One of the many issues that needs addressing about chiropractic is its safety. On this blog, we have had dozens of posts and debates on this topic. Today, I want to try and summarise them by providing a fictitious dialogue between a critic and a chiropractor.
Here we go:
Critic (CR): It seems to me that most of the chiros I talk to are convinced that their hallmark therapy, spinal manipulation, is risk-free.
Chiro (CH): Hallmark therapy? Not true! Osteopaths, physios, doctors they all use spinal manipulation.
CR: I know, but name me a profession that employs it more regularly than you chiros.
CH: In any case, it is as good as risk-free; nothing is totally devoid of risk, but chiropractic spinal manipulation (CSMT) is generally very safe, because we are better trained at it than the others.
CR: Do you say that because you believe it or because you know it?
CH: I know it.
CR: That means you have the evidence to prove it?
CH: Yes, of course. Over the years, I have treated over a thousand patients and never heard of any problems.
CR: Without a monitoring system of adverse events that occur after chiropractic spinal manipulation, this is pretty meaningless.
CH: Monitoring systems do not establish causality.
CR: No, but they are a start and can tell you whether there is a problem that requires looking into.
CH: Let me remind you please that the question of safety is foremost an issue for conventional medicine; this is why a monitoring system is useful for drugs. We actually do not need one, because CSMT is safe.
CR: Are you sure?
CR: The much-cited paper by Dabbs and Lauretti is out-dated, poor quality, and heavily biased. It provides no sound basis for an evidence-based judgement on the relative risks of cervical manipulation and NSAIDs. The notion that cervical manipulations are safer than NSAIDs is therefore not based on reliable data. Thus, it is misleading and irresponsible to repeat this claim. Is there not a better comparison for supporting your point?
CH: Not as far as I know. But you can trust our collective experience: CSMT is safe!
CR: Don’t you think that the issue is too important to rely purely on experience? Your collective experience can be very misleading, you know.
CH: Then tell me why chiros pay only a fraction of the insurance premium compared to doctors.
CR: Yes, that is the argument many chiros love. But it also is a very poor one: doctors treat patients who are often very ill, while chiros treat mostly sore backs. Don’t you think that explains a lot about the difference in insurance premiums?
CH: Perhaps, but if you claim CSMT to be harmful, how about you supporting your claim with evidence?
CR: Sure, the best is to review systematically all prospective studies on the topic; and if you do this, the conclusion is that data from prospective studies suggest that minor, transient adverse events occur in approximately half of all patients receiving spinal manipulation. The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome. Estimates of the incidence of serious complications range from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 1 per 400,000. Given the popularity of spinal manipulation, its safety requires rigorous investigation.
CH: I bet these are studies done by people who are against chiropractic.
CR: No, actually the primary studies were all done by chiropractors.
CH: Minor transient problems! These are merely what we expect; things often need to get worse before they get better.
CR: Imagine that a drug company claims such BS about the side-effects of a new drug.
CH: But that’s different!
CR: In what way?
CH: Big Pharma is only out to make money.
CR: And chiros?
CH: That’s different too.
CR: What about the serious adverse events like vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome? Are you going to deny they exist?
CH: Some of those serious complications, while rare, are conditions that existed prior to CSMT being performed with the practitioner missing it upon initial examination.
CR: How do you know?
CH: I know this from experience.
CR: I already told you that experience is unreliable.
CH: Then show me the evidence that I am wrong.
CR: No, you have to come up with the evidence; the burden of proof is evidently on your shoulders.
CH: Whatever! As long as there is no good evidence, I cannot accept that serious complications are a real problem.
CR: That’s just fine: you say “as long as there is no good evidence…” and, at the same time, you prevent good evidence from emerging by preventing a decent AE monitoring system.
CH: I always knew that one cannot have a reasonable discussion with you. I consider that I have won this debate; this issue is now closed.
My new book has just been published. Allow me to try and whet your appetite by showing you the book’s introduction:
“There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking.” These words of Fontanarosa and Lundberg were published 22 years ago. Today, they are as relevant as ever, particularly to the type of healthcare I often call ‘so-called alternative medicine’ (SCAM), and they certainly are relevant to chiropractic.
