During my almost 30 years of research into so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), I have published many papers which must have been severe disappointments to those who advocate SCAM or earn their living through it. Many SCAM proponents thus reacted with open hostility. Others tried to find flaws in those articles which they found most upsetting with a view of discrediting my work. The 2012 article entitled ‘A Replication of the Study ‘Adverse Effects of Spinal Manipulation: A Systematic Review‘ by the Australian chiropractor, Peter Tuchin, seems to be an example of the latter phenomenon (used recently by Jens Behnke in an attempt to defame me).
Here is the abstract of the Tuchin paper:
Objective: To assess the significance of adverse events after spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) by replicating and critically reviewing a paper commonly cited when reviewing adverse events of SMT as reported by Ernst (J Roy Soc Med 100:330-338, 2007).
Method: Replication of a 2007 Ernst paper to compare the details recorded in this paper to the original source material. Specific items that were assessed included the time lapse between treatment and the adverse event, and the recording of other significant risk factors such as diabetes, hyperhomocysteinemia, use of oral contraceptive pill, any history of hypertension, atherosclerosis and migraine.
Results: The review of the 32 papers discussed by Ernst found numerous errors or inconsistencies from the original case reports and case series. These errors included alteration of the age or sex of the patient, and omission or misrepresentation of the long term response of the patient to the adverse event. Other errors included incorrectly assigning spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) as chiropractic treatment when it had been reported in the original paper as delivered by a non-chiropractic provider (e.g. Physician).The original case reports often omitted to record the time lapse between treatment and the adverse event, and other significant clinical or risk factors. The country of origin of the original paper was also overlooked, which is significant as chiropractic is not legislated in many countries. In 21 of the cases reported by Ernst to be chiropractic treatment, 11 were from countries where chiropractic is not legislated.
Conclusion: The number of errors or omissions in the 2007 Ernst paper, reduce the validity of the study and the reported conclusions. The omissions of potential risk factors and the timeline between the adverse event and SMT could be significant confounding factors. Greater care is also needed to distinguish between chiropractors and other health practitioners when reviewing the application of SMT and related adverse effects.
The author of this ‘replication study’ claims to have identified several errors in my 2007 review of adverse effects of spinal manipulation. Here is the abstract of my article:
Objective: To identify adverse effects of spinal manipulation.
Design: Systematic review of papers published since 2001.
Setting: Six electronic databases.
Main outcome measures: Reports of adverse effects published between January 2001 and June 2006. There were no restrictions according to language of publication or research design of the reports.
Results: The searches identified 32 case reports, four case series, two prospective series, three case-control studies and three surveys. In case reports or case series, more than 200 patients were suspected to have been seriously harmed. The most common serious adverse effects were due to vertebral artery dissections. The two prospective reports suggested that relatively mild adverse effects occur in 30% to 61% of all patients. The case-control studies suggested a causal relationship between spinal manipulation and the adverse effect. The survey data indicated that even serious adverse effects are rarely reported in the medical literature.
Conclusions: Spinal manipulation, particularly when performed on the upper spine, is frequently associated with mild to moderate adverse effects. It can also result in serious complications such as vertebral artery dissection followed by stroke. Currently, the incidence of such events is not known. In the interest of patient safety we should reconsider our policy towards the routine use of spinal manipulation.
In my view, there are several things that are strange here:
- Tuchin published his paper 5 years after mine.
- He did not publish it in the same journal as my original, but in an obscure chiro journal that hardly any non-chiropractor would ever read.
- Tuchin never contacted me and never alerted me to his publication.
- The journal that Tuchin chose was not Medline-listed in 2012; consequently, I never got to know about the Tuchin article in a timely fashion. (Therefore, I did never respond to it.)
- A ‘replication study’ is a study that repeats the methodology of a previous study.
- Tuchin’s paper is therefore NOT a replication study. Firstly, mine was a review and not a study. Secondly, and crucially, Tuchin never repeated my methodology but used an entirely different one.
But arguably, these points are trivial. They should not distract from the fact that I might have made mistakes. So, let’s look at the substance of Tuchin’s claim, namely that I made errors or omissions in my review.
As to ‘omissions’, one could argue that a review such as mine will always have to omit some details in order to generate a concise summary. The only way to not omit any details is to re-publish all the primary papers in one large volume. Yet, this can hardly be the purpose of a systematic review.
As to the ‘errors’, it seems that the ages and sex of three patients were wrong (I have not checked this against the primary publications but, for the moment, I believe Tuchin). This is, of course, lamentable and – even though I have no idea whether the errors happened at the data extraction phase, during the typing, the revising, or the publishing of the paper – it is entirely my responsibility. I also seem to have mistaken a non-chiropractor for a chiropractor. This too is regrettable but, as the review was about spinal manipulation and not about chiropractic, the error is perhaps not so grave.
