The most recent and most disturbing news (at least as far as chiropractors are concerned) was announced at a recent meeting of the American Stroke Association in Texas. There, neurologists from Toronto University reported analyzing 156 cases of stroke and finding that nearly 40 percent of them had apparently resulted from chiropractic neck manipulation. This hands-on treatment had caused tearing in the inside walls of the neck arteries, resulting in clots that blocked blood flow to the brain, bringing on the strokes. The neurologists called for a ban on the procedure.
Chiropractors immediately challenged these findings, claiming that earlier studies had verified the safety of neck manipulation. Yet even the doctors who concede that spinal manipulation can be beneficial for lower back pain and stiffness generally exclude neck manipulation from their endorsement.
Doctors find many of the other claims and practices of chiropractic questionable, if not downright objectionable. Most chiropractors, for example, believe that "subluxations," or minor dislocations of the spine, put pressure on spinal nerves, resulting in a wide variety of disorders. Spinal manipulation, they claim, can effectively treat these disorders and, some even suggest, strengthen the body's defenses against infectious diseases.
Chiropractors differ widely in their methods of treatment, some attempting to adjust only one specific vertebra at the top of the spine, others concentrating on a lower vertebra and still others focusing on the entire spine. All this despite the fact that no uniform criteria exist for even identifying a subluxation, let alone what it causes.
Chiropractors also employ a bewildering variety of weird practices to diagnose their patients. Some use applied kinesiology, a muscle test that supposedly can diagnose allergies and diseased organs. Hair analysis and iris readings are commonplace in the profession. Even sillier are many of the treatments that chiropractors use and recommend: homeopathic potions, colon irrigation, magnetic therapy, enzyme pills, colored-light therapy, and something called "balancing body energy," among other mystical procedures with undocumented effects.
Even more troublesome, all too many chiropractors urge their patients to eschew such widely-accepted health measures as immunization and fluoridation and to be suspicious of anything medical. Are these guys for real?
Confronted about these therapies and theories, chiropractors like to claim that they do not represent the mainstream of chiropractic medicine. But Jaroslaw Grod, a faculty member at the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in Toronto, has undercut that argument. "We're trying to get the profession to look at itself critically," he says. With two associates, Grod collected and evaluated informational brochures from nine leading chiropractic organizations in Canada and the U.S. (In other words, the "mainstream.") Their conclusion, published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapies, was damning. All of the brochures, they wrote, made claims "that are not currently justified by available scientific evidence or that are intrinsically un-testable."
None of the more bizarre advice and treatment that chiropractors often give their patients was repeated or described in these brochures, most probably to fend off any government censure. Yet Grod's group found repeated and dubious references to subluxations as the cause of many problems, and discovered scores of assertions unproven by scientific testing.
"80 percent of all headache sufferers obtain substantial relief from chiropractors."
"A chiropractor could prevent...arthritis from developing in the first place by reducing their subluxations."
"A spinal malfunction can interrupt this internal communications system and cause pain, muscle and organ dysfunctions and other imbalances."
Pulling no punches, Grod's group concluded that "the distribution of patient brochures involving unsubstantiated claims for the healing art meets several of the formal criteria for quackery."
Strong words. But they are highly appropriate and badly needed for a profession that has lost its way. Chiropractic, heal thyself.