Invented more than 120 years ago by the magnetic healer DD Palmer, chiropractic has had a colourful history. It has now grown into one of the most popular of all SCAMs. Its general acceptance might give the impression that chiropractic, the art of adjusting by hand all subluxations of the three hundred articulations of the human skeletal frame, is solidly based on evidence. It is therefore easy to forget that a plethora of fundamental questions about chiropractic remain unanswered.
I wrote this book because I feel that the amount of misinformation on chiropractic is scandalous and demands a critical evaluation of the evidence. The book deals with many questions that consumers often ask:
- How well-established is chiropractic?
- What treatments do chiropractors use?
- What conditions do they treat?
- What claims do they make?
- Are their assumptions reasonable?
- Are chiropractic spinal manipulations effective?
- Are these manipulations safe?
- Do chiropractors behave professionally and ethically?
Am I up to this task, and can you trust my assessments? These are justified questions; let me try to answer them by giving you a brief summary of my professional background.
I grew up in Germany where SCAM is hugely popular. I studied medicine and, as a young doctor, was enthusiastic about SCAM. After several years in basic research, I returned to clinical medicine, became professor of rehabilitation medicine first in Hanover, Germany, and then in Vienna, Austria. In 1993, I was appointed as Chair in Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter. In this capacity, I built up a multidisciplinary team of scientists conducting research into all sorts of SCAM with one focus on chiropractic. I retired in 2012 and am now an emeritus professor. I have published many peer-reviewed articles on the subject, and I have no conflicts of interest. If my long career has taught me anything, it is this: in the best interest of consumers and patients, we must insist on sound evidence; not opinion, not wishful thinking; evidence.
In critically assessing the issues related to chiropractic, I am guided by the most reliable and up-to-date scientific evidence. The conclusions I reach often suggest that chiropractic is not what it is often cracked up to be. Hundreds of books have been published that disagree. If you are in doubt who to trust, the promoter or the critic of chiropractic, I suggest you ask yourself a simple question: who is more likely to provide impartial information, the chiropractor who makes a living by his trade, or the academic who has researched the subject for the last 30 years?
This book offers an easy to understand, concise and dependable evaluation of chiropractic. It enables you to make up your own mind. I want you to take therapeutic decisions that are reasonable and based on solid evidence. My book should empower you to do just that.
The aim of this study was to determine the short-term effectiveness of thoracic manipulation when compared to sham manipulation for individuals with low back pain (LBP).
Patients with LBP were stratified based on symptom duration and randomly assigned to a thoracic manipulation or sham manipulation treatment group. Groups received 3 visits that included manipulation or sham manipulation, core stabilization exercises, and patient education. Three physical therapists with an average of 6 years’ experience administered the treatments according to a standardised protocol. Factorial repeated-measures analysis of variance and multiple regression were performed for pain, disability, and fear avoidance.
Ninety participants completed the study. The overall group-by-time interaction was not significant for the Modified Oswestry Disability Questionnaire, numeric pain-rating scale, and Fear-Avoidance Beliefs Questionnaire outcomes. The global rating of change scale was not significantly different between groups.
The authors concluded that three sessions of thoracic manipulation, education, and exercise did not result in improved outcomes when compared to a sham manipulation, education, and exercise in individuals with chronic LBP. Future studies are needed to identify the most effective management strategies for the treatment of LBP.
This study has many features that are praiseworthy. However, others are of concern. Lumping together chronic and acute back problems might be not ideal. And why study only short-term effects?
But foremost I do wonder why manipulations were carried out on the thoracic and not the lumbar spine, the region where the pain was located. The physiotherapist authors state that the effects of thoracic manipulation on adjacent regions have been widely studied, and the majority of authors cite regional interdependence as an explanation for its success. To some degree, this might make sense. Yet, most chiropractors and osteopaths will dismiss the trial and its findings arguing that they would manipulate at the site of subluxations.
Recently, we discussed the findings of a meta-analysis which concluded that walking, which is easy to perform and highly accessible, can be recommended in the management of chronic LBP to reduce pain and disability.
At the time, I commented that
this will hardly please the legions of therapists who earn their daily bread with pretending their therapy is the best for LBP. But healthcare is clearly not about the welfare of the therapists, it is/should be about patients. And patients should surely welcome this evidence. I know, walking is not always easy for people with severe LBP, but it seems effective and it is safe, free and available to everyone.
