifies the words -is not necessarily harmless – published by the Guardian.
  2. The complaint states that there is often no evidence to link acupuncture to the reported event: it is implicated just because it was around at the time. Adverse events only become adverse reactions (your words) if there is a substantiated link. What this seems to imply is this: the BAcC claim that causality of adverse effects remains speculative, while having failed to establish a surveillance system that could establish their causality more firmly. Perhaps the BAcC should file a complaint about themselves?
  3. The BAcC claim that the author of the Guardian article lacks understanding of the science of adverse effect reporting. However, I get the impression that the lack of understanding is embarrassingly evident on the side of the BAcC.
  4. The BAcC then highlight the most important consideration: how does acupuncture compare to other available treatment options? This is more than a little odd. Firstly, such comparisons hardly were the aim of the Guardian article. Secondly, such comparisons only make sense with options that have a comparable risk/benefit profile. As the benefits of acupuncture for most conditions are still debatable, and since its risks are finite, its risk/benefit balance might not be clearly positive. Therefore, such comparisons are of doubtful value and could easily turn out to generate unfavourable evidence against acupuncture.
  5. Comparisons to opioids or NSAIDS are evidently nonsensical for the reason just mentioned.
  6. The Guardian article’s comments on acupuncture risks were of a general nature and were unelated to any specific issues about BAcC members. There are many non-medically trained acupuncturists – both in the UK and abroad – who might represent a substantially higher risk. Therefore the Guardian should not be criticised but praised for publishing words of caution.

The BAcC state that this is not to downplay the potential harms, yet I fear that this is precisely what they are trying to do. Until there is a post-marketing surveillance system, it would be honest and ethical to admit that the risks of acupuncture are essentially not known.

In my view, the complaint has no reasonable basis, tells us more about the BAcC than the Guardian, and should not be acted upon by the Guardian.

 

We have discussed the tragic case of John Lawler before. Today, the Mail carries a long article about it. Here I merely want to summarise the sequence of events and highlight the role of the GCC.

  • In 2017, Mr Lawler, aged 79 at the time, has a history of back problems, including back surgery with metal implants and suffers from pain in his leg.
  • His GP recommends to consult a physiotherapist.
  • As waiting lists are too long, Mr Lawler sees a chiropractor shortly after his 80th birthday who calls herself ‘doctor’ and who he assumes to be a medic specialising in back pain.
  • The chiropractor uses a spinal manipulation of the neck with the drop table.
  • There is no evidence that this treatment is effective for pain in the leg.
  • No informed consent is obtained from the patient.
  • This is acutely painful and brakes the calcified ligaments of Mr Lawler’s upper spine.
  • Mr Lawler is immediately paraplegic.
  • The chiropractor who had no training in resuscitation is panicked tries mouth to mouth.
  • Bending the patient’s neck backwards the chiropractor further compresses his spinal cord.
  • When ambulance arrives, the chiropractor misleads the paramedics telling them nothing about a forceful neck manipulation with the drop and suspecting a stroke.
  • Thus the paramedics do not stabilise the patient’s neck which could have saved his life.
  • Mr Lawler dies the next day in hospital.
  • The chiropractor is arrested immediately by the police but then released on bail.
  • The expert advising the police is a prominent chiropractor.
  • One bail condition is not to practise, pending a hearing by the GCC.
  • The GCC decide not to take any action.
  • The police therefore release the bail conditions and she goes back to practising.
  • The interim suspension hearing of the GCC is being held in September 2017.
  • The deceased’s son wants to attend but is not allowed to be present at the hearing even though such events are normally public.
  • The coroner’s inquest starts in 2019.
  • In November 2019, a coroner rules that Mr Lawler died of respiratory depression.
  • The coroner also calls on the GCC to bring in pre-treatment imaging to protect vulnerable patients.
  • The GCC announce that they will now continue their inquiry to determine whether or not chiropractor will be struck off the register.

