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The publication of Gilbey’s paper and my editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ) led to a threat of legal action by the NZ Chiropractors’ Association Inc for alleged defamation.  After publishing a defiant editorial, the editor of the NZMJ offered chiropractors the chance to put their case.

In the last issue of NZMJ (22 Aug 2008) three letters appeared. One was from Brian Kelly, (President, New Zealand College of Chiropractic) [download letter]. One was from Karl Bale (CEO/Registrar, Chiropractic Board New Zealand) [download letter], and one was from Simon Roughan (Registered Chiropractor and Acting President of the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association) [download letter].

In the current issue (5 September 2008) Gilbey, Ernst and I responded.{download Gilbey response] [download Ernst response].

Here’s mine. The printed version differs in minor ways [download pdf]

I’m grateful for the opportunity to reply to the defences of chiropractic from Kelly1, Roughan2 and Bale3 in your last issue.

I’d like first to deal with the minor matter of titles, before getting on to the more important question of  vidence. I notice that Brian Kelly signs his letter “Dr Brian Kelly B App Sci (Chiro)” in his letter to NZMJ. He seems to be a bit less careful in his use of titles on his own school’s web site where his president’s welcome4 is signed simply “Dr Brian Kelly”, a title he adopts in at least three other places. Karl Bale3 (CEO/Registrar, Chiropractic Board New Zealand) points out that “Failure to qualify the use of the title ‘Doctor’ may contravene the provisions of the Medical Practitioners Act 1995”. One wonders whether Bale has done anything to stop Kelly’s apparent breaches of this rule?

This example makes on wonder whether the Chiropractic Board take its responsibilities seriously? It seems often to be the case that ‘voluntary self-regulation’ doesn’t work, because there are too many vested interests. Karl Bale points out that some ruthless sales methods characteristic of chiropractic are also contrary to the Chiropractic Board’s code of ethics. One would hope their well-known antipathy to vaccination and to medicine as a whole were also considered unethical. These practices seem to continue so the the code of ethics
seems not to be enforced. Much the same is true in other forms of alternative medicine too5.

It seems to me quite remarkable that none of the letters mentions the ‘subluxation’ that lies at the heart of their subject6. Could that be because they are reluctant to admit openly that it is a mere metaphysical concept, that no one can see or define? It is sad that so many patients are subjected to X-rays in search of this  phantom idea. It is this metaphysical nature of chiropractic that separates it quite clearly from science.

Brian Kelly says “How can any reader take seriously, anything suggested by a writer who opines that a 19th Century journalist possessed superior “intellectual standards” to “the UK’s Department of Health” and “several university vice chancellors”. The views of the Davenport Leader on chiropractic were mild compared with those of the great H.L. Mencken (1924)7 who wrote “This preposterous quackery flourishes lushly in the back reaches of the Republic, and begins to conquer the less civilized folk of the big cities….” The problem is that the Department of Health is full of arts graduates who may be very good at classics but can’t understand the nature of evidence. And the UK has one vice-chancellor, a geomorphologist, who defends a course in his university that teaches that “amethysts emit high yin energy”8 I’ll admit, though, that perhaps ‘intellect’ is not what’s deficient in this case, but rather honesty.

Your correspondents seem to confuse the duration of a course with its intellectual content. You can study homeopathy for years too, but after all that they are still treating sick people with medicines that contain no medicine. Anyone who works in a university knows that you can easily get accreditation for anything whatsoever if you choose the right people to sit on the committee. I have seen only too many of these worthless pieces of paper. “Amethysts emit high yin energy”8 was part of an accredited course (at the University of Westminster) too. Need I say more?

Now to the real heart of the problem, namely the question of evidence. Brian Kelly says that the book by Singh and Ernst9 shows “extreme bias”, but what that book actually shows is an extremely scrupulous regard for evidence, Ernst is in a better position to do this than just about anyone else. He has qualified and practised both regular and alternative medicine, and he was appointed to his present position, as professor of complementary and alternative medicine to assess the evidence. Perhaps most importantly of all, his position allows him to do that assessment with complete lack of bias because, unlike Kelly, his livelihood does not depend on any particular outcome of the assessment. I’m afraid that what Kelly describes as “extreme bias” is simply a display of pique because it has turned out that when all the evidence is examined dispassionately, the outcome is not what chiropractors hoped.

The fact of the matter is that when you look at all of the evidence, as Singh & Ernst do, it is perfectly clear that chiropractic is at best no better than conventional treatments even for back pain. For all other conditions its benefits fail to outweigh its risks – contrary to the many claims by chiropractors. Both the New Zealand and the UK governments have got themselves into an impossible position by giving official recognition to chiropractic before the evidence was in. Since the conventional manipulative treatments are cheaper, and may be well be safer, and because they involve no quasi-religious ideas like “subluxation” or “innate intelligence”, the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no need for chiropractic to exist at all. They do nothing they do that could not be done as well by medical practitioners and physiotherapists. What will governments do about that, I wonder?