My advice to patients is therefore to walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of their preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.
Now, there is new evidence that seems to confirm what I wrote. An international team of researchers requested individual participant data (IPD) from high-quality randomised clinical trials of patients suffering from persistent low back pain. They conducted descriptive analyses and one-stage IPD meta-analysis. They received IPD for 27 trials with a total of 3514 participants.
For studies included in this analysis, compared with no treatment/usual care, exercise therapy on average reduced pain (mean effect/100 (95% CI) -10.7 (-14.1 to -7.4)), a result compatible with a clinically important 20% smallest worthwhile effect. Exercise therapy reduced functional limitations with a clinically important 23% improvement (mean effect/100 (95% CI) -10.2 (-13.2 to -7.3)) at short-term follow-up.
Not having heavy physical demands at work and medication use for low back pain were potential treatment effect modifiers-these were associated with superior exercise outcomes relative to non-exercise comparisons. Lower body mass index was also associated with better outcomes in exercise compared with no treatment/usual care.
But you cannot dismiss so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), just like that, I hear my chiropractic and other manipulating friends exclaim – at the very minimum, we need direct comparisons of the two approaches!!!
Alright, you convinced me; here you go:
The purpose of this systematic review was to determine the effectiveness of spinal manipulation vs prescribed exercise for patients diagnosed with chronic low back pain (CLBP). Only RCTs that compared head-to-head spinal manipulation to an exercise group were included in this review. Only three RCTs met the inclusion criteria. The outcomes used in these studies included Disability Indexes, Pain Scales and function improvement scales. One RCT found spinal manipulation to be more effective than exercise, and the results of another RCT indicated the reverse. The third RCT found both interventions offering equal effects in the long term. The author concluded that there is no conclusive evidence that clearly favours spinal manipulation or exercise as more effective in treatment of CLBP. More studies are needed to further explore which intervention is more effective.
But I am!
Exercise is preferable to chiropractic and other manipulating SCAMs because:
- It is cheaper.
- It is safer.
- It is readily available to anyone.
- And you don’t have to listen to the bizarre and often dangerous advice many chiros offer their clients.
Maintenance Care is an approach whereby patients have chiropractic manipulations even when symptom-free. Thus, it is an ideal method to keep chiropractors in clover. Previous reviews concluded that evidence behind this strategy is lacking. Since then, more data have emerged. It was therefore timely to review the evidence.
Fourteen original research articles were included in the review. Maintenance Care was defined as a secondary or tertiary preventive approach, recommended to patients with previous pain episodes, who respond well to chiropractic care. Maintenance Care is applied to approximately 30% of Scandinavian chiropractic patients. Both chiropractors and patients believe in the efficacy of Maintenance Care. Four studies investigating the effect of chiropractic Maintenance Care were identified, with disparate results on pain and disability of neck and back pain. However, only one of these studies utilized all the existing evidence when selecting study subjects and found that Maintenance Care patients experienced fewer days with low back pain compared to patients invited to contact their chiropractor ‘when needed’. No studies were found on the cost-effectiveness of Maintenance Care.
The authors concluded that knowledge of chiropractic Maintenance Care has advanced. There is reasonable consensus among chiropractors on what Maintenance Care is, how it should be used, and its indications. Presently, Maintenance Care can be considered an evidence-based method to perform secondary or tertiary prevention in patients with previous episodes of low back pain, who report a good outcome from the initial treatments. However, these results should not be interpreted as an indication for Maintenance Care on all patients, who receive chiropractic treatment.
I have to admit, I have problems with these conclusions.
- Maintenance Care is not normally defined as secondary or tertitary prevention. It also includes primary prevention, which means that chiropractors recommend it for just about anyone. By definition it is long term care, that is not therapeutically necessary, but performed at regular intervals to help prevent injury and enhance quality of life. This form of care is provided after maximal therapeutic benefit is achieved, without a trial of treatment withdrawal, to prevent symptoms from returning or for those without symptoms to promote health or prevent future problems.
- I am not convinced that the evidence would be positive, even if we confined it to secondary and tertiary prevention.
To explain my last point, let’s have a look at the 4 RCT and check whether they really warrant such a relatively positive conclusion.
