Today’s post is a reluctant challenge. I’m nominating my own alma mater, the University of Toronto, as the new pseudoscience leader among large universities – not just in Canada, but all of North America. If you can identify a large university promoting or embracing more scientifically questionable activities, I’ll happily buy you a coffee. Yes, it’s personal to me, as I have two degrees from U of T. But I’m more concerned about the precedent. If Canada’s largest university is making decisions that appear to lack a careful consideration of the scientific evidence, then what does that suggest about the scientific standards for universities in Canada? (more…)
Back in 2004, data from the 2002 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) appeared in a report titled “Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults: United States, 2002.” It showed a whopping 62% of adults had used CAM in the past 12 months, but only if prayer for health reasons was included. With prayer excluded, the percentage was substantially lower, at 35%.
“CAM” was defined as:
a group of diverse medical and health care systems, therapies, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.
The authors noted that, in earlier surveys of CAM use, “CAM has been operationally defined in a variety of ways” and the lists of CAM interventions/therapies included “varied considerably among the surveys.”
The most commonly used CAM therapies (excluding prayer) were non-vitamin, non-mineral natural products (18.9%), deep breathing exercises (11.6%), chiropractic care (7.5%), yoga (5.1%), massage (5.0%) and diet-based therapies (3.5%). CAM was most often used to treat back pain or problems, head or chest colds, neck pain or problems, joint pain or stiffness, and anxiety or depression. Most CAM use was self-prescribed. Rebranding things like exercise (yoga) as “CAM” was in the mix from the get-go.
Image credit: Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.
Last week I gave a quick overview of standard treatment options for migraine, a severe form of recurrent headaches. As promised, this week I will address some common treatments for migraine that I don’t think are supported by the evidence.
Acupuncture is the CAM modality that, it seems to me, has infiltrated the furthest into mainstream medicine, including for the treatment of migraine. In fact the The American Headache Society includes acupuncture on its list of recommended treatments. The reason for this is that acupuncture proponents have been able to change the rules of clinical research so that essentially negative or worthless studies of acupuncture are presented as positive.
I reviewed the evidence for acupuncture and migraine previously, demonstrating the multiple problems with the acupuncture literature in general, and specifically acupuncture in migraines. Most studies suffer from at least one fatal flaw: they are not properly blinded, they do not include a control, they mix acupuncture with non-acupuncture variables (mostly including electrical stimulation in the treatment group), comparison groups are not adequately treated, they make multiple comparisons to maximize chance outcomes, or they are simply too small making them susceptible to all the usual problems of bias in research.
What we don’t see is a consistent and clinically-relevant effect in properly-controlled double-blind trials where the variables of acupuncture are isolated.
The saga of chiropractic began in 1895 when D.D. Palmer, a magnetic healer, announced that “95 percent of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae, the remainder by luxations of other joints.” Palmer opened the first chiropractic school in Davenport, Iowa, offering a three-week course of study at the Palmer School and Cure, subsequently renamed the Palmer School of Chiropractic. The school was taken over by B.J. Palmer, the son of D.D. Palmer, in 1906. In 1910, the course of instruction was six months. Kansas and North Dakota were the first states to pass laws legalizing the practice of chiropractic (in 1913 and 1915). By 1921, the Palmer School of Chiropractic, requiring 18 months of study, had 2,000 students, reaching a peak enrollment of 3,600 in 1922. By 1923, 27 states had chiropractic licensing boards. Hundreds of chiropractic schools sprang up, some offering correspondence courses. There were no entrance requirements, anyone could become a chiropractor. H.L. Mencken wrote in the December 11th, 1924, issue of the Baltimore Evening Sun:
Today the backwoods swarm with chiropractors, and in most States they have been able to exert enough pressure on the rural politicians to get themselves licensed. Any lout with strong hands and arms is perfectly equipped to become a chiropractor. No education beyond the elements is necessary.1
Although Palmer’s subluxation theory was contrary to all known laws of anatomy and physiology, the theory was appealing to the general public. Medical science was in its infancy, struggling to find effective and safe remedies for disease and infection. There was no known cure for many common ailments, and many of the medicines used by physicians were ineffective or harmful. In the public marketplace, the door was wide open for snake oil salesmen, entrepreneurs, and opportunists who could mix a concoction or fabricate a new treatment guaranteed to work. With growing numbers of chiropractors treating disease and infection by adjusting the spine to relieve alleged pressure on spinal nerves, offering treatment claimed to be superior to medical care, members of the medical community felt an obligation to oppose what they viewed to be blatant, unbridled quackery.
