Saturday, June 16, 2012

Weekend Post - the problem with chiropractic

Most so-called “alternative” health treatments are fundamentally harmless. Reflexologists, acupuncturists and the purveyors of nonsense like Reiki, energy medicine and QXCI are highly unlikely to harm you, let alone kill you. That’s because none of these “therapies” actually DO anything. Of course there IS the risk that someone will use these fake treatments instead of real medicine and suffer as a result. A friend of mine is a doctor who I once saw deeply upset because a patient who’s life he had improved dramatically, whose life he’d probably saved, ended up dead because he’d dabbled with nonsensical “traditional” medicine.

There are, however, alternatives that CAN do harm, that CAN hurt you. Chiropractic is a good example of this.

Chiropractic is, like most “alternative” therapies, based on a ridiculously simplistic view of the human body. Energy medicine practitioners will tell you that it’s all about balancing energies, reflexologists invent pathways between the soles of your feet and the rest of your body and the QXCI “therapists” don’t have any idea what they’re doing. Chiropractors will tell you that many disorders are due to “misalignments” in your spine that are somehow interfering with nerve signals from your brain. They claim that manipulating the spine can free these nerve signals and improve the victim’s health.

Let’s start with the facts. This is all utter nonsense. Even chiropractors admit this. The UK General Chiropractic Council admits on its web site that the basic idea behind their profession:
“is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns”
If even the governing bodies admit that it’s nonsense, why do individual chiropractors think we should trust them?

Admittedly, a number of chiropractors have moved away from these ridiculous claims and now include more mainstream ideas in their thinking and treatments. However there is little evidence that anything the more modern ones do has any genuine effect either. The overwhelming body of evidence suggests that spinal manipulation for back and neck pain offers no greater benefits than massage or taking some painkillers.

Then there are the dangers. People have died as a result of chiropractic treatment. Just last week the BBC reported on a warning published in the British Medical Journal about the low-level risk posed by spinal manipulation. Describing the procedure as “unnecessary and inadvisable” they highlighted the risk of damage to the arteries in the neck that might result in a stroke. This risk isn’t just theoretical. There are many documented cases of people being permanently disabled and even being killed by their chiropractic treatment, by the chiropractors themselves.

Of course alternative therapists will say that this happens in conventional medicine as well and they have a point. People do sometimes suffer side effects of modern medicine but its very rarely the treatment itself that directly harms them. Having a chiropractor, who would be forced to admit that his therapy was not based on any science, fool around with your spinal cord is asking for trouble.

Some years ago the chiropractic industry in the UK suffered an enormous setback when the British Chiropractic Association tried to sue the science writer Simon Singh for defamation. He had criticized chiropractors’ claims that they could successfully treat children with asthma, ear infections, colic and sleeping problems. He said that the BCA “happily promotes bogus treatments” and they sued him.

The good news is after a lengthy court battle the BCA was forced to drop their case against him because they realized they were going to lose. What he’d said was true. Unfortunately, unlike here in Botswana, the British legal system has no “public interest defense” to allegations of defamation.

One effect of this case was a massive increase in the number of complaints against chiropractors for false advertising. One report suggested that 25% of all practitioners in the UK were under investigation for making false claims. The “profession” remains in crisis to this day, having brought public attention to itself by trying to bully a science writer for telling the truth about their treatments.

The irony is that it took a court case, not scientific evidence, to force chiropractors to face up to the truth about their bogus, pseudoscientific claims. Hopefully science can prevail in future without the support of the courts?

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