FIRST STUDY For individuals with recurrent or persistent non-specific low back pain (LBP), exercise and exercise combined with education have been shown to be effective in preventing new episodes or in reducing the impact of the condition. Chiropractors have traditionally used Maintenance Care (MC), as secondary and tertiary prevention strategies. The aim of this trial was to investigate the effectiveness of MC on pain trajectories for patients with recurrent or persistent LBP.
This pragmatic, investigator-blinded, two arm randomized controlled trial included consecutive patients (18–65 years old) with non-specific LBP, who had an early favorable response to chiropractic care. After an initial course of treatment, eligible subjects were randomized to either MC or control (symptom-guided treatment). The primary outcome was total number of days with bothersome LBP during 52 weeks collected weekly with text-messages (SMS) and estimated by a GEE model.
Three hundred and twenty-eight subjects were randomly allocated to one of the two treatment groups. MC resulted in a reduction in the total number of days per week with bothersome LBP compared with symptom-guided treatment. During the 12 month study period, the MC group (n = 163, 3 dropouts) reported 12.8 (95% CI = 10.1, 15.5; p = <0.001) fewer days in total with bothersome LBP compared to the control group (n = 158, 4 dropouts) and received 1.7 (95% CI = 1.8, 2.1; p = <0.001) more treatments. Numbers presented are means. No serious adverse events were recorded.
MC was more effective than symptom-guided treatment in reducing the total number of days over 52 weeks with bothersome non-specific LBP but it resulted in a higher number of treatments. For selected patients with recurrent or persistent non-specific LBP who respond well to an initial course of chiropractic care, MC should be considered an option for tertiary prevention.
SECOND STUDY Back and neck pain are associated with disability and loss of independence in older adults. Whether long‐term management using commonly recommended treatments is superior to shorter‐term treatment is unknown. This randomized clinical trial compared short‐term treatment (12 weeks) versus long‐term management (36 weeks) of back‐ and neck‐related disability in older adults using spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) combined with supervised rehabilitative exercises (SRE).
Eligible participants were ages ≥65 years with back and neck disability for ≥12 weeks. Coprimary outcomes were changes in Oswestry Disability Index (ODI) and Neck Disability Index (NDI) scores after 36 weeks. An intent‐to‐treat approach used linear mixed‐model analysis to detect between‐group differences. Secondary analyses included other self‐reported outcomes, adverse events, and objective functional measures.
THIRD STUDY A prospective single blinded placebo controlled study was conducted. To assess the effectiveness of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) for the management of chronic nonspecific low back pain (LBP) and to determine the effectiveness of maintenance SMT in long-term reduction of pain and disability levels associated with chronic low back conditions after an initial phase of treatments. SMT is a common treatment option for LBP. Numerous clinical trials have attempted to evaluate its effectiveness for different subgroups of acute and chronic LBP but the efficacy of maintenance SMT in chronic nonspecific LBP has not been studied. Sixty patients, with chronic, nonspecific LBP lasting at least 6 months, were randomized to receive either (1) 12 treatments of sham SMT over a 1-month period, (2) 12 treatments, consisting of SMT over a 1-month period, but no treatments for the subsequent 9 months, or (3) 12 treatments over a 1-month period, along with “maintenance spinal manipulation” every 2 weeks for the following 9 months. To determine any difference among therapies, we measured pain and disability scores, generic health status, and back-specific patient satisfaction at baseline and at 1-, 4-, 7-, and 10-month intervals. Patients in second and third groups experienced significantly lower pain and disability scores than first group at the end of 1-month period (P = 0.0027 and 0.0029, respectively). However, only the third group that was given spinal manipulations (SM) during the follow-up period showed more improvement in pain and disability scores at the 10-month evaluation. In the nonmaintained SMT group, however, the mean pain and disability scores returned back near to their pretreatment level.SMT is effective for the treatment of chronic nonspecific LBP. To obtain long-term benefit, this study suggests maintenance SM after the initial intensive manipulative therapy.