An old Palmer illustration showing how a displaced vertebra could cause disease by pinching a spinal nerve.
I am happy to report some good news: chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists and assorted other practitioners of pseudo-medicine didn’t fare too well in the 2013-2014 state legislative sessions.
We’ve been following their legislative efforts all year over at the Society for Science-Based Medicine. Some state legislatures meet in yearly sessions. At the end of the year, pending bills die with the session. Some meet only every other year. Others meet in two-year sessions and, in some of these, legislation introduced in one year carries over to the next year. All states with two-year sessions ended these sessions at the close of 2014, except New Jersey and Virginia. If you want to see how your state operates, several websites can help you: MultiState Associates, National Conference of State Legislatures and StateScape.
Chiropractors are already licensed in all 50 states and all of their practice acts permit the detection and correction of the non-existent subluxation. Having achieved that goal, the focus of chiropractic legislative efforts is to expand their scope of practice (the holy grail, for some, being primary care physician status), turf protection and mandates requiring insurance reimbursement or their inclusion in various activities, such as sports physicals, concussion treatment, and scoliosis detection programs.
The most interesting chiropractic bill, one from Oklahoma, didn’t fall into any of those categories:
Chiropractic physicians in this state shall obtain informed, written consent from a patient prior to performing any procedure that involves treatment of the patient’s cervical spine and such informed consent shall include the risks and possible side effects of such treatment including the risk of chiropractic stroke.
Oh, loneliness and cheeseburgers are a dangerous mix.
– Comic Book Guy
Same can be said of viral syndromes and Thanksgiving. My brain has been in an interferon-induced haze for the last week that is not lifting anytime soon. Tell me about the rabbits, George. But no excuses. I have been reading the works of Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds. (Really, really like the Miriam Black books). Writers write and finish what they start and only posers use excuses for not completing their work.
Recently I attended an excellent Grand Rounds on some of the reasons doctors do what they do. Partly it is habit. We learn to a certain way of practice early in our training and it carries on into practice and it is not always best practice. Patients also learn from us and have expectations on what diagnostics or treatments they should receive, and that too it is not always the best practice.
So to educate physicians and patients, the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) started the Choosing Wisely initiative. (more…)
Case reports are perhaps the weakest form of medical evidence. They are essentially well-documented anecdotes. They do serve a useful purpose, however. They can illuminate possible correlations, the natural course of illness and treatment, and serve as cautionary tales regarding possible mistakes, risks and complications. I say “possible” because they are useful mainly for generating hypotheses and not testing or confirming hypotheses.
Dramatic case reports, however, with objective outcomes, like death, can be very useful by themselves in pointing out a potential risk that should be avoided. For example, case reports of objective and severe adverse outcomes are often used as sufficient evidence for pulling approved drugs off the market, or at least adding black box warnings.
The chiropractic community, it seems, does not respond in a similar way to dramatic adverse events that suggest possible risk from chiropractic manipulation. A recent and unfortunate case raises once again the specter of stroke following chiropractic neck manipulation. Jeremy Youngblood was 30 years old, completely healthy, and saw his chiropractic for some neck pain. According to news reports, Jeremy suffered a stroke in his chiropractor’s office while being treated with neck manipulation for the neck pain. According to reports the chiropractor did not call 911, but instead called Jeremy’s father who had to come and pick him up and then bring him to the ER. Jeremy suffered from a major stroke and later died.
Unsafe playtime activity?
During my first clinical rotation in medical school, I found myself at the pediatric nurse station one afternoon waiting for a patient to arrive from the emergency department. An adorable older infant was there sitting in a bouncy chair, smiling and drooling as babies tend to do, and looking rather well for an inpatient. The nurse watching her explained that she had come a long way since first being transported to the facility by ambulance after being admittedly shaken (and almost certainly also beaten) by her mother’s new boyfriend one evening when she wouldn’t stop crying.
