Chiropractic Treated Badly

If you have been following the ongoing libel case regarding the efficacy of chiropractic in the UK, then you will likely realize that it is incredibly complicated, that there are many vested interests, dozens of axes to grind, and stacks of hidden agendas.

I don’t intend to go into all the details here, if you want to find out more about the debate and/or the legal case, search for Simon Singh, British Chiropractic Association, Jack of Kent, and Sense About Science and you will find all the information that’s openly available regarding this case and more.

Meanwhile, Colin’s Beauty pages recently reported from #solo09 (Science Online London 2009) and had this to say about one talk in particular that touched on this very chiropractic debate:

Personally speaking, I had never realised that there was so little evidence behind what the chiropracters do, and would probably have thought that they were proper medics if it hadn’t been for all the fuss this court case has generated. I have decided not to use one in future…

Personally, I wouldn’t abandon one’s chiropractor on the basis of a lack of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, unless you’re not seeing positive results for whatever condition you’re being treated.

I too had always assumed that chiropractors were more medic than not, especially given the bizarre origins of this therapy and its seemingly unjustified claims that the spine is at the root of almost all medical problems.

Indeed, I didn’t hold out much hope for chiropractic treatment when I prolapsed a vertebral disc several years ago. The alternative I faced, however, was continued blank looks from my GP who told me not to “overdo it at the gym” and the prospect of inevitably painful and potentially debilitating spinal surgery.

With the chiro treatment I could stand and walk without pain for the first time in well over a year after just three or four half-hour sessions. Of course, this is the very kind of personal, anecdotal evidence without a double-blind, clinical control, of the kind that I criticize frequently. I have written several critiques of the countless alternative, herbal and other remedies marketed aggressively by snake oil sellers on the Internet. I am frequently lambasted for those critiques by individuals who claim to have seen positive results. However, it almost always seems like it’s nothing more than the placebo effect helping boost someone’s “energy” levels as opposed to alleviating physical pressure on seriously and chronically inflamed tissue.

For me I know for a fact that chiropractic worked. Painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, physiotherapy, electrical impulse therapy, sports massage, osteopathy, prolonged rest, and even acupuncture, all failed miserably. In fact, if I’d had the energy at the time, I would have sought legal advice against the practitioners who tried to fix me with two of those treatments because they caused even more pain and made things significantly worse.

The difference seems to be between the successful treatment I had and the claims of those panacea marketeers is that their claims are far too far-reaching to be convincing, whereas my chiropractor made no promises and simply took a history, did some tests, and then treated accordingly.

Meanwhile, libel law really shouldn’t have any say in scientific debate. However, both sides of the chiropractic debate are now clouding the fact that chiropractors have many successes with a wide variety of disorders, not just back pain, but with conditions from headaches to hemorrhoids, in fact. The whole profession has been discredited needlessly it seems to me and when that happens patients will feel let down and turn to even more bizarre treatments such as color therapy, crystal healing, and those costly and bitter snake oils…with potentially dire consequences.

  • Keep libel laws out of science (einval.com)
  • Beware the Spinal Trap (adhominin.com)
  • Keep the Libel Laws out of Science (mt-soft.com.ar)
  • The British Chiropractic Association: Beware the Spinal Trap (scienceblogs.com)
  • Can chiropractic help your child’s asthma? Edzard Ernst says ‘nope’ (scienceblog.com)
  • Science writer accused of libel may take fight to European court (guardian.co.uk)
  • Chiropractic in the News (sciencebasedmedicine.org)

3 thoughts on “Chiropractic Treated Badly”

  1. “the fact that chiropractors have many successes with a wide variety of disorders, not just back pain, but with conditions from headaches to hemorrhoids, in fact.”

    But is there sufficient, non-anecdotal evidence to back up this fact? I’m glad you found someone to help you, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough justification for this statement.

    1. There is every justification for my statement, but it’s purely anecdotal, and that’s the problem, I recognize that. How do you carry out conventional trials on a treatment system that doesn’t conform to the industry standards applied by pharma and others for their treatments and interventions? It isn’t just me that has had success with chiropractic, is it? I have endlessly criticized alternative medicine elsewhere, but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that chiropractic could work for some conditions without there being an obvious conventional explanation.

      Our bodies are certainly more complicated than simplistic models for drug activity would have you believe, especially as those models often prove themselves false when novel side-effects become apparent or efficacy falters. That’s not to say there are hidden energies or anythings silly like that, just that nerves, muscles, joints, tissues, posture, and other factors interact in ways that are not always clear. If a chiropractic treatment shows positive results, even “anecdotally”, it might be worth pursuing a research program to pin down why. Legal wrangling does nothing to improve the situation it seems to be and simply stifles the opportunity for debate that could lead to a better understanding of what’s going on those times when chiropractic does and does not work.

  2. The thing is, it’s impossible to do a double-blind, randomized controlled trial of spinal manipulation. How would you go about doing that? How do you blind the doctor performing the treatment? He knows he’s not adjusting you. How do you blind the patient? You would have to find some really naive people to work on in order for them to not know what chiropractic care feels like.

    You might have the perception that chiropractors have a medical-grade education. You would be correct. We use the same textbooks, the same kind of cadavers, and we structure our program similarly. Although, I’m not sure if the OPQRST method of clinical history taking has stood up to prospective, peer-reviewed study. We’ll have to see if that is still the current standard. If not, I’d like to write a paper saying that doctors shouldn’t do a history with their patients until we have more studies.

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