Be that as it may, these errors are unquestionably not good, and I can only apologise for them. If Tuchin had dealt with them in the usual way – by publishing in a timely fashion a ‘letter to the editor’ of the JRSM – I could have easily corrected them for everyone to see.
But I think there is a more important point to be made here:
Tuchin concludes his paper stating that it is unwise to make conclusions regarding causality from any case study or multiple case studies. The number of errors or omissions in the 2007 Ernst paper significantly limit any reported conclusions. I believe that both sentences are unjustified. The safety of any intervention in routine use has to be examined on the basis of published case studies. This is particularly true for chiropractic where no post-marketing surveillance similar to that for drugs exists.
The conclusions based on such evidence can, of course, never be firm, but they provide valuable signals that can prompt more rigorous investigations in the interest of patient safety. In view of such considerations, my own conclusions in my 2007 paper were, I think, correct and are NOT invalidated by my relatively trivial mistakes: spinal manipulation, particularly when performed on the upper spine, has repeatedly been associated with serious adverse events. Currently the incidence of such events is unknown. Adherence to informed consent, which currently seems less than rigorous, should therefore be mandatory to all therapists using this treatment. Considering that spinal manipulation is used mostly for self-limiting conditions and that its effectiveness is not well established, we should adopt a cautious attitude towards using it in routine health care.
And my conclusions in the abstract have now, I believe, become established wisdom. They are thus even less in jeopardy through my calamitous lapsus or Tuchin’s ‘replication study’: Spinal manipulation, particularly when performed on the upper spine, is frequently associated with mild to moderate adverse effects. It can also result in serious complications such as vertebral artery dissection followed by stroke. Currently, the incidence of such events is not known. In the interest of patient safety we should reconsider our policy towards the routine use of spinal manipulation.
A team of chiropractic researchers conducted a review of the safety of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) in children under 10 years. They aimed to:
1) describe adverse events;
2) report the incidence of adverse events;
3) determine whether SMT increases the risk of adverse events compared to other interventions.
They searched MEDLINE, CINAHL, and Index to Chiropractic Literature from January 1, 1990 to August 1, 2019. Eligible studies were case reports/series, cohort studies and randomized controlled trials. Studies of high and acceptable methodological quality were included.
Most adverse events are mild (e.g., increased crying, soreness). One case report describes a severe adverse event (rib fracture in a 21-day-old) and another an indirect harm in a 4-month-old. The incidence of mild adverse events ranges from 0.3% (95% CI: 0.06, 1.82) to 22.22% (95% CI: 6.32, 54.74). Whether SMT increases the risk of adverse events in children is unknown.
The authors concluded that the risk of moderate and severe adverse events is unknown in children treated with SMT. It is unclear whether SMT increases the risk of adverse events in children < 10 years.
Thanks to their ingenious methodology, the authors managed to miss 11 of the 13 studies included in the review by Vohra et al which reported 9 serious adverse events and 20 cases of delayed diagnosis associated with SMT. Another review reported 15 serious adverse events and 775 mild to moderate adverse events following manual therapy. As far as I can see, the authors of the new review make just one reasonable point:
We recommend the implementation of a population-based active surveillance program to measure the incidence of severe and serious adverse events following SMT treatment in this population.
In the absence of such a surveillance system, any incidence figures are not just guess-work but also a depiction of the tip of a much bigger iceberg. So, why do the authors of this review not make this point clearly and powerfully? Why does the review read mostly like an attempt to white-wash a thorny subject? Why do they not provide a breakdown of the adverse events according to profession? The answer to these questions can be found at the very end of the paper:
This study was supported by the College of Chiropractors of British Columbia to Ontario Tech University. The College of Chiropractors of British Columbia was not involved in the design, conduct or interpretation of the research that informed the research. This research was undertaken, in part, thanks to funding from the Canada Research Chairs program to Pierre Côté who holds the Canada Research Chair in Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation at Ontario Tech University, and from the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation to Carol Cancelliere who holds a Research Chair in Knowledge Translation in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University.
This study was supported by the College of Chiropractors of British Columbia to Ontario Tech University. The College of Chiropractors of British Columbia was not involved in the design, conduct or interpretation of the research that informed the research. This research was undertaken, in part, thanks to funding from the Canada Research Chairs program to Pierre Côté who holds the Canada Research Chair in Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation at Ontario Tech University, and funding from the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation to Carol Cancelliere who holds a Research Chair in Knowledge Translation in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University.
I have often felt that chiropractic is similar to a cult. An investigation by cult members into the dealings of a cult is not the most productive of concepts, I guess.
