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

death

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Realgar, α-As4S4, is an arsenic sulfide mineral, also known as “ruby sulphur” or “ruby of arsenic”. It is a soft, sectile mineral occurring in monoclinic crystals, or in granular, compact, or powdery form, often in association with the related mineral, orpiment (As2S3).

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), realgar is often used in combination with herbs. An investigation found a total of 191 different, realgar-containing traditional Chinese patent medicines, and about 87% of them were for oral application. Realgar is said to: 

counteract toxic pathogen both externally and internally. For abscess swelling and sores, it can be used singly or in compound prescription for external application mostly. When taken internally, it is combined with blood-activating and abscess-curing herbs to obtain the action of activating blood to relieve swelling, removing toxicity to cure sores. For example, it is combined with Ru Xiang, Mo Yao and She Xiang in Xing Xiao Wan from Wai Ke Quan Sheng Ji. For itching of skin due to scabies and ringworm, it is often combined with dampness-astringing and itching-relieving herbs to obtain actions of killing parasites and curing ringworm, astringing dampness and relieving itching. For instance, it is combined with the same dose of Bai Fan in powder mixed with clear tea for external application in Er Wei Ba Du San from Yi Zong Jin Jian. For poisonous insect bite, it is mixed with sesame oil and then applied on the afflicted sites.

This herb can kill parasites so it is indicated for intestine track parasites. For roundworm induced abdominal pain, it is often combined with other roundworm-killing herbs to reinforce action. For instance, it is combined with Qian Niu Zi and Bing Lang, etc. in Qian Niu Wan from Shen Shi Zun Sheng Shu. For anus pruritus caused by pinworm, it can be made into gauze strip by mixing with vaseline, and then inserted into the anus.

In addition, according to some ancient formulas, this herb can dispel phlegm and check malaria for internal application, so it can also be indicated for epilepsy, asthma and malaria.

Longtime topical over-dose or oral intake of realgar can cause chronic arsenic poisoning and even death. Chinese authors recently published the case of a 35-year-old Chinese man, who was diagnosed with severe psoriasis and died of fatal acute arsenic poisoning after he applied a local folk prescription ointment containing mainly realgar to the affected skin for about 4 days. The autopsy showed multiple punctate haemorrhages over the limbs, pleural effusion, oedematous lungs with consolidation, mild myocardial hypertrophy and normal-looking kidneys. The histopathological examination of renal tissue showed severe degeneration, necrosis and desquamation of renal tubular epithelial cells, presence of protein cast and a widened oedematous interstitium with interstitial fibrosis. The presence of arsenic in large amount in the ointment (about 6%), in blood (1.76 μg/mL), and in skin (4.71 μg/g), were confirmed analytically. The authors also review 7 similar cases in literature.

My advice is that, when you see recommendations by TCM practitioners like this one

the typical internal dose of realgar is between 0.2 and 0.4 grams, decocted in water and taken up to two times per day. Some practitioners may recommend slightly higher doses (0.3-0.9 grams). Larger doses of realgar may be used if it is being applied topically

you think again and consider that TCM really is not a form of healthcare that can be trusted to be safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

KEY FINDINGS

  • 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.

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Just three points which, in my view, sand out most in relation to Mr Lawler’s death:

  1. Mr Lawler had no proven indication (and at least one very important contra-indication)  for neck manipulation.
  2. He did not give infromed consent.
  3. The neck manipulation was not within the limits of the physiological range of motion.

The tragic case of John Lawler who died after being treated by a chiropractor has been discussed on this blog before. Naturally, it generated much discussion which, however, left many questions unanswered. Today, I am able to answer some of them.

  • Mr Lawler died because of a tear and dislocation of the C4/C5 intervertebral disc caused by considerable external force.
  • The pathologist’s report also shows that the deceased’s ligaments holding the vertebrae of the upper spine in place were ossified.
  • This is a common abnormality in elderly patients and limits the range of movement of the neck.
  • There was no adequately informed consent by Mr Lawler.
  • Mr Lawler seemed to have been under the impression that the chiropractor, who used the ‘Dr’ title, was a medical doctor.
  • There is no reason to assume that the treatment of Mr Lawler’s neck would be effective for his pain located in his leg.
  • The chiropractor used an ‘activator’ which applies only little and well-controlled force. However, she also employed a ‘drop table’ which applies a larger and not well-controlled force.