FORTH STUDY Evidence indicates that supervised home exercises, combined or not with manual therapy, can be beneficial for patients with non-specific chronic neck pain (NCNP). The objective of the study is to investigate the efficacy of preventive spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) compared to a no treatment group in NCNP patients. Another objective is to assess the efficacy of SMT with and without a home exercise program.Ninety-eight patients underwent a short symptomatic phase of treatment before being randomly allocated to either an attention-group (n = 29), a SMT group (n = 36) or a SMT + exercise group (n = 33). The preventive phase of treatment, which lasted for 10 months, consisted of meeting with a chiropractor every two months to evaluate and discuss symptoms (attention-control group), 1 monthly SMT session (SMT group) or 1 monthly SMT session combined with a home exercise program (SMT + exercise group). The primary and secondary outcome measures were represented by scores on a 10-cm visual analog scale (VAS), active cervical ranges of motion (cROM), the neck disability index (NDI) and the Bournemouth questionnaire (BQ). Exploratory outcome measures were scored on the Fear-avoidance Behaviour Questionnaire (FABQ) and the SF-12 Questionnaire. Our results show that, in the preventive phase of the trial, all 3 groups showed primary and secondary outcomes scores similar to those obtain following the non-randomised, symptomatic phase. No group difference was observed for the primary, secondary and exploratory variables. Significant improvements in FABQ scores were noted in all groups during the preventive phase of the trial. However, no significant change in health related quality of life (HRQL) was associated with the preventive phase. This study hypothesised that participants in the combined intervention group would have less pain and disability and better function than participants from the 2 other groups during the preventive phase of the trial. This hypothesis was not supported by the study results. Lack of a treatment specific effect is discussed in relation to the placebo and patient provider interactions in manual therapies. Further research is needed to delineate the specific and non-specific effects of treatment modalities to prevent unnecessary disability and to minimise morbidity related to NCNP. Additional investigation is also required to identify the best strategies for secondary and tertiary prevention of NCNP.
I honestly do not think that the findings from these 4 small trials justify the far-reaching conclusion that Maintenance Care can be considered an evidence-based method… For that statement to be evidence-based, one would need to see more and better studies. Therefore, the honest conclusion, I think, is that maintenance care is not supported by sound evidence for effectiveness; as chiropractic manipulations are costly and not risk-free, its risk/benefit balance fails to be positive. Therefore, this approach cannot be recommended.
- 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.
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  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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
The Telegraph published an article entitled ‘Crack or quack: what is the truth about chiropractic treatment?’ and is motivated by the story of Mr Lawler, the 80-year-old former bank manager who died after a chiropractic therapy. Here are 10 short quotes from this article which, in the context of this blog and the previous discussions on the Lawler case, are worthy further comment:
1. … [chiropractic] was established in the late 19th century by D.D. Palmer, an American magnetic healer.
“A lot of people don’t realise it’s a form of alternative medicine with some pretty strange beliefs at heart,” says Michael Marshall, project director at the ‘anti-quack’ charity the Good Thinking Society. “Palmer came to believe he was able to cure deafness through the spine, by adjusting it. The theory behind chiropractic is that all disease and ill health is caused by blockages in the flow of energy through the spine, and by adjusting the spine with these grotesque popping sounds, you can remove blockages, allowing the innate energy to flow freely.” Marshall says this doesn’t really chime with much of what we know about human biology…“There is no reason to believe there’s any possible benefit from twisting vertebra. There is no connection between the spine and conditions such as deafness and measles.”…
Michael Marshall is right, chiropractic was built on sand by Palmer who was little more than a charlatan. The problem with this fact is that today’s chiros have utterly failed to leave Palmer’s heritage behind.
2. According to the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), the industry body, “chiropractors are well placed to deliver high quality evidence-based care for back and neck pain.” …
They would say so, wouldn’t they? The BCA has a long history of problems with knowing what high quality evidence-based care is.
3. But it [chiropractic] isn’t always harmless – as with almost any medical treatment, there are possible side effects. The NHS lists these as aches and pains, stiffness, and tiredness; and then mentions the “risk of more serious problems, such as stroke”….
Considering that 50% of patients suffer adverse effects after chiropractic spinal manipulations, this seems somewhat of an understatement.
4. According to one systematic review, spinal manipulation, “particularly when performed on the upper body, is frequently associated with mild to moderate adverse effects. It can also result in serious complications such as vertebral artery dissection followed by stroke.” …
Arterial dissection followed by a stroke probably is the most frequent serious complication. But there are many other risks, as the tragic case of Mr Lawler demonstrates. He had his neck broken by the chiropractor which resulted in paraplegia and death.
