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

chiropractic

So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for animals is popular. A recent survey suggested that 76% of US dog and cat owners use some form of SCAM. Another survey showed that about one quarter of all US veterinary medical schools run educational programs in SCAM. Amazon currently offers more that 4000 books on the subject.

The range of SCAMs advocated for use in animals is huge and similar to that promoted for use in humans; the most commonly employed practices seem to include acupuncture, chiropractic, energy healing, homeopathy (as discussed in the previous post) and dietary supplements. In this article, I will briefly discuss the remaining 4 categories.

ACUPUNCTURE

Acupuncture is the insertion of needles at acupuncture points on the skin for therapeutic purposes. Many acupuncturists claim that, because it is over 2 000 years old, acupuncture has ‘stood the test of time’ and its long history proves acupuncture’s efficacy and safety. However, a long history of usage proves very little and might even just demonstrate that acupuncture is based on the pre-scientific myths that dominated our ancient past.

There are many different forms of acupuncture. Acupuncture points can allegedly be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, bee-stings, injections, light, colour, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between two life-forces, ‘yin and yang’. In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological theories as to how acupuncture might work; even though some of these may appear plausible, they nevertheless are mere theories and constitute no proof for acupuncture’s validity.

The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition. According to ‘Western’ acupuncturists, acupuncture is effective mostly for chronic pain. Acupuncture has, for instance, been used to improve mobility in dogs with musculoskeletal pain, to relieve pain associated with cervical neurological disease in dogs, for respiratory resuscitation of new-born kittens, and for treatment of certain immune-mediated disorders in small animals.

While the use of acupuncture seems to gain popularity, the evidence fails to support this. Our systematic review of acupuncture (to the best of my knowledge the only one on the subject) in animals included 14 randomized controlled trials and 17 non-randomized controlled studies. The methodologic quality of these trials was variable but, on average, it was low. For cutaneous pain and diarrhoea, encouraging evidence emerged that might warrant further investigation. Single studies reported some positive inter-group differences for spinal cord injury, Cushing’s syndrome, lung function, hepatitis, and rumen acidosis. However, these trials require independent replication. We concluded that, overall, there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.

Serious complications of acupuncture are on record and have repeatedly been discussed on this blog: acupuncture needles can, for instance, injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 human fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg. Information on adverse effects of acupuncture in animals is currently not available.

Given that there is no good evidence that acupuncture works in animals, the risk/benefit balance of acupuncture cannot be positive.

CHIROPRACTIC

Chiropractic was created by D D Palmer (1845-1913), an American magnetic healer who, in 1895, manipulated the neck of a deaf janitor, allegedly curing his deafness. Chiropractic was initially promoted as a cure-all by Palmer who claimed that 95% of diseases were due to subluxations of spinal joints. Subluxations became the cornerstone of chiropractic ‘philosophy’, and chiropractors who adhere to Palmer’s gospel diagnose subluxation in nearly 100% of the population – even in individuals who are completely disease and symptom-free. Yet subluxations, as understood by chiropractors, do not exist.

There is no good evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulation might be effective for animals. A review of the evidence for different forms of manual therapies for managing acute or chronic pain syndromes in horses concluded that further research is needed to assess the efficacy of specific manual therapy techniques and their contribution to multimodal protocols for managing specific somatic pain conditions in horses. For other animal species or other health conditions, the evidence is even less convincing.

In humans, spinal manipulation is associated with serious complications (regularly discussed in previous posts), usually caused by neck manipulation damaging the vertebral artery resulting in a stroke and even death. Several hundred such cases have been documented in the medical literature – but, as there is no system in place to monitor such events, the true figure is almost certainly much larger. To the best of my knowledge, similar events have not been reported in animals.

Since there is no good evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulations work in animals, the risk/benefit balance of chiropractic fails to be positive.

ENERGY HEALING

Energy healing is an umbrella term for a range of paranormal healing practices, e. g. Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Johrei healing, faith healing. Their common denominator is the belief in an ‘energy’ that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Forms of energy healing have existed in many ancient cultures. The ‘New Age’ movement has brought about a revival of these ideas, and today ‘energy’ healing systems are amongst the most popular alternative therapies in many countries.