The son of the deceased is today quoted stating that the GCC “seems to be a little self-regulatory chiropractic bubble where chiropractors regulate chiropractors.”

I sympathise with this statement. On this blog, I have repeatedly voiced my concerns about the GCC – see here, for instance – which I therefore do not need to repeat. My opinion of the GCC is also coloured by a personal experience which I will quickly recount now:

A long time ago (I estimate 10 – 15 years), the GCC invited me to give a lecture and I accepted. I do not remember the exact subject they had given me, but I clearly recall elaborating on the risks of spinal manipulation. This was not too well received. When I had finished, a discussion ensued in which I was accused of not knowing my subject and aggressed for daring to ctiticise chiropractic. I had, of couse, given the lecture assuming they wanted to hear my criticism. In the end, I left with the impression that this assumption was wrong and that they really just wanted to lecture, humiliate and punish me for having been a long-term critic of their trade.

I therefore can fully understand of David Lawler’s opinion about the GCC. To me, they certainly behaved as though their aim was not to protect the public, but to defend chiropractors from criticism.

Yes, chiropractic spinal manipulation shows promise to alleviate symptoms of infant colic! At least, this is the result of an overview of systematic reviews of so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) for infant colic. Here I focus merely on the part that deals with chiropractic spinal manipulation. The authors of the overview come to this result based mainly on the statement:

Spinal manipulation was assessed in six reviews [22, 23, 25,26,27,28]. Two multiple CAM reviews assessed manipulation but did not pool the results [22, 25]. Both found three trials to be effective [68, 69, 72, 73, or] with the exception of one [71].

And here are the references they cite (all the primary studies are on chiropractic manipulation):

22.Perry R, Hunt K, Ernst E. Nutritional supplements and other complementary medicines for infantile colic: a systematic review. Pediatrics. 2011;127:720–33.

23.Bruyas-Bertholo V, Lachaux A, Dubois J-P, Fourneret P, Letrilliart L. Quels traitements pour les coliques du nourrisson. Presse Med. 2012;41:e404–10.

24.Harb T, Matsuyama M, David M, Hill RJ. Infant colic—what works: a systematic review of interventions for breast-fed infants. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2016;62(5):668–86.

25.Gutiérrez-Castrellón P, Indrio F, Bolio-Galvis A, et al. Efficacy of Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 for infantile colic. Systematic review with network meta-analysis. Medicine. 2017;96(51):e9375.

26.Dobson D, Lucassen PLBJ, Miller JJ, Vlieger AM, Prescott P, Lewith G. Manipulative therapies for infantile colic. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012;(Issue 12. Art. No.: CD004796)

27.Gleberzon BJ, Arts J, Mei A, McManus EL. The use of spinal manipulative therapy for pediatric health conditions: a systematic review of the literature. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2012;56(2):128–41.

28.Carnes D, Plunkett A, Ellwood J, et al. Manual therapy for unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants: a systematic review and meta-analyses. BMJ Open. 2018;8:e019040.

68.Wiberg J, Nordsteen J, Nilsson N. The short-term effect of spinal manipulation in the treatment of infantile colic: a randomized controlled trial with a blinded observer. J Manip Physiol Ther. 1999;22(8):517–22.

69.Mercer C. A study to determine the efficacy of chiropractic spinal adjustments as a treatment protocol in the Management of Infantile Colic [thesis]. Durban: Technikon Natal,Durban University; 1999.

70.Mercer C, Nook B. The efficacy of chiropractic spinal adjustments as a treatment protocol in the management of infantile colic. In: Presented at: 5th Biennial Congress of the World Federation of Chiropractic. Auckland; 1999. p. 170-1.

71.Olafsdottir E, Forshei S, Fluge G, Markestad T. Randomized controlled trial of infantile colic treated with chiropractic spinal manipulation. Arch Dis Child. 2001;84(2):138–41.