David Colquhoun

1. Kelly, B. New Zealand College of Chiropractic response to
“Dr Who?” editorial.
NZMJ 22 August 2008, Vol 121 No 1280

2. Roughan, S. Setting the record straight: New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association response letter. NZMJ 22
August 2008, Vol 121 No 1280

3. Bale,
K. Chiropractic Board New Zealand response to “Dr Who?” editorial.
August 2008, Vol 121 No 1280.

4. http://www.nzchiro.co.nz/about_president.php

5. http://dcscience.net/?p=24

6. http://www.chirobase.org/01General/chirosub.html

7. http://www.geocities.com/healthbase/mencken_chiro.html

8. http://dcscience.net/?p=227

9. Singh S, Ernst E. Trick or Treatment. Bantam Press; 2008

The wars within chiropractic

Although the chiropractors seem to be rather upset by the criticisms that have been levelled against them, the most interesting war is not between chiropractors and people who think that medicine should not be based on metaphysics.  It’s the war within chiropractic itself.

The internecine wars within chiropractic have been going almost from the day it was invented.  The (ex-)insider’s view gives us a rare insight into what chiropractic schools actually do.   Now support has come from a rather unexpected quarter.  An article by five chiropractors has just appeared by Murphy et al. (Chiropractic & Osteopathy, 2008, 16:10).

Although the authors declare that they have “a financial interest in the success” of chiropractic, the changes that they propose are so drastic that, if implemented, tthey would leave little left to distinguish chiropractic from, say, physiotherapy. The authors ask the very pertinent question, ‘why is it that podiatry (chiropody in the UK) is well accepted and chiropractic remains on the controversial fringe of medicine?..   Here are some quotations.

“It is also vital that those chiropractors who dogmatically oppose common public health practices, such as immunization [15] and public water fluoridation, cease such unfounded activity.”

“We are concerned that the common perception (which is well supported, in our experience) that chiropractors are only interested in “selling” a lifetime of chiropractic visits may be one of the primary factors behind our low standing in the minds of members of the public [2].”

“One of the problems that we encounter frequently in our interaction with chiropractic  educational institutions is the perpetuation of dogma and unfounded claims. Examples include the concept of spinal subluxation as the cause of a variety of internal diseases and the metaphysical, pseudo-religious idea of “innate intelligence” flowing through spinal nerves, with spinal subluxations impeding this flow. These concepts are lacking in a scientific foundation [27] [28] [29] and should not be permitted to be taught at our chiropractic institutions as part of the standard curriculum. Much of what is passed off as “chiropractic philosophy” is simply dogma [30], or untested (and, in some cases, untestable) theories [27] which have no place in an institution of higher learning, except perhaps in an historical context.”

“The Council on Chiropractic Education requirement of 250 adjustments forces interns to use manipulation on patients whether they need it or not, and the radiographic requirement forces interns to take radiographs on patients whether they need them or not.”

“They [podiatrists] did not invent a “lesion” and a “philosophy” and try to force it on the public. They certainly did not claim that all disease arose from the foot, without any evidence to support this notion. The podiatric medical profession simply did what credible and authoritative professions do [32] – they provided society with services that people actually wanted and needed.”

“In the beginning, DD Palmer invented a lesion, and a theory behind this lesion, and developed a profession of individuals who would become champions of that lesion. This is not what credible professions do.”

“In the interim it [chiropractic] has seen its market share dwindle from 10% of the population [4] to 7.5% [3] [42]. Even amongst patients with back pain, the proportion of patients seeing chiropractors dropped significantly between 1987 and 1997, a period of time in which the proportion seeing both medical doctors and physical therapists increased [43].”

“When an individual consults a member of any of the medical professions, it is reasonably expected that the advice and treatment that he or she receives is based in science, not metaphysics or pseudoscience.”

“The chiropractic profession has an obligation to actively divorce itself from metaphysical explanations of health and disease as well as to actively regulate itself in refusing to tolerate fraud, abuse and quackery, which are more rampant in our profession than in other healthcare professions [46].”

“Podiatric medicine is a science-based profession dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of foot disorders. Foot reflexology is a metaphysically-based group consisting of non-physicians who believe that many physical disorders arise from the foot. Podiatrists have rejected foot reflexology as an unproven and unscientific practice, and do not consider it part of mainstream podiatric practice.”

“We must finally come to the painful realization that the chiropractic concept of spinal subluxation as the cause of “dis-ease” within the human body is an untested hypothesis [27]. It is an albatross around our collective necks that impedes progress.”

All this, remember, comes from five chiropractors. That looks like all out war between their view of chiropractic and that taught in New Zealand College of Chiropractic, and, in the UK by the three chiropractic colleges in the UK.


A report in the New Zealand Herald (18 September 2008) is rather relevant to all this.

Chiropractor to apologise after patient has stroke

A chiropractor has been recommended to apologise to a woman patient who suffered a stroke after he treated her.

The case report is here.

The Advertising Standards Authority has had a bit to say about chiropractors too.