Energy healing relies on the esoteric belief in some form of ‘energy’ which refers to some life force such as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or prana in Ayurvedic medicine. Some proponents employ terminology from quantum physics and other ‘cutting-edge’ science to give their treatments a scientific flair which, upon closer scrutiny, turns out to be little more than a veneer of pseudo-science.

Considering its implausibility, energy healing has attracted a surprisingly high level of research activity in the form of clinical trials on human patients. Generally speaking, the methodologically best trials of energy healing fail to demonstrate that it generates effects beyond placebo. There are few studies of energy healing in animals, and those that are available are frequently less than rigorous (see for instance here and here). Overall, there is no good evidence to suggest that ‘energy’ healing is effective in animals.

Even though energy healing is per se harmless, it can do untold damage, not least because it can lead to neglect of effective treatments and it undermines rationality in our societies. Its risk/benefit balance therefore fails to be positive.

DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS

Dietary supplements for veterinary use form a category of remedies that, in most countries, is a regulatory grey area. Supplements can contain all sorts of ingredients, from minerals and vitamins to plants and synthetic substances. Therefore, generalisations across all types of supplements are impossible. The therapeutic claims that are being made for supplements are numerous and often unsubstantiated. Although they are usually promoted as natural and safe, dietary supplements do not have necessarily either of these qualities. For example, in the following situations, supplements can be harmful:

  1. Combining one supplement with another supplement or with prescribed medicines
  2. Substituting supplements for prescription medicines
  3. Overdosing some supplements, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, or iron

Examples of currently most popular supplements for use in animals include chondroitin, glucosamine, probiotics, vitamins, minerals, lutein, L-carnitine, taurine, amino acids, enzymes, St John’s wort, evening primrose oil, garlic and many other herbal remedies. For many supplements taken orally, the bioavailability might be low. There is a paucity of studies testing the efficacy of dietary supplements in animals. Three recent exceptions (all of which require independent replication) are:

Dietary supplements are promoted as being free of direct risks. On closer inspection, this notion turns out to be little more than an advertising slogan. As discussed repeatedly on this blog, some supplements contain toxic materials, contaminants or adulterants and thus have the potential to do harm. A report rightly concluded that many challenges stand in the way of determining whether or not animal dietary supplements are safe and at what dosage.  Supplements considered safe in humans and other cross-species are not always safe in horses, dogs, and cats.  An adverse event reporting system is badly needed.  And finally, regulations dealing with animal dietary supplements are in disarray.  Clear and precise regulations are needed to allow only safe dietary supplements on the market.

It is impossible to generalise about the risk/benefit balance of dietary supplements; however, caution is advisable.

CONCLUSION

SCAM for animals is an important subject, not least because of the current popularity of many treatments that fall under this umbrella. For most therapies, the evidence is woefully incomplete. This means that most SCAMs are unproven. Arguably, it is unethical to use unproven medicines in routine veterinary care.

 

 

 

PS

I was invited several months ago to write this article for VETERINARY RECORD. It was submitted to peer review and subsequently I withdrew my submission. The above post is a slightly revised version of the original (in which I used the term ‘alternative medicine’ rather than ‘SCAM’) which also included a section on homeopathy (see my previous post). The reason for the decision to withdraw this article was the following comment by the managing editor of VETERINARY RECORD:  A good number of vets use these therapies and a more balanced view that still sets out their efficacy (or otherwise) would be more useful for the readership.

The General Chiropractic Council (GCC) is the statutory body regulating all chiropractors in the UK. Their foremost aim, they claim, is to ensure the safety of patients undergoing chiropractic treatment. They also allege to be independent and say they want to protect the health and safety of the public by ensuring high standards of practice in the chiropractic profession.

That sounds good and (almost) convincing.

But is the GCC truly fit for purpose?

In a previous post, I found good reason to doubt it.

In a recent article, the GCC claimed that they started thinking about a new five-year strategy and began to shape four key strategic aims. So, let’s have a look. Here is the crucial passage:

 

A clear strategy is vital but, of course, implementation and getting things changed are where the real work lie. With that in mind, we have a specific business plan for 2019 – the first year of the new strategic plan. You can read it here. This means you’ll see some really important changes and benefits including:

  • Promote standards: review and improvements to CPD processes, supporting emerging new degree providers, a campaign to promote the public choosing a registered chiropractor
  • Develop the profession: supporting and enabling work with the professional bodies
  • Investigate and act: a full review of, and changes to, our Fitness to Practice processes to enable a more ‘right touch’ approach within our current legal framework, sharing more learning from the complaints we receive
  • Deliver value: a focus on communication and engagement, further work on our culture, a new website, an upgraded registration database for an improved user experience.