And here is the relevant part of the overview’s conclusion:

Spinal manipulation shows promise to alleviate symptoms of colic, although concerns remain as positive effects were only demonstrated when crying was measured by unblinded parent assessors.

I have several concerns about this new overview:

  • My comments on the Canes paper are here and do not need repeating.
  • My comments on the Dobson paper (according to the overview authors, it is the best of all the reviews) are also available and need no repeating.
  • Reference 22 is a systematic review I did together with the lead author of the new overview while she was one of my co-workers at Exeter. It is not focussed on spinal manipulation, but on all SCAMs. Here is the relevant passage from our conclusions regarding spinal manipulation: The evidence for … manual therapies does not indicate an effect.

How the review authors could come to the verdict that spinal manipulation shows promise is thus more than a little mysterious. If we consider the following, it gets positively bewildering. Even the most rudimentary of searches on Medline will deliver a 2009 systematic review by myself entitled ‘Chiropractic spinal manipulation for infant colic: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. It was the first systematic review on the subject but was not included in the new overview.

Why not?

I do not know.

Here are my conclusions from this paper:

Collectively these RCTs fail to demonstrate that chiropractic spinal manipulation is an effective therapy for infant colic. The largest and best reported study failed to show effectiveness (11). Numerous weaknesses of the primary data would prevent firm conclusions, even if the results of all RCTs had been unanimously positive.

And here is what my review stated about the three primary RCTs assessed in all the other review authors:

The trial by Wiberg et al. (10) did not attempt to blind the infants’ parents who acted as the evaluators of the therapeutic success. The paper provides little details about the recruitment process, but it is fair to assume that patients were asked to participate in a trial of spinal manipulation. Thus one might expect a degree of disappointment in parents of the control group whose children did not receive this treatment. This, in turn, could have impacted on the parents’ subjective judgements. In any case, there is no control for placebo effects which can be very different for a physical intervention compared with an oral placebo – dimethicone was administered as a placebo and the authors stress that it is ‘no better than placebo treatment’.

The RCT by Olafsdottir et al. (11) is by far the best-reported study of all the included RCTs. In many ways, it is a replication of Wiberg’s investigation (10) but on a larger scale with twice the sample size. It is the only study where a serious attempt was made to control for the placebo effects of spinal manipulations. For these reasons, its results seem more reliable than those of the other RCTs.

The RCT by Browning and Miller (12) is a comparison of two manual techniques both of which are assumed by the authors to be effective. Thus it is essentially a non-inferiority trial. Yet, it is woefully underpowered for such a design. Even if it had the necessary power, its results would be difficult to interpret because none of the two interventions have been proven to be effective. Thus, one would still be uncertain whether both interventions are similarly ineffective or effective. As it stands, the result simply seems to demonstrate that symptoms of infant colic lessen over time possibly as a result of non-specific therapeutic effects, the natural history of the disease, concomitant treatments, social desirability or a combination of these factors.

So, what should we conclude from all this? I am not sure – except for one thing, of course: I would not call the evidence for chiropractic spinal manipulation promising.

This letter (dated 21 June 2019) to the Safer Care Victoria review team represents a statement by the Australian Medical Association of Victoria on chiropractic for children. As it is highly relevant to many of the discussions we had on this blog, I take the liberty of copying it here in full:

RE: Review of chiropractic spinal care for children under 12 years

The Australian Medical Association (AMA Victoria) appreciates the opportunity to respond to the Safer Care Victoria (SCV) consultation on chiropractic manipulation of children under 12 years.

The AMA is pleased that SCV has decided to review this practice which is manifestly unsafe and unwarranted.

Chiropractic spinal manipulation on children has received recent media attention and prompted community concerns about its safety, appropriateness and the professional duties of those undertaking it.  Most notably, in February this year medical experts and the Victorian Government condemned the controversial practice of infant spine manipulation after footage emerged of a Melbourne chiropractor treating a two-week old baby on the chiropractor’s own site.