Many chiropractors claim that spinal manipulation (SM) has an effect on the pain threshold even in asymptomatic subjects, but SM has never been compared in studies to a validated sham procedure. Now a chiropractic research team has published a study investigating the effect of SM on the pressure pain threshold (PPT) when measured in
ii) an area remote from the intervention.
In addition, the researchers measured the size and duration of the effect.
In this randomized cross-over trial, 50 asymptomatic chiropractic students had their PPT measured at baseline, immediately after and every 12 min after intervention, over a period of 45 min, comparing values after SM and a previously validated sham. The trial was conducted during two sessions, separated by 48 h. PPT was measured both regionally and remotely from the ‘treated’ thoracic segment. Blinding of study subjects was tested with a post-intervention questionnaire.
The results show that the study subjects had been successfully blinded. No statistically significant differences were found between SM and sham estimates, at any time or anatomical location.
The authors concluded that, when compared to a valid sham procedure and with successfully blinded subjects, there is no regional or remote effect of spinal manipulation of the thoracic spine on the pressure pain threshold in a young pain-free population.
Reduced pain sensitivity following SM (often also called ‘manipulation-induced hypoalgesia’ (MIH)) turns out to be little more than a myth promoted by chiropractors for the obvious reason of boosting their business (6 further myths are summarised in the over-optimistic chiropractic advertisement above).
A recent review of the evidence 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.
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.
It has been reported that pharmacies in New Zealand continue to ignore a code of ethics that requires them to inform customers, if a product has no evidence of efficacy. The code of ethics states: “Pharmacists must advise patients when scientific support for treatment is lacking.”
Eight Auckland pharmacies were visited to enquire about a homeopathic product for sale. Pharmacy staff were asked what they knew about a homeopathic product on their shelves and if it worked. All failed to share information about the lack of scientific evidence showing the product works. Instead, they claimed that homeopathic solution of arnica sold as a treatment for injuries, bruising and post-surgery trauma “works really, really well”, was “awesome” and could also cure headaches. One salesperson checked with the pharmacist whether the product was suitable for swelling post-surgery and was told it was fine as long as no other medication was being taken at the same time.
There is no credible evidence the highly diluted homeopathic remedies sold by pharmacists work better than a placebo. Homeopathy’s effectiveness has been rejected by many scientists and by large government reviews conducted in the UK, Australia and Europe.
Even if a staff member personally believes a homeopathic product works, guidelines referenced by the code of ethics say this should not sway the information given to the customer: “Patients must be made aware of the likely effectiveness of a given therapy according to recognised peer-reviewed medical publications, in spite of your personal beliefs.”
Shortly after the code was changed in March 2018, Newsroom performed the same secret shopper experiment at four pharmacies and found the new rule was not followed. Eighteen months on, nothing has improved.
The chair of the consumer advocate group the ‘Society for Science Based Healthcare’, Mark Hanna, said there was no excuse for pharmacies to sell this kind of thing without warning. “Pharmacists should know better. Full stop. They should not be misleading their patients, they should not be letting their staff mislead their patients. If they don’t know, that’s incompetence. I would expect to be given reasonable, evidence-based advice, possibly some different options with the reason why I might choose one over the other. I wouldn’t expect to be misled and sold something that wouldn’t work.
Asked why the code was not being followed a spokesperson of the NZ pharmacists said a reminder of the code of ethics had been sent to pharmacies in June. It was recommended all staff be made aware of the code: “We encourage you to share this protocol with your entire team – even though it is a protocol for pharmacists, the reasoning also extends to other staff members in the pharmacy and it is important that all staff ensure that the patient has been provided with sufficient information to make an informed choice.”
By Jove, we have discussed this issue often enough. If you are interested, here are a few of my more recent posts on this subject:
- “Pharmacists should not sell or dispense homeopathic products”
- German pharmacists fail their customers when advising them on homeopathy
- Pharmacists put themselves at risk by selling homeopathic remedies
- Pro and Contra: should UK community pharmacists sell homeopathic remedies?
- Pharmacists’ responsibilities vis a vis alternative medicine: the violation of healthcare ethics continues.
- It is “disappointing that some pharmacists are still stocking homeopathy products”
- Pharmacists: to sell quackery means you are quacks – or have I got that wrong?
- Pharmacists must use their professional judgement to prevent the supply of homeopathic remedies
But pharmacists seem utterly reluctant to change – in NZ or elsewhere. Why? Could it have something to do with money?
If doctors violate their code of ethics, they face being reprimanded by their professional body. It is high time that the same happens with pharmacists, I feel.
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.
Spinal manipulation is a treatment employed by several professions, including physiotherapists and osteopaths; for chiropractors, it is the hallmark therapy.
- They use it for (almost) every patient.
- They use it for (almost) every condition.
- They have developed most of the techniques.
- Spinal manipulation is the focus of their education and training.
- All textbooks of chiropractic focus on spinal manipulation.