The changes being introduced, backed by the GCC’s Council, will have a positive effect. I know Nick, the new Chief Executive and Registrar and the staff team will make this a success. You as chiropractors also have an important role to play – keep engaging with us and take your own action to develop the profession, share your ideas and views as we transform the organisation, and work with us to ensure we maintain public confidence in the profession of chiropractic.

END OF QUOTE

Am I the only one who finds this more than a little naïve and unprofessional? More importantly, this statement hints at a strategy mainly aimed at promoting chiropractors regardless of whether they are doing more good than harm. This, it seems, is not in line with the GCC’s stated aims.

  • How can they already claim that the changes being introduced will have a positive effect?
  • Where in this strategy is the GCC’s alleged foremost aim, the protection of the public?
  • Where is any attempt to get chiropractic in line with the principles of EBM?
  • Where is an appeal to chiropractors to adopt the standards of medical ethics?
  • Where is an independent and continuous assessment of the effectiveness of chiropractic?
  • Where is a critical evaluation of its safety?
  • Where is an attempt to protect the public from the plethora of bogus claims made by UK chiropractors?

I feel that, given the recent history of UK chiropractic, these (and many other) points should be essential elements in any long-term strategy. I also feel that this new and potentially far-reaching statement provides little hope that the GCC is on the way towards getting fit for purpose.

Spinal epidural haematoma (SEH) is an uncommon but serious emergency condition. A team of emergency physicians reported the case of a SEH associated with traditional massage initially presenting with delayed lower paraplegia.

A 20-year-old man was seen with bilateral lower extremity weakness and numbness, symptoms that had started three hours prior to presentation. He had received a Thai massage by a friend three days before. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed a spinal epidural lesion suspicious for haematoma extending from C6 to T2 levels. Emergent surgical intervention for cord decompression was performed. An epidural haematoma with cord compression at C6-T2 levels was identified intra-operatively. No evidence of abnormal vascular flow or AV malformations was identified. The authors concluded that, similar to chiropractic manipulation, massage may be associated with spinal trauma. Emergency physicians must maintain a high index of suspicion for spinal epidural haematomas in patients with a history of massage or chiropractic manipulation with neurologic complaints, because delays in diagnosis may worsen clinical outcome.

Thai massage therapists typically use no lubricants. The patient remains clothed during a treatment. There is constant body contact between the therapist – who, in the above case, was a lay person – and the patient.

The authors of this case report rightly stress that such adverse events are rare – but they are by no means unknown. In 2003, I reviewed the risks and found 16 reports of adverse effects as well as 4 case series on the subject (like for all other manual therapies, there is no reporting system of adverse effects). The majority of adverse effects were – like the above case – associated with exotic types of manual massage or massage delivered by laymen. Professionally trained massage therapists were rarely implicated. The reported adverse events include cerebrovascular accidents, displacement of a ureteral stent, embolization of a kidney, haematoma, leg ulcers, nerve damage, posterior interosseous syndrome, pseudoaneurism, pulmonary embolism, ruptured uterus, strangulation of neck, thyrotoxicosis and various pain syndromes. In the majority of these instances, there was little doubt about a cause-effect relationship. Serious adverse effects were associated mostly with massage techniques other than ‘Swedish’ massage.

For patients, this means that massage is still amongst the safest form of manual therapy (best to employ qualified therapists and avoid the exotic versions of massage because they are not supported by evidence and carry the highest risks). For doctors, it means to be vigilant, if patients present with neurological problems after having enjoyed a massage.

Chiropractors believe that their spinal manipulations bring about a reduction in pain perception, and they often call this ‘manipulation-induced hypoalgesia’ (MIH). It is unknown, however, whether MIH following high-velocity low-amplitude spinal manipulative therapy is a specific and clinically relevant treatment effect.

This systematic review was an effort in finding out.

The authors investigated changes in quantitative sensory testing measures following high-velocity low-amplitude spinal manipulative therapy in musculoskeletal pain populations, in randomised controlled trials. Their objectives were to compare changes in quantitative sensory testing outcomes after spinal manipulative therapy vs. sham, control and active interventions, to estimate the magnitude of change over time, and to determine whether changes are systemic or not.