Treatment of infants and very young children

We are aware that chiropractors are treating children for problems such as “infantile colic” by manipulative therapies.  There is no credible evidence for this, it is a dangerous practice in itself and it potentially impedes the proper assessment and management of an infant.  Additionally, it preys on often tired parents by the promise of a frequently false unequivocal diagnosis and false “quick fix”. This is plainly unconscionable and dangerous behaviour.

In preparing our response, we engaged with doctors across many specialities who have offered valuable insights into the matters being considered as part of this review.  It is our very firm view that the risk of undertaking spinal manipulation on small infants is of no benefit and is potentially extremely dangerous.  Newborn babies are extremely fragile and AMA Victoria warns that damage done to a baby or infant may not be immediately obvious to parents, and may not manifest until many years later.  This is supported by a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics [1] which found serious adverse events may be associated with paediatric spinal manipulation.1

Another critical issue is that it is very unlikely that parents are providing informed consent to such procedures.  For parents to provide informed consent, they would need to be fully advised of the risks including, for example:

• the diagnosis of “infant colic” is a catch all for a range of symptoms with different aetiologies;

• the potential drastic short and long term consequences of spinal manipulation on their baby;

• there are no scientific safety and efficacy studies undertaken; and

• there is no credible scientific evidence for manipulation.

Chiropractors should also be directing parents to general practitioners for the proper holistic assessment and care of the child and family.

Additionally, infants and very young children cannot provide assent for a procedure for which there is no evidence they require and which may leave them with long term consequences.  Consideration of whether such potentially dangerous therapies, which are not underpinned by a strong evidence-base, should be supported by private health insurance rebates is also warranted.

Treatment of children under 12 years of age

Although there is limited evidence that some musculoskeletal treatments are effective in adults, there is no credible scientific evidence that manipulation, mobilisation or any applied spinal therapy in children under 12 years of age is warranted or safe.

AMA Victoria does not support clinical interventions unless there is scientific evidence that such treatments are useful in treating the illness.  AMA Victoria also supports patients being fully informed on the illness and the risks and benefits to any treatment. When the risks are to be borne by a non-assenting child, the requirement of evidence and consent is especially important.

AMA Victoria strongly advocates that chiropractic (and other health professionals) spinal care for children under 12 years of age is dangerous, unwarranted and must cease immediately.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of our response, please contact Ms Nada Martinovic, Senior Policy Advisor on (03) 9280 8773 or nadam@amavic.com.au.

Yours sincerely

Associate Professor Julian Rait OAM AMA VICTORIA PRESIDENT

1 Sunita, V., et al., Adverse Events Associated with Pediatric Spinal Manipulation: A Systemic Review, Pediatrics, 2007: 119; 275-283.

___________________________________________________________

I am truly delighted that the AMA Victoria agrees with many points I have tried to make previously (see for instance here, here and here). The statement is unsurpassed in its directness and strength. My congratulations to Prof Raith – very well done!

Let’s hope that professional bodies of other regions and counties will swiftly follow suit with equal clarity.

As reported, the Bavarian government has set aside almost half a million Euros for research to determine whether the over-use of antibiotics can be reduced by replacing them with homeopathic remedies. Homeopaths in and beyond Germany were delighted, of course, but many experts were bewildered (see also this or this, if you read German).

While the Bavarians are entering the planning stage of this research, I want to elaborate on the question what methodology might be employed for this task. As far as I can see, there are, depending on the precise research questions, various options.

IN VITRO TESTS OF HOMEOPATHICS

The most straight forward way to find out whether homeopathics are an alternative to antibiotics would be to screen them for antibiotic activity. For this, we would take all homeopathic remedies in several potencies that are commonly used, for instance D12 and C30, and add them to bacterial cultures. To cover even part of the range of homeopathic remedies, several thousand such tests would be required. The remedies that show activity in vitro would then be candidates for further clinical tests.