Now, cortically blind and facing a lifetime of disability, the child was awaiting placement by social services. I had experienced my first exposure to child abuse, a scourge of pediatric medicine that I hadn’t thought of at that point despite having decided on a career in pediatrics well before being accepted into medical school. I’ve since had many more opportunities to care for abused children, some of which involved considerably more visually disturbing findings and a couple that resulted in a child’s death. But I will never forget her and the feeling of utter revulsion I felt that day.
Child abuse is common and it comes in many forms that can involve physical abuse as well as neglect. Children under the age of 4 years are the most frequently affected, but children under a year tend to suffer the most severe manifestations. Head injuries make up the bulk of physical abuse in this age group, and they are often fatal. Roughly 40% of child abuse-related deaths occur in the first year of life and there is frequently both a history of abuse prior to the fatal event as well as missed opportunities for medical professionals to have intervened.
The head injuries that children suffer at the hands of abusive caregivers, if not fatal, are frequently still devastating. It is not uncommon for these children to suffer permanent neurologic injury which can include persistently altered mental status, cognitive impairment, cerebral palsy, blindness and recurring seizures. In addition to the child’s injuries, the psychosocial impact on the family can also be quite severe. I’ve seen families torn apart because of guilt and anger. (more…)
A correspondent asked me to look into Airrosti because her employer’s insurance company had started covering it, and she was skeptical. She had tried to look up its effectiveness and safety record on the Internet and hadn’t found much. The information on their website didn’t tell me what I wanted to know, so I did a little digging. Like my correspondent, I am skeptical of their claims.
The name Airrosti stands for Applied Integration for the Rapid Recovery of Soft Tissue Injuries. One writer jokingly renamed it Owwwrosti because his first treatment was so excruciatingly painful. They say, “Wherever you hurt, we can help.” They claim to have special knowledge about the underlying cause of soft tissue injuries and pain problems and how to treat them; they claim they can resolve the problems of most of their patients in only 3 visits. The providers are chiropractors who have been trained by the company in their special methods…whatever they are. Their website is vague about what their modality actually consists of. I was able to piece together some of what they are doing from discussion groups and patient reports. There are plenty of testimonials, and the treatments are described as painful but effective. They offer quality 1-on-1 care for an entire hour, with detailed examination, hands-on soft tissue therapy, foam rolling, instruction in exercise and rehabilitation, and Kinesio Taping. Their main competitors are said to be the Graston technique and Gua Sha technique, and their treatment appears to be centered on myofascial release (MFR). In other words, it’s a mixed bag.
The Airrosti website, prominently featuring several bold claims. Click screenshot to see full size.
I am often asked, “What do chiropractors do?” That’s not an easy question to answer. The answer is usually expected to be, “They treat back trouble.” But as alternative medicine practitioners, chiropractors do a lot of things, and they treat a variety of ailments, based largely on a scientifically-invalid vertebral subluxation theory which proposes that nerve interference resulting from a misaligned vertebra or a dysfunctional spinal segment can affect general health.
As a co-host of the Chirobase web site, I frequently answer questions about chiropractic, some of which are published in a section titled “Consumer Strategy/Consumer Protection.” In this post, I’ll focus on these:
- Are Subluxations Causing My Health Problems?
- Is a Misaligned Atlas Causing My Back Pain?
- What is that “Thumper” My Chiropractor Uses on My Back?
- How Does a Chiropractor Locate Subluxations?
- Should I Let a Chiropractor Adjust My Baby?
- Why Is Every Chiropractor’s Treatment Different?
- Can Neck Manipulation Cause a Stroke?
- Should I Go to a Chiropractic College?
- Are There Any Good Chiropractors?
- Is It Possible to Reform the Chiropractic Profession?
By far, most of the questions I receive express concern about questionable methods and advice offered in the offices of chiropractors. Many questions are generated by the suspicions of patients who initially visited a chiropractor for treatment of back pain and who were then offered spinal adjustments as a treatment for health problems unrelated to the spine. Patients are often concerned about the expense involved in such care, usually extended over a long period of time, followed by “maintenance care” to correct or prevent “vertebral subluxations” after symptoms have resolved. I generally advise patients to refuse chiropractic care for anything other than a musculoskeletal problem, to seek treatment only when symptoms are present, never pay for treatment in advance, and to discontinue treatment and see an orthopedic specialist if symptoms worsen after a few days or have not subsided after a week or so.