Fifteen studies were included. Thirteen measured pressure pain threshold, and 4 of these were sham-controlled. Change in pressure pain threshold after spinal manipulative therapy compared to sham revealed no significant difference. Pressure pain threshold increased significantly over time after spinal manipulative therapy (0.32 kg/cm2, CI 0.22–0.42), which occurred systemically. There were too few studies comparing to other interventions or for other types of quantitative sensory testing to make robust conclusions about these.

The authors concluded that they found that systemic MIH (for pressure pain threshold) does occur in musculoskeletal pain populations, though there was low quality evidence of no significant difference compared to sham manipulation. Future research should focus on the clinical relevance of MIH, and different types of quantitative sensory tests.

An odd conclusion, if there ever was one!

A more straight forward conclusion might be this:

MIH is yet another myth to add to the long list of bogus claims made by chiropractors.

Chronic back pain is often a difficult condition to treat. Which option is best suited?

A review by the US ‘Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’ (AHRQ) focused on non-invasive nonpharmacological treatments for chronic pain. The following therapies were considered:

  • exercise,
  • mind-body practices,
  • psychological therapies,
  • multidisciplinary rehabilitation,
  • mindfulness practices,
  • manual therapies,
  • physical modalities,
  • acupuncture.

Here, I want to share with you the essence of the assessment of spinal manipulation:

  • Spinal manipulation was associated with slightly greater effects than sham manipulation, usual care, an attention control, or a placebo intervention in short-term function (3 trials, pooled SMD -0.34, 95% CI -0.63 to -0.05, I2=61%) and intermediate-term function (3 trials, pooled SMD -0.40, 95% CI -0.69 to -0.11, I2=76%) (strength of evidence was low)
  • There was no evidence of differences between spinal manipulation versus sham manipulation, usual care, an attention control or a placebo intervention in short-term pain (3 trials, pooled difference -0.20 on a 0 to 10 scale, 95% CI -0.66 to 0.26, I2=58%), but manipulation was associated with slightly greater effects than controls on intermediate-term pain (3 trials, pooled difference -0.64, 95% CI -0.92 to -0.36, I2=0%) (strength of evidence was low for short term, moderate for intermediate term).

This seems to confirm what I have been saying for a long time: the benefit of spinal manipulation for chronic back pain is close to zero. This means that the hallmark therapy of chiropractors for the one condition they treat more often than any other is next to useless.

But which other treatments should patients suffering from this frequent and often agonising problem employ? Perhaps the most interesting point of the AHRQ review is that none of the assessed nonpharmacological treatments are supported by much better evidence for efficacy than spinal manipulation. The only two therapies that seem to be even worse are traction and ultrasound (both are often used by chiropractors). It follows, I think, that for chronic low back pain, we simply do not have a truly effective nonpharmacological therapy and consulting a chiropractor for it does make little sense.

What else can we conclude from these depressing data? I believe, the most rational, ethical and progressive conclusion is to go for those treatments that are associated with the least risks and the lowest costs. This would make exercise the prime contender. But it would definitely exclude spinal manipulation, I am afraid.

And this beautifully concurs with the advice I recently derived from the recent Lancet papers: walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of your preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.

 

In 1995, Dabbs and Lauretti reviewed the risks of cervical manipulation and compared them to those of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They concluded that the best evidence indicates that cervical manipulation for neck pain is much safer than the use of NSAIDs, by as much as a factor of several hundred times. This article must be amongst the most-quoted paper by chiropractors, and its conclusion has become somewhat of a chiropractic mantra which is being repeated ad nauseam. For instance, the American Chiropractic Association states that the risks associated with some of the most common treatments for musculoskeletal pain—over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and prescription painkillers—are significantly greater than those of chiropractic manipulation.

As far as I can see, no further comparative safety-analyses between cervical manipulation and NSAIDs have become available since this 1995 article. It would therefore be time, I think, to conduct new comparative safety and risk/benefit analyses aimed at updating our knowledge in this important area.

Meanwhile, I will attempt a quick assessment of the much-quoted paper by Dabbs and Lauretti with a view of checking how reliable its conclusions truly are.