5. “There have been virtually hundreds of published cases where neck manipulations have led to vascular accidents, stroke and sometimes death,” says Prof Ernst. “As there is no monitoring system, this is merely the tip of a much bigger iceberg. According to our own UK survey, under-reporting is close to 100 per cent.” …
The call for an effective monitoring system has been loud and clear since many years. It is nothing short of a scandal that chiros have managed to resist it against the best interest of their patients and society at large.
6. Chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). Marshall says the Good Thinking Society has looked into claims made on chiropractors’ websites, and found that 82 per cent are not compliant with advertising law, for example by saying they can treat colic or by using the misleading term ‘doctor’…
Yes, and that is yet another scandal. It shows how serious chiropractors are about the ‘evidence-based care’ mentioned above.
7. According to GCC guidelines, “if you use the courtesy title ‘doctor’ you must make it clear within the text of any information you put into the public domain that you are not a registered medical practitioner but that you are a ‘Doctor of Chiropractic’.”…
True, and the fact that many chiropractors continue to ignore this demand presenting themselves as doctors and thus misleading the public is the third scandal, in my view.
8. A spokesperson for the BCA said “Chiropractic is a registered primary healthcare profession and a safe form of treatment. In the UK, chiropractors are regulated by law and required to adhere to strict codes of practice, in exactly the same ways as dentists and doctors. Chiropractors are trained to diagnose, treat, manage and prevent disorders of the musculoskeletal system, specialising in neck and back pain.”…
Chiropractors also like to confuse the public by claiming they are primary care physicians. If we understand this term as describing a clinician who is a ‘specialist in Family Medicine, Internal Medicine or Paediatrics who provides definitive care to the undifferentiated patient at the point of first contact, and takes continuing responsibility for providing the patient’s comprehensive care’, we realise that chiropractors fail to fulfil these criteria. The fact that they nevertheless try to mislead the public by calling themselves ‘primary healthcare professionals’ and ‘doctors’ is yet another scandal, in my opinion.
9. The spokesperson said, “medication, routine imaging and invasive surgeries are all commonly used to manage low back pain, despite limited evidence that these methods are effective treatments. Therefore, ensuring there are other options available for patients is paramount.”…
Here the spokesperson misrepresents mainstream medicine to make chiropractic look good. He should know that imaging is used also by chiros for diagnosing back problems (but not for managing them). And he must know that surgery is never used for the type of non-specific back pain that chiros tend to treat. Finally, he should know that exercise is a cheap, safe and effective therapy which is the main conventional option to treat and prevent back pain.
10. According to the European Chiropractors’ Union, “serious harm from chiropractic treatment is extremely rare.”
How do they know, if there is no system to capture cases of adverse effects?
So, what needs to be done? How can we make progress? I think the following five steps would be a good start in the interest of public health:
- Establish an effective monitoring system for adverse effects that is accessible to the public.
- Make sure all chiros are sufficiently well trained to know about the contra-indications of spinal manipulation, including those that apply to elderly patients and infants.
- Change the GCC from a body defending chiros and their interests to one regulating, controlling and, if necessary, reprimanding chiros.
- Make written informed consent compulsory for neck manipulations, and make sure it contains the information that neck manipulations can result in serious harm and are of doubtful efficacy.
- Prevent chiros from making therapeutic claims that are not based on sound evidence.
If these measures had been in place, Mr Lawler might still be alive today.
On 11/11/2019, the York Press reported from coroner’s inquest regarding a chiropractor who allegedly killed a patient. John Lawler suffered a broken neck while being treated by a chiropractor for an aching leg, an inquest has been told. His widow told how her husband was on the treatment table when things started to go wrong. She said he started shouting at chiropractor Dr Arleen Scholten: “You are hurting me. You are hurting me.” Then he began moaning and then said: “I can’t feel my arms.”
Mrs Lawler said Scholten tried to turn him over and then manoeuvred him into a chair next to the treatment table but he had become unresponsive. “He was like a rag doll,” she said. “His lips looked a little bit blue but I knew he was breathing. “I said ‘Has he had a stroke?’ She put his head back and said ‘no, his features are symmetrical’.
When the paramedics arrived, they treated Mr Lawler and to hospital. He had an MRI scan and a doctor told Mrs Lawler that he had suffered a broken neck. She was then informed that her husband was a paraplegic and he could undergo a 14 hour operation which would be traumatic but even before that could happen he “faded away” and died.