I have the permission to publish the submissions made to the coroner by the barrister representing the family of Mr Lawler. The barrister’s evidence shows that:

a. The treating chiropractor owed a duty of care to the Deceased, her patient;
b. That duty was breached in that:
i. After the Deceased reported loss of sensation and paralysis in his arms, the only safe and appropriate response was to:
1. Leave him in situ;
2. Await the arrival of the paramedic;
3. Provide an accurate history to the ambulance controller and attending paramedic;
ii. The treating chiropractor, in fact:
1. Manhandled the Deceased from the treatment bed into a sitting position on a chair;
2. Tipped his head backwards and gave “mouth to mouth” breaths;
3. 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 the Deceased downstairs to the ambulance without stabilising his neck.
c. The risk of death was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the breach;
d. In the absence of the breach:
iii. The paramedic would have stabilised the neck, in situ, and transported the Deceased on a scoop stretcher;
iv. The deceased would have survived.
e. Having regard to the risk of death involved, the misconduct was grossly negligent so as to be condemned as the serious crime of manslaughter. The decision to intervene as she did, went beyond a very serious mistake or very serious error of judgment having regard to the fact that:
i. She held herself out as a provider of (quasi) medical treatment;
ii. She styled herself as “doctor”, (when she was not entitled to do so);
iii. She intervened without any understanding of the injury she had caused nor any training in how to intervene safely.
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To put it in blunt layman’s terms, the chiropractor broke Mr Lawler’s neck and, by then moving his head the way she did (she put him into the sitting position and bent his head backwards), may well have caused his death.
Here are five lessons we might learn from this tragic case:
  1. Chiropractors are not medical doctors and should make this perfectly clear to all of their patients.
  2. Elderly patients can have several contra-indications to spinal manipulations. They should therefore think twice before consulting a chiropractor.
  3. A limited range of spinal movement usually is the sign for a chiropractor to intervene. However, this may lead to dramatically bad consequences, if the patient’s para-vertebral ligaments are ossified which happens in about 10% of all elderly individuals.
  4. Chiropractors are by no means exempt from obtaining informed consent. (In the case of Mr Lawler, this would have had to include the information that the neck manipulation carries serious risks and has not shown to work for any type of pain in the leg and might have saved his life, as he then might have refused to accept the treatment.)
  5. Chiropractors are not trained to deal with medical emergencies and must leave that to those healthcare professionals who are fully trained.

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?

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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:

  1.  Establish an effective monitoring system for adverse effects that is accessible to the public.
  2. 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.
  3. Change the GCC from a body defending chiros and their interests to one regulating, controlling and, if necessary, reprimanding chiros.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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There are, as far as I can see, four issues of interest here:

  1. 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.
  2. Has neck manipulation been shown to be effective for any type of pain in the leg? That’s an easy one: No!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

 

This review provides published data on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)-related liver injuries (DILI) in Asia, with detail on incidences, lists of most frequently implicated herbal remedies, along with analysis of patient population and their clinical outcomes.

Its authors conclude that SCAM use is widely prevalent in Asia and is associated with, among other adverse effects, hepatotoxicity. Both proprietary as well as non-proprietary or traditional SCAMs have been implicated in hepatotoxicity. Acute hepatocellular pattern of liver injury is the most common type of liver injury seen, and the spectrum of liver-related adverse events range from simple elevation of liver enzymes to the very serious ALF and ACLF, which may, at times, require liver transplant.

SCAM-related liver injury is one among the major causes for hepatotoxicity, including ALF and ACLF worldwide, with high incidence among Asian countries. Patient outcomes associated with SCAM-DILI are generally poor, with very high mortality rates in those with chronic liver disease. Stringent regulations, at par with that of conventional modern medicine, are required, and may help improve safety of patients seeking SCAM for their health needs. Regional surveillance including post-marketing analysis from government agencies associated with drug regulation and control in tandem with national as well as regional level hepatology societies are important for understanding the true prevalence of DILI associated with SCAM. An integrated approach used by practitioners combining conventional and traditional medicine to identify safety and efficacy of SCAMs is an unmet need in most of the Asian countries. Endorsement of scientific methodology with good quality preclinical and clinical trials and abolishment of unhealthy publication practices is an area that needs immediate attention in SCAM practice. Such holistic standard science-based approaches could help ameliorate liver disease burden in the general and patient population.

I congratulate the authors to this excellent paper. It contains a wealth of information and is well worth reading in full. The review will serve me as a valuable source of data for many years to come.

Leah Bracknell, started raising funds ~3 years ago for alternative cures of her stage 4 lung cancer. Bracknell who, after her acting career, had become a yoga teacher said at the time that, in the UK, she was given “a fairly brutal and bleak diagnosis, but one I am determined to challenge”. Her partner, Jez Hughes, who helped with the fund-raising said the money would be used for “immunotherapy and integrative medicine, which are seeing previously ‘incurable’ cancers going into complete remission”.

The team thus raised over £50 000 and went to Germany, a country that is well-known for its liberal stance on quackery. In Britain, there are just a few physicians who are devoted to this or that alternative medicine. In Germany, there are thousands of them. In addition, Germany has a healthcare profession called the ‘Heilpraktiker’, a poorly-regulated left-over from the Third Reich. A Heilpraktiker has not studied medicine, yet is legally permitted to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and treat many serious diseases, including cancer, with unproven therapies.