The most obvious criticism of this article has already been mentioned: it is now 23 years old, and today we know much more about the risks and benefits of these two therapeutic approaches. This point alone should make responsible healthcare professionals think twice before promoting its conclusions.

Equally important is the fact that we still have no surveillance system to monitor the adverse events of spinal manipulation. Consequently, our data on this issue are woefully incomplete, and we have to rely mostly on case reports. Yet, most adverse events remain unpublished and under-reporting is therefore huge. We have shown that, in our UK survey, it amounted to exactly 100%.

To make matters worse, case reports were excluded from the analysis of Dabbs and Lauretti. In fact, they included only articles providing numerical estimates of risk (even reports that reported no adverse effects at all), the opinion of exerts, and a 1993 statistic from a malpractice insurer. None of these sources would lead to reliable incidence figures; they are thus no adequate basis for a comparative analysis.

In contrast, NSAIDs have long been subject to proper post-marketing surveillance systems generating realistic incidence figures of adverse effects which Dabbs and Lauretti were able to use. It is, however, important to note that the figures they did employ were not from patients using NSAIDs for neck pain. Instead they were from patients using NSAIDs for arthritis. Equally important is the fact that they refer to long-term use of NSAIDs, while cervical manipulation is rarely applied long-term. Therefore, the comparison of risks of these two approaches seems not valid.

Moreover, when comparing the risks between cervical manipulation and NSAIDs, Dabbs and Lauretti seemed to have used incidence per manipulation, while for NSAIDs the incidence figures were bases on events per patient using these drugs (the paper is not well-constructed and does not have a methods section; thus, it is often unclear what exactly the authors did investigate and how). Similarly, it remains unclear whether the NSAID-risk refers only to patients who had used the prescribed dose, or whether over-dosing (a phenomenon that surely is not uncommon with patients suffering from chronic arthritis pain) was included in the incidence figures.

It is worth mentioning that the article by Dabbs and Lauretti refers to neck pain only. Many chiropractors have in the past broadened its conclusions to mean that spinal manipulations or chiropractic care are safer than drugs. This is clearly not permissible without sound data to support such claims. As far as I can see, such data do not exist (if anyone knows of such evidence, I would be most thankful to let me see it).

To obtain a fair picture of the risks in a real life situation, one should perhaps also mention that chiropractors often fail to warn patients of the possibility of adverse effects. With NSAIDs, by contrast, patients have, at the very minimum, the drug information leaflets that do warn them of potential harm in full detail.

Finally, one could argue that the effectiveness and costs of the two therapies need careful consideration. The costs for most NSAIDs per day are certainly much lower than those for repeated sessions of manipulations. As to the effectiveness of the treatments, it is clear that NSAIDs do effectively alleviate pain, while the evidence seems far from being conclusively positive in the case of cervical manipulation.

In conclusion, 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.

 

The notion that ‘chiropractic adds years to your life’ is often touted, particularly of course by chiropractors (in case you doubt it, please do a quick google search). It is logical to assume that chiropractors themselves are the best informed about what they perceive as the health benefits of chiropractic care. Chiropractors would therefore be most likely to receive some level of this ‘life-prolonging’ chiropractic care on a long-term basis. If that is so, then chiropractors themselves should demonstrate longer life spans than the general population.

Sounds logical?

Perhaps, but is the theory supported by evidence?

Back in 2004, a chiropractor, Lon Morgan,  courageously tried to test the theory and published an interesting paper about it.

He used two separate data sources to examine the mortality rates of chiropractors. One source used obituary notices from past issues of Dynamic Chiropractic from 1990 to mid-2003. The second source used biographies from Who Was Who in Chiropractic – A Necrology covering a ten year period from 1969-1979. The two sources yielded a mean age at death for chiropractors of 73.4 and 74.2 years respectively. The mean ages at death of chiropractors is below the national average of 76.9 years; it also is below the average age at death of their medical doctor counterparts which, at the time, was 81.5.

So, one might be tempted to conclude that ‘chiropractic substracts years from your life’. I know, this would be not very scientific – but it would probably be more evidence-based than the marketing gimmick of so many chiropractors trying to promote their trade by saying: ‘chiropractic adds years to your life’!