I doubt that this will generate meaningful findings. As homeopaths would probably point out quickly, they never claimed that their remedies have any antibiotic effects. Homeopathics work not via pharmacological mechanisms (there is none), they stimulate the vital force, the immune system, or whatever mystical force you fancy. Faced with the inevitably negative results of in vitro tests, homeopaths would merely shrug their shoulders and say: ‘we told you so’.

ANIMAL MODELS

Thus it might be more constructive to go directly into animal models. Such tests could take several shapes and forms. For instance, scientists could infect animals with a bacterium and subsequently treat one group with a high potency homeopathic remedy and the control group with a placebo. If the homeopathic animals survive, while the controls die, the homeopathic treatment was effective.

Such concepts would run into problems on at least two levels. Firstly, any ethics committee worth its name would refuse to pass such a protocol and argue that it is not ethical to infect and then treat animals with two different types of placebo. Secondly, the homeopathic fraternity would explain that homeopathy must be individualised which cannot be done properly in animals. Faced with the inevitably negative results of such animal studies, homeopaths would merely shrug their shoulders and say: ‘we told you so’.

CLINICAL TRIALS

Homeopathy may, according to some homeopaths, defy in vitro and animal tests, but it is most certainly amenable to being tested in clinical trials. The simplest version of a clinical study would entail randomising a group of patients with bacterial infections – say pneumonia – into receiving either individualised homeopathy or placebo. Possibly, one could add a third group of patients being treated with appropriate antibiotics.

The problem here would again be the ethics; no proper ethic committee would pass such a concept (see above). Another problem might be that even the homeopathic fraternity would oppose such a study. Why? Because all but the most deluded homeopaths know only too well that the result of such a trial would be devastatingly negative for homeopathy.

Therefore, homeopaths are likely to go for a different study design, for instance, one where patients suspected to have a bacterial infection are randomised to two groups of GPs. One group of ‘normal’ GPs would proceed as usual, while the other group are also trained in homeopathy and would be free to give whatever they feel is right for each individual patient. With a bit of luck, the ‘normal’ GPs would over-prescribe antibiotics (because that’s what they are apparently doing routinely), while the homeopathic GPs would often use homeopathics instead.

Such a study would indeed generate a result alleging that the use of homeopathy reduces the use of antibiotics. Of course, to be truly ‘positive’ it would need to exclude any clinical outcome such as time to recovery, because that might not be in favour of homeopathy.

The problem might again be the ethics committee. Assuming they are scientifically switched on, they will see through the futility of a trial designed to produce the desired result. They might also argue that science is not for testing one faulty approach (over-prescribing) against another (homeopathy) and insist that science is about finding the best treatment (which is neither of the two).

There are, of course, many other study designs that could be considered. Generally, they fall into two different categories: if they are rigorous tests of a hypothesis, they are sure to produce a result unfavourable to homeopathy. Such studies will therefore be opposed to by the powerful homeopathic fraternity. If, however, studies are flimsily designed to generate a positive finding, they might be liked by homeopaths, yet rejected by scientists and ethicists.

SURVEYS

A much easier solution to the question ‘does the use of homeopathy reduce the use of antibiotics’ might be to not do a trial at all, but to run a simple survey. For instance, one could retrospectively assess how many antibiotics 100 homeopathic GPs have prescribed during the last year and compare this to the figure of 100 over-prescribing, ‘normal’ GPs. This type of ‘research’ is a sure winner for the homeopaths. Therefore, I predict that they will advocate this or a similarly flawed concept.

Most politicians are scientifically illiterate to such a degree that they might actually agree to finance such a survey and then confuse correlation with causation by triumphantly stating that the use of homeopathy reduces over-prescribing of antibiotics. Few, I fear, will realise that there is only one method for reducing the over-prescribing of antibiotics: remind doctors what they all learnt in medical school, namely to prescribe antibiotics only in cases where they are indicated. And for that we evidently need no homeopathy or other SCAM.

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