It was reported that Leah Bracknell went to the ‘Hallwang Private Oncology Clinic’, an institution which claims that “Healing-oriented and individualised medicine considers all aspects of lifestyle and not only relies on conventional treatments and recent cutting-edge developments in medicine, but also takes into account our experience in natural remedies and is open for alternative treatment options in order to work in synergy with conventional treatment strategies. We always try to be as natural as possible and as conventional as needed to achieve the best results. Integrative Health Concepts are successfully used in many diseases including malignant diseases, neurological disorders as well as in prevention and rehabilitation.” The SCAMs used there include homeopathy, micronutrients, natural supplements, whole body hyperthermia and ozone therapy.

The evidence does not support these or other alternative cancer ‘cures’. In fact, the very notion of an alternative cancer cure is nonsensical: if an alternative cancer therapy showed even the slightest shimmer of promise, it would get investigated and, if shown to work, become part of routine oncology. The suggestion that there are treatments out there that are effective, yet shunned by oncologists because they originate from nature or from some exotic tradition is insulting and utterly barmy.

Yet cancer patients can easily fall for such claims. They are understandably desperate and listen to anyone promissing a cure. Therefore, they all too easily believe in weird conspiracy theories of ‘Big Parma’, the evil ‘establishment’ etc. who allegedly suppress the news of an effective therapy, as it might threaten their profits. If they do fall for such lies, they not only lose pots of money but also their lives.

Last Wednesday, it was reported that Leah Bracknell had died of cancer.

systematic review of the evidence for effectiveness and harms of specific spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) techniques for infants, children and adolescents has been published by Dutch researchers. I find it important to stress from the outset that the authors are not affiliated with chiropractic institutions and thus free from such conflicts of interest.

They searched electronic databases up to December 2017. Controlled studies, describing primary SMT treatment in infants (<1 year) and children/adolescents (1–18 years), were included to determine effectiveness. Controlled and observational studies and case reports were included to examine harms. One author screened titles and abstracts and two authors independently screened the full text of potentially eligible studies for inclusion. Two authors assessed risk of bias of included studies and quality of the body of evidence using the GRADE methodology. Data were described according to PRISMA guidelines and CONSORT and TIDieR checklists. If appropriate, random-effects meta-analysis was performed.

Of the 1,236 identified studies, 26 studies were eligible. In all but 3 studies, the therapists were chiropractors. Infants and children/adolescents were treated for various (non-)musculoskeletal indications, hypothesized to be related to spinal joint dysfunction. Studies examining the same population, indication and treatment comparison were scarce. Due to very low quality evidence, it is uncertain whether gentle, low-velocity mobilizations reduce complaints in infants with colic or torticollis, and whether high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulations reduce complaints in children/adolescents with autism, asthma, nocturnal enuresis, headache or idiopathic scoliosis. Five case reports described severe harms after HVLA manipulations in 4 infants and one child. Mild, transient harms were reported after gentle spinal mobilizations in infants and children, and could be interpreted as side effect of treatment.

The authors concluded that, based on GRADE methodology, we found the evidence was of very low quality; this prevented us from drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of specific SMT techniques in infants, children and adolescents. Outcomes in the included studies were mostly parent or patient-reported; studies did not report on intermediate outcomes to assess the effectiveness of SMT techniques in relation to the hypothesized spinal dysfunction. Severe harms were relatively scarce, poorly described and likely to be associated with underlying missed pathology. Gentle, low-velocity spinal mobilizations seem to be a safe treatment technique in infants, children and adolescents. We encourage future research to describe effectiveness and safety of specific SMT techniques instead of SMT as a general treatment approach.

We have often noted that, in chiropractic trials, harms are often not mentioned (a fact that constitutes a violation of research ethics). This was again confirmed in the present review; only 4 of the controlled clinical trials reported such information. This means harms cannot be evaluated by reviewing such studies. One important strength of this review is that the authors realised this problem and thus included other research papers for assessing the risks of SMT. Consequently, they found considerable potential for harm and stress that under-reporting remains a serious issue.

Another problem with SMT papers is their often very poor methodological quality. The authors of the new review make this point very clearly and call for more rigorous research. On this blog, I have repeatedly shown that research by chiropractors resembles more a promotional exercise than science. If this field wants to ever go anywhere, if needs to adopt rigorous science and forget about its determination to advance the business of chiropractors.

I feel it is important to point out that all of this has been known for at least one decade (even though it has never been documented so scholarly as in this new review). In fact, when in 2008, my friend and co-author Simon Singh, published that chiropractors ‘happily promote bogus treatments’ for children, he was sued for libel. Since then, I have been legally challenged twice by chiropractors for my continued critical stance on chiropractic. So, essentially nothing has changed; I certainly do not see the will of leading chiropractic bodies to bring their house in order.