In any case, Morgan, the author of the paper, concluded that this paper assumes chiropractors should, more than any other group, be able to demonstrate the health and longevity benefits of chiropractic care. The chiropractic mortality data presented in this study, while limited, do not support the notion that chiropractic care “Adds Years to Life …”, and it fact shows male chiropractors have shorter life spans than their medical doctor counterparts and even the general male population. Further study is recommended to discover what factors might contribute to lowered chiropractic longevity.

Another beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact!

Most chiropractors claim they can effectively treat a wide range of conditions. I have looked far and wide but I fail to see sound evidence to show that this assumption is true. On a good day, I might agree that chiropractic works for back pain (but this would need to be a very good day and I would need to close at least one eye) – and that’s basically it! Unsurprisingly, chiropractors vehemently disagree with me. Yet, they have an all too obvious conflict of interest in that question and, therefore, they are unlikely to be objective.

One regular commentator of this blog recently reminded me that the UK ‘ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY’ (ASA) state on their website that based on all evidence submitted and reviewed to date, the ASA and CAP accept that chiropractors may claim to treat the following conditions:

  • Ankle sprain (short term management)
  • Cramp
  • Elbow pain and tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) arising from associated musculoskeletal conditions of the back and neck, but not isolated occurrences
  • Headache arising from the neck (cervicogenic
  • Joint pains
  • Joint pains including hip and knee pain from osteoarthritis as an adjunct to core OA treatments and exercise
  • General, acute & chronic backache, back pain (not arising from injury or accident)
  • Generalised aches and pains
  • Lumbago
  • Mechanical neck pain (as opposed to neck pain following injury i.e. whiplash)
  • Migraine prevention
  • Minor sports injuries
  • Muscle spasms
  • Plantar fasciitis (short term management)
  • Rotator cuff injuries, disease or disorders
  • Sciatica
  • Shoulder complaints (dysfunction, disorders and pain)
  • Soft tissue disorders of the shoulder
  • Tension and inability to relax

This is an impressive yet very odd list:

  • Why is ‘joint pain’ listed twice?
  • Can lateral epicondylitis arise from musculoskeletal conditions of the back and neck?
  • What exactly are ‘generalised aches and pains’?
  • Isn’t lumbago and backache the same?
  • Are ‘minor sports injuries’ (including a cut, bruise or haematoma?) a category that is well-defined?
  • What is a ‘soft tissue disorders of the shoulder’

But let’s not be pedantic. Let’s assume these are all defined conditions that need to be treated. The problem still remains that there is hardly any good evidence that they can be effectively treated by chiropractic spinal manipulation (in case you disagree, please post the evidence in the comments section).

And here we come to the crux of the matter, I think.

Chiropractors would say that they use so much more than spinal manipulations.

  • For a sport injury, they might apply an ice-pack.
  • For the inability to relax, they might give a massage.
  • For rotator cuff problems, they might administer exercises.
  • For tennis elbow, they might recommend immobilizing the joint.
  • Etc., etc.

But that’s not chiropractic!

Yes, it is what we do, insist the chiropractors.

I do not doubt it, but survey after survey shows that chiropractors treat almost all their patients with spinal manipulation. And the history of chiropractic is purely based on spinal manipulation. Yes, today they also use treatments borrowed from other disciplines, yet spinal manipulation is the treatment that defines them.

Let me try an example to make my point clear. Imagine a surgeon who specialises in an obsolete type of operation (e.g. ligation of the mammary artery as a treatment of coronary artery disease). Following the chiro-logic, he could claim that:

  • my approach is not ineffective because I do so much more than just operate,
  • I also prescribe medications,
  • I give dietary advice,
  • I give nutritional advice,
  • I recommend relaxation,
  • I suggest regular exercise.

And the results would, of course, show that many of his patients benefit from all this.

Does that mean our surgeon provides effective care for his patients?

Similarly, crystal healing could be seen as being effective, because some crystal healers tell their obese patients to eat less and exercise more?

So, the above-cited list of claims that the ASA now allows UK chiropractors to make is either way too long or much too short – in any case, it is nonsense. If we base it on the proven effectiveness of spinal manipulation, it must be very short indeed. If we base it on everything chiropractors might do in addition, it is far too short; in this case, it should include everything in the medical textbooks from AIDS to ZOSTER (I cannot imagine many conditions for which life-style advice, exercise or cryotherapy [for pain-control] etc. would not be helpful).