- Chiropractors are responsible for most of the research on spinal manipulation.
- Chiropractors are responsible for most of the adverse effects of spinal manipulation.
Spinal manipulation has traditionally involved an element of targeting the technique to a level of the spine where the proposed movement dysfunction is sited. This study evaluated the effects of a targeted manipulative thrust versus a thrust applied generally to the lumbar region.
Sixty patients with low back pain were randomly allocated to two groups: one group received a targeted manipulative thrust (n=29) and the other a general manipulation thrust (GT) (n=31) to the lumbar spine. Thrust was either localised to a clinician-defined symptomatic spinal level or an equal force was applied through the whole lumbosacral region. The investigators measured pressure-pain thresholds (PPTs) using algometry and muscle activity (magnitude of stretch reflex) via surface electromyography. Numerical ratings of pain and Oswestry Disability Index scores were collected.
Repeated measures of analysis of covariance revealed no between-group differences in self-reported pain or PPT for any of the muscles studied. The authors concluded that a GT procedure—applied without any specific targeting—was as effective in reducing participants’ pain scores as targeted approaches.
The authors point out that their data are similar to findings from a study undertaken with a younger, military sample, showing no significant difference in pain response to a general versus specific rotation, manipulation technique. They furthermore discuss that, if ‘targeted’ manipulation proves to be no better than ‘general’ manipulation (when there has been further research, more studies), it would challenge the need for some current training courses that involve comprehensive manual skill training and teaching of specific techniques. If simple SM interventions could be delivered with less training, than the targeted approach currently requires, it would mean a greater proportion of the population who have back pain could access those general manipulation techniques.
Assuming that the GT used in this trial was equivalent to a placebo control, another interpretation of these results is that the effects of spinal manipulation are largely or even entirely due to a placebo response. If this were confirmed in further studies, it would be yet one more point to argue that spinal manipulation is not a treatment of choice for back pain or any other condition.
A 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!
Myelopathy is defined as any neurologic deficit related to the spinal cord. When due to trauma, it is known as (acute) spinal cord injury. When caused by inflammatory, it is known as myelitis. Disease that is vascular in nature is known as vascular myelopathy.
The symptoms of myelopathy include:
- Pain in the neck, arm, leg or lower back
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulty with fine motor skills, such as writing or buttoning a shirt
- Difficulty walking
- Loss of urinary or bowel control
- Issues with balance and coordination
The causes of myelopathy include:
- Tumours that put pressure on the spinal cord
- Bone spurs
- A dislocation fracture
- Autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis
- Congenital abnormality
- A traumatic injury
This review presents a series of cases with cervical spine injury and myelopathy following therapeutic manipulation of the neck, and examines their clinical course and neurological outcome.
Its authors conducted a search for patients who developed neurological symptoms due to cervical spinal cord injury following neck SMT in the database of a spinal unit in a tertiary hospital between the years 2008 and 2018. Patients with vertebral artery dissections were excluded. Patients were assessed for the clinical course and deterioration, type of manipulation used and subsequent management.
A total of four patients were identified, two men and two women, aged between 32 and 66 years. In three patients neurological deterioration appeared after chiropractic adjustment and in one patient after tuina therapy. The patients had experienced symptoms within one day to one week after neck manipulation. The four patients had signs of:
- central cord syndrome,
- spastic quadriparesis,
- spastic quadriparesis,
- radiculopathy and myelomalacia.
Three patients were managed with anterior cervical discectomy and fusion while one patient declined surgical treatment.
The authors note that their data cannot determine whether the spinal cord dysfunction was caused my the spinal manipulations or were pre-existing problems which were aggravated by the treatments. They recommend that assessment for subjective and objective evidence of cervical myelopathy should be performed prior to cervical manipulation, and suspected myelopathic patients should be sent for further workup by a specialist familiar with cervical myelopathy, such as a neurologist, a neurosurgeon or orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in spinal surgery. They also state that manipulation therapy remains an important and generally safe treatment modality for a variety of cervical complaints. Their review, the authors stress, does not intend to discard the role of spinal manipulation as a significant part in the management of patients with neck related symptoms, rather it is meant to draw attention to the need for careful clinical and imaging investigation before treatment. This recommendation might be medically justified, yet one could argue that it is less than practical.
This paper from Israel is interesting in that it discloses possible complications of cervical manipulation. It confirms that chiropractors are most frequently implicated and that – as in our survey – under-reporting is exactly 100% (none of the cases identified by the retrospective chart review had been previously reported).
In light of this, some of the affirmations of the authors are bizarre. In particular, I ask myself how they can claim that cervical manipulation is a ‘generally safe’ treatment. With under-reporting at such high levels, the only thing one can say with certainty is that serious complications do happen and nobody can be sure how frequently they occur.