May I therefore once again suggest that chiropractors (and other spinal manipulators) across the world, instead of aggressing their critics, finally get their act together. Until we have conclusive data showing that SMT does more good than harm to kids, the right thing to do is this: BEHAVE LIKE ETHICAL HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS: BE HONEST ABOUT THE EVIDENCE, STOP MISLEADING PARENTS AND STOP TREATING THEIR CHILDREN!

It is hard to deny that many practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) advise their patients to avoid ‘dangerous chemicals’. By this they usually mean prescription drugs. If you doubt how strong this sentiment often is, you have not followed the recent posts and the comments that regularly followed. Frequently, SCAM practitioners will suggest to their patients to not take this or that drug and predict that patients would then see for themselves how much better they feel (usually, they also administer their SCAM at this point).

Lo and behold, many patients do indeed feel better after discontinuing their ‘chemical’ medicines. Of course, this experience is subsequently interpreted as a proof that the drugs were dangerous: “I told you so, you are much better off not taking synthetic medicines; best to use the natural treatments I am offering.”

But is this always interpretation correct?

I seriously doubt it.

Let’s look at a common scenario: a middle-aged man on several medications for reducing his cardiovascular risk (no, it’s not me). He has been diagnosed to have multiple cardiovascular risk factors. Initially, his GP told him to change his life-style, nutrition and physical activity – to which he was only moderately compliant. Despite the patient feeling perfectly healthy, his blood pressure and lipids remained elevated. His doctor now strongly recommends drug treatment and our chap soon finds himself on statins, beta-blockers plus ACE-inhibitors.

Our previously healthy man has thus been turned into a patient with all sorts of symptoms. His persistent cough prompts his GP to change the ACE-inhibitor to a Ca-channel blocker. Now the patients cough is gone, but he notices ankle oedema and does not feel in top form. His GP said that this is nothing to worry about and asks him to grin and bear it. But the fact is that a previously healthy man has been turned into a patient with reduced quality of life (QoL).

This fact takes our man to a homeopath in the hope to restore his QoL (you see, it certainly isn’t me). The homeopath proceeds as outlined above: he explains that drugs are dangerous chemicals and should therefore best be dropped. The homeopath also prescribes homeopathics and is confident that they will control the blood pressure adequately. Our man complies. After just a few days, he feels miles better, his QoL is back, and even his sex-life improves. The homeopath is triumphant: “I told you so, homeopathy works and those drugs were really nasty stuff.”

When I was a junior doctor working in a homeopathic hospital, my boss explained to me that much of the often considerable success of our treatments was to get rid of most, if not all prescription drugs that our patients were taking (the full story can be found here). At the time, and for many years to come, this made a profound impression on me and my clinical practice. As a scientist, however, I have to critically evaluate this strategy and ask: is it the correct one?

The answer is YES and NO.

YES, many (bad) doctors over-prescribe. And there is not a shadow of a doubt that unnecessary drugs must be scrapped. But what is unnecessary? Is it every drug that makes a patient less well than he was before?

NO, treatments that are needed should not be scrapped, even if this would make the patient feel better. Where possible, they might be altered such that side-effects disappear or become minimal. Patients’ QoL is important, but it is not the only factor of importance. I am sure this must sound ridiculous to lay people who, at this stage of the discussion, would often quote the ethical imperative of FIRST DO NO HARM.

So, let me use an extreme example to explain this a bit better. Imagine a cancer patient on chemo. She is quite ill with it and QoL is a thing of the past. Her homeopath tells her to scrap the chemo and promises she will almost instantly feel fine again. With some side-effect-free homeopathy see will beat the cancer just as well (please, don’t tell me they don’t do that, because they do!). She follows the advice, feels much improved for several months. Alas, her condition then deteriorates, and a year later she is dead.

I know, this is an extreme example; therefore, let’s return to our cardiovascular patient from above. He too followed the advice of his homeopath and is happy like a lark for several years … until, 5 years after discontinuing the ‘nasty chemicals’, he drops dead with a massive myocardial infarction at the age of 62.

I hope I made my message clear: those SCAM providers who advise discontinuing prescribed drugs are often impressively successful in improving QoL and their patients love them for it. But many of these practitioners haven’t got a clue about real medicine, and are merely playing dirty tricks on their patients. The advise to stop a prescribed drug can be a very wise move. But frequently, it improves the quality, while reducing the quantity of life!

The lesson is simple: find a rational doctor who knows the difference between over-prescribing and evidence-based medicine. And make sure you start running when a SCAM provider tries to meddle with necessary prescribed drugs.

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