My conclusions from all this are as follows:

  • Chiropractors have tried to reinvent themselves by borrowing some treatments from other healthcare professions.
  • They have done this, I suspect, to avoid being judged by their largely ineffective hallmark intervention, spinal manipulation. The move may be commercially clever, but it is nevertheless transparently nonsensical and wholly unconvincing.
  • Chiropractors must be judged not by the treatments they borrowed and might use occasionally, but by the only therapy that is inherent to chiropractic: spinal manipulation.
  • And spinal manipulation is certainly not effective for a wide range of conditions.

I would warn every parent who thinks that taking their child to a chiropractor is a good idea. For this, I have three main reasons:

  1. Chiropractic has not been shown to be effective for any paediatric condition.
  2. Chiropractors often advise parents against vaccinating their children.
  3. Chiropractic spinal manipulations can cause harm to kids.

The latter point seems to be confirmed by a recent PhD thesis of which so far only one short report is available. Here are the relevant bits of information from it:

Katie Pohlman has successfully defended her PhD thesis, which focused on the assessment of safety in pediatric manual therapy. As a clinical research scientist at Parker University, Dallas, Texas, she identified a lack of prospective patient safety research within the chiropractic population in general and investigated this deficit in the paediatric population in particular.

Pohlman used a cross-sectional survey to assess the barriers and facilitators for participation in a patient safety reporting system. At the same time, she also conducted a randomized controlled trial comparing the quantity and quality of adverse event reports in children under 14 years receiving chiropractic care.

The RCT recruited 69 chiropractors and found adverse events reported in 8.8% and 0.1% of active and passive surveillance groups respectively. Of the adverse events reported, 56% were considered mild, 26% were moderate and 18% were severe. The frequency of adverse events was more common than previously thought.

This last sentence from the report is somewhat puzzling. Our systematic review of the risks of spinal manipulation showed 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.

The 8.8% reported by Pohlman are therefore not even one fifth of the average incidence figure reported previously in all age groups.

What could be the explanation for this discrepancy?

There are, of course, several possibilities, including the fact that infants cannot tell the clinician when their pain has increased. However, the most likely one, in my view, lies in the fact that RCTs are wholly inadequate for investigating risks because they typically include far too few patients to generate reliable incidence figures about adverse events. More importantly, clinicians included in such studies are self-selected (and thus particularly responsible/cautious) and are bound to behave most carefully while being part of a clinical trial. Therefore it seems possible – I would speculate even likely – that the 8.8% reported by Pohlman is unrealistically low.

Having said that, I do feel that the research by Kathie Pohlman is a step in the right direction and I do applaud her initiative.

The 2018 World Federation of Chiropractic ACC Education Conference was held on 24-27 October in London. It resulted in several consensus statements developed by the attendees. I happen to know this from a short report that has just been published; it can be found here.

Of the 10 points made in this consensus, I find only the following noteworthy:

“Chiropractic education programs have an ethical obligation to support an evidence-based teaching and learning environment.”

Perhaps it is me – English is not my first language – but I find the phraseology used in this sentence strangely complicated and confusing. I have been a teacher of medical students for most of my life, but I am not sure what an ‘evidence-based teaching and learning environment’ is. I know what ‘evidence-based’ means, of course. However, what exactly is:

  • a teaching environment?
  • a learning environment?
  • and how does ‘evidence-based’ apply to either of the two?

Is there evidence that some environments are better suited than others for teaching?

Is there evidence that some environments are better suited than others for learning?

I suppose the answer must be YES!

The environment, i. e. the space and conditions in which teaching and learning happen should, for instance, be/include:

  • quiet,
  • not cramped,
  • not too cold,
  • not too hot,
  • equipped with ergometric chairs and desks,
  • well-lit,
  • there should be visual aids,
  • access to computers,
  • a library,
  • good mentoring and support,
  • etc.

So, the consensus of the education conference wanted to optimise the environmental conditions of teaching and learning for chiropractic lecturers and students? Most laudable, I must say!

But still, it seems like a missed opportunity for an ‘Education Conference’ not to have stated something about the content of teaching and learning. Personally, I find it a pity that they did not state: Chiropractic education programs have an ethical obligation to be evidence-based.

Or is that what they really wanted to say?

Naaahh … come to think of it … they cannot possibly make such a demand.

Why?

Because, in this case, they would have to teach students not to become chiropractors.

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