I have reported previously about the tragic death of John Lawler. Now after the inquest into the events leading to it has concluded, I have the permission to publish the statement of Mr Lawler’s family:
We were devastated to lose John in such tragic and unforeseen circumstances two years ago. A much-loved husband, father and grandfather, he continues to be greatly missed by all of us. Having to re-live the circumstances of his death has been particularly difficult for us but we are grateful to have a clearer picture of the events that led to John’s death. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the coroner’s team, our legal representatives and our wider family and friends for their guidance, empathy and sensitivity throughout this process.
There were several events that went very wrong with John’s chiropractic treatment, before, during, and after the actual manipulation that broke his neck.
Firstly, John thought he was being treated by a medically qualified doctor, when he was not. Furthermore, he had not given informed consent to this treatment.
The chiropractor diagnosed so-called ‘vertebral subluxation complex’ which she aimed to treat by manipulating his neck. We heard this week from medical experts that John had ossified ligaments in his spine, where previously flexible ligaments had turned to bone and become rigid. This condition is not uncommon, and is present in about 10% of those over 50. It would have showed on an X-ray or other imaging technique. The chiropractor did not ask for any images before commencing treatment and was seemingly unaware of the risks of doing a manual manipulation on an elderly patient.
It has become clear that the chiropractor did the manipulation incorrectly, and broke these rigid ligaments during a so-called ‘drop table’ manipulation, causing discs in the cervical spine to rupture and the spinal cord to become crushed. Although these manipulations are done frequently by chiropractors, we have heard that the force applied to his neck by the chiropractor would have had to have been “significant”.
Immediately John reported loss of sensation and paralysis in his arms. At this stage the only safe and appropriate response was to leave him on the treatment bed and await the arrival of the paramedics, and provide an accurate history to the ambulance controller and paramedics. The chiropractor, in fact, manhandled John from the treatment bed into a chair; then tipped his head backwards and gave “mouth to mouth” breaths. She provided an inaccurate and misleading history to the paramedic and ambulance controller, causing the paramedic to treat the incident as “medical” not “traumatic” and to transport John downstairs to the ambulance without stabilising his neck. If the paramedics had been given the full and accurate story, they would have stabilised his neck in situ and transported him on a scoop stretcher – and he would have subsequently survived.
The General Chiropractic Council decided not to suspend the chiropractor from practicing in September 2017. They heard evidence from the chiropractor that she had “not touched the neck during the appointment” and from an expert chiropractor that it would be “physically impossible” for the treatment provided to cause the injury which followed. We have heard this week that this is incorrect. The family was not allowed to attend or give evidence at that hearing, and we are waiting – now 2 years further on – for the GCC to complete their investigations.
We hope that the publicity surrounding this event will highlight the dangers of chiropractic, especially in the elderly and those with already compromised spines. We would again urge the regulator to take immediate measures to ensure that the profession is properly controlled: that chiropractors are prevented from styling themselves as medical professionals; that patients are fully informed and consent to the risks involved; that imaging is done before certain procedures and on high risk clients; and that the limits of the benefits chiropractic can provide are fully explored.
Before someone comments pointing out that this is merely a single case which does not amount to evidence, let me remind you of the review of cervical manipulation prepared for the Manitoba Health Professions Advisory Council. Here is the abstract:
Neck manipulation or adjustment is a manual treatment where a vertebral joint in the cervical spine—comprised of the 7 vertebrae C1 to C7—is moved by using high-velocity, low-amplitude (HVLA) thrusts that cannot be resisted by the patient. These HVLA thrusts are applied over an individual, restricted joint beyond its physiological limit of motion but within its anatomical limit. The goal of neck manipulation, referred to throughout this report as cervical spine manipulation (CSM), is to restore optimal motion, function, and/or reduce pain. CSM is occasionally utilized by physiotherapists, massage therapists, naturopaths, osteopaths, and physicians, and is the hallmark treatment of chiropractors; however the use of CSM is controversial. This paper aims to thoroughly synthesize evidence from the academic literature regarding the potential risks and benefits of cervical spine manipulation utilizing a rapid literature review method.