There are, as far as I can see, four issues of interest here:
- It could be that Mr Lawler had osteoporosis; we will no doubt hear about this in the course of the inquest. If so, normal force could have led to the fracture, and the chiropractor would claim that she is not to blame for the fracture and the subsequent death of her patient. The question then would be whether she was under an obligation to check whether, in a man of Mr Lawler’s age, his bone density was normal or whether she could just assume that it was. In my view, any clinician applying a potentially harmful therapy has the obligation to make sure there are no contra-indications to it. If that all is so, the chiropractor might have been both negligent and reckless.
- Has neck manipulation been shown to be effective for any type of pain in the leg? That’s an easy one: No!
- Has the chiropractor obtained informed consent from her patient before commencing the treatment? The inquest will no doubt verify this. As many chiropractors fail to do it, I would not be too surprised if, in the present case, this was also not done. Should that be so, the chiropractor would have been negligent.
- One might be surprised to hear that the chiropractor manipulated the neck of a patient who consulted her not because of neck pain but because of a condition seemingly unrelated to the neck. This is an issue that comes up regularly and which is therefore importan; some people might be aware that it is dangerous to see a chiropractor when suffering from neck pain because he/she is bound to manipulate the neck. By contrast, most people would probably think it is ok to consult a chiropractor when suffering from lower back pain, because manipulations in that region is far less risky. The truth, however, is that chiropractors have been taught that the spine is one organ and one entity. Thus they tend to check for subluxations (or whatever name they give to the non-existing condition they all aim to treat) in every region of the spine. If they find one in the neck – and they usually do – they would ‘adjust’ it, meaning they would apply one or more high-velocity, low-amplitude thrusts and manipulate the neck. This could well be, I think, how the chiropractor in the case that is before the court at present came to manipulate the neck of her patient. And this might be how poor Mr Lawler lost his life.
Is there a lesson to be learnt from this tragic case?
Yes, I think there is: if you want to make sure that a chiropractor does not break your neck, don’t go and consult one – whatever your health problem happens to be.
We have discussed the association between chiropractic an opioid use before. But the problem of causality remained unresolved. Perhaps this new paper can help? This retrospective cohort study with new onset back pain patients (2008-20013) examined the association of initial provider treatment with early and long-term opioid use in a national sample of patients with new-onset low back pain (LBP).
The researchers evaluated outpatient and inpatient claims from patient visits, pharmacy claims and inpatient and outpatient procedures with initial providers seen for new-onset LBP. The 216 504 patients were aged 18 years or older and had been diagnosed with new-onset LBP and were opioid-naïve were included. Participants had commercial or Medicare Advantage insurance. The primary independent variable was the type of initial healthcare provider including physicians and conservative therapists (physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists). The main outcome measures were short-term opioid use (within 30 days of the index visit) following new LBP visit and long-term opioid use (starting within 60 days of the index date and either 120 or more days’ supply of opioids over 12 months, or 90 days or more supply of opioids and 10 or more opioid prescriptions over 12 months).
Short-term use of opioids was 22%. Patients who received initial treatment from chiropractors or physical therapists had decreased odds of short-term and long-term opioid use compared with those who received initial treatment from primary care physicians (PCPs) (adjusted OR (AOR) (95% CI) 0.10 (0.09 to 0.10) and 0.15 (0.13 to 0.17), respectively). Compared with PCP visits, initial chiropractic and physical therapy also were associated with decreased odds of long-term opioid use in a propensity score matched sample (AOR (95% CI) 0.21 (0.16 to 0.27) and 0.29 (0.12 to 0.69), respectively).
The authors concluded that initial visits to chiropractors or physical therapists is associated with substantially decreased early and long-term use of opioids. Incentivising use of conservative therapists may be a strategy to reduce risks of early and long-term opioid use.
Like in previous papers, the nature of the association remains unclear. Is it correlation or causation? It is not correct to conclude that initial visits to chiropractors or physical therapists is associated with substantially decreased early and long-term use of opioids, because this implies a causal relationship. Likewise, it is odd to claim that incentivising the use of chiros or physios may reduce the risk of opioid use. The only thing that reduces opioid use is opioid perscribing. The way to achieve this is to teach and train doctors adequately, I think.