METHODS Individual peer-reviewed articles published between January 1990 and November 2016 concerning the safety and efficacy of cervical spine manipulation were identified through MEDLINE (PubMed), EMBASE, and the Cochrane Library.
- A total of 159 references were identified and cited in this review: 86 case reports/ case series, 37 reviews of the literature, 9 randomized controlled trials, 6 surveys/qualitative studies, 5 case-control studies, 2 retrospective studies, 2 prospective studies and 12 others.
- Serious adverse events following CSM seem to be rare, whereas minor adverse events occur frequently.
- Minor adverse events can include transient neurological symptoms, increased neck pain or stiffness, headache, tiredness and fatigue, dizziness or imbalance, extremity weakness, ringing in the ears, depression or anxiety, nausea or vomiting, blurred or impaired vision, and confusion or disorientation.
- Serious adverse events following CSM can include the following: cerebrovascular injury such as cervical artery dissection, ischemic stroke, or transient ischemic attacks; neurological injury such as damage to nerves or spinal cord (including the dura mater); and musculoskeletal injury including injury to cervical vertebral discs (including herniation, protrusion, or prolapse), vertebrae fracture or subluxation (dislocation), spinal edema, or issues with the paravertebral muscles.
- Rates of incidence of all serious adverse events following CSM range from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in several million cervical spine manipulations, however the literature generally agrees that serious adverse events are likely underreported.
- The best available estimate of incidence of vertebral artery dissection of occlusion attributable to CSM is approximately 1.3 cases for every 100,000 persons <45 years of age receiving CSM within 1 week of manipulative therapy. The current best incidence estimate for vertebral dissection-caused stroke associated with CSM is 0.97 residents per 100,000.
- While CSM is used by manual therapists for a large variety of indications including neck, upper back, and shoulder/arm pain, as well as headaches, the evidence seems to support CSM as a treatment of headache and neck pain only. However, whether CSM provides more benefit than spinal mobilization is still contentious.
- A number of factors may make certain types of patients at higher risk for experiencing an adverse cerebrovascular event after CSM, including vertebral artery abnormalities or insufficiency, atherosclerotic or other vascular disease, hypertension, connective tissue disorders, receiving multiple manipulations in the last 4 weeks, receiving a first CSM treatment, visiting a primary care physician, and younger age. Patients whom have experience prior cervical trauma or neck pain may be at particularly higher risk of experiencing an adverse cerebrovascular event after CSM.
CONCLUSION The current debate around CSM is notably polarized. Many authors stated that the risk of CSM does not outweigh the benefit, while others maintained that CSM is safe—especially in comparison to conventional treatments—and effective for treating certain conditions, particularly neck pain and headache. Because the current state of the literature may not yet be robust enough to inform definitive prohibitory or permissive policies around the application of CSM, an interim approach that balances both perspectives may involve the implementation of a harm-reduction strategy to mitigate potential harms of CSM until the evidence is more concrete. As noted by authors in the literature, approaches might include ensuring manual therapists are providing informed consent before treatment; that patients are provided with resources to aid in early recognition of a serious adverse event; and that regulatory bodies ensure the establishment of consistent definitions of adverse events for effective reporting and surveillance, institute rigorous protocol for identifying high-risk patients, and create detailed guidelines for appropriate application and contraindications of CSM. Most authors indicated that manipulation of the upper cervical spine should be reserved for carefully selected musculoskeletal conditions and that CSM should not be utilized in circumstances where there has not yet been sufficient evidence to establish benefit.
Just three points which, in my view, sand out most in relation to Mr Lawler’s death:
- Mr Lawler had no proven indication (and at least one very important contra-indication) for neck manipulation.
- He did not give infromed consent.
- The neck manipulation was not within the limits of the physiological range of motion.