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N.Z. College of Chiropractic – DC's Improbable Science

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N.Z. College of Chiropractic

Chiropractors are getting very touchy indeed, all over the world. And no wonder, because their claims are being exposed as baseless as never before, in the wake of their attempts to stifle criticism by legal action..

In March, Shaun Holt appeared on Breakfast TV in New Zealand. Holt has done a lot of good work on TV in debunking some of the preposterous claims made by quacks. See him on YouTube.

This time he talked about chiropractic. Here is the video.

One could argue that he was over generous to chiropractic, especially when talking about their effectiveness in treating low back pain. He said, quite rightly, that chiropractors are no better than physiotherapists at treating low back pain.

But a recent trial suggests that neither are much good. “A randomised controlled trial of spinal manipulative therapy in acute low back pain” (Juni et al., 2009 in the BMJ; see also coverage in Pulse). This trial compared standard care with standard care plus spinal manipulative therapy (SMT). The results were negative, despite the fact that this sort of A + B vs B design is inherently biassed in favour of the treatment (see A trial design that generates only ”positive” results, Ernst & Lee 2008, Postgrad Med J.).

"SMT was performed by a specialist in manual medicine, chiropractice and rheumatology (GH), a specialist in physical medicine (DV) or an osteopath (RvB), all proficient in SMT."

"Conclusions: SMT is unlikely to result in relevant early pain reduction in patients with acute low back pain."

Admittedly, the trial was quite small (104 patients, 52 in each group) so it will need to be confirmed. but the result is entirely in line with what we knew already.

It also adds to the evidence that the recommendation by NICE of SMT by chiropractors constitutes their biggest failure ever to assess evidence properly. If NICE don’t amend this advice soon, they are in danger of damaging their hitherto excellent record.

Despite the moderate tone and accuracy of what Holt said on TV, the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association made a formal complaint. That is what they like to do, as I learned recently, to my cost. It is so much easier than producing evidence.

Quite absurdly the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has upheld some of the complaints. Their judgement can be read here.

The BSA consists of four people, two lawyers and two journalists. So not a trace of scientific expertise among them. Having people like that judging the claims of chiropractors makes as much sense as having them judged by Mr Justice Eady. They seem to be the sort of people who think that if there is a disagreement, the truth must lie half-way between the opposing views.

One of the BSA members, Tapu Misa, has used her newspaper column to quote approvingly the views of the notorious Dr Mercola web site on flu prevention “Your best defence, it says, is to eat right, get lots of sleep, avoid sugar and stress, load up on garlic, Vitamin D and krill oil”. (Snake oil is said to be good too.)    There are some odd attitudes to science in some of her other columns too (e.g. here and here). Not quite the person to be judging the evidence for and against chiropractic, I think.

In fact the TV show in question was more than fair to chiropractors. It adopted the media’s usual interpretation of fair and balanced: equal time for the flat earthers. A Chiropractor was invited to reply to Holt’s piece.  Here he is.

The chiropractor, Doug Blackbourn, started very plausibly, though a tendency to omit every third syllable made transcription hard work. He established that if you cut yourself you get better (without any help). He established that nerves run down the spinal cord. So far, so good. But then he quickly moved on to the usual flights of fancy.

"We have two premises. The body heals itself and the nervous system runs the body. Now the nervous system runs the body, travels down through the spinal cord so chiropractic is not based on the belief that, you know, energy flows, it’s based on the fact that your nervous system runs the body and [inaudible] affects the overall health of the body"

This statement is totally vague. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the main question, can chiropractors do anything useful. It is sheer flannel.

We’re seeing people, heck, diabetes. I had a quadriplegic come in one time for adjustment, we’ve got stroke people, we’ve got all sorts of conditions. We’re not treating the condition, We’re allowing, checking the spine to see if there’s any interference there that will slow the body down"

“Interference”? “slowing the body down”? These are utterly meaningless phrases that simply serve to distract from the only question that matters.

"Chiropractice is the most safest [sic] profession to go to to get your spine adjusted"

Hmm I thought it was the only job that uses the word ‘adjustment’.

Worst of all was his response to a question about asthma.

Presenter: "So chiropractors are not out there claiming they will cure asthma for example?". Chiropractor: "No"

This is simply untrue, both in New Zealand and in the UK. For a start, just look at what Blackbourn’s own web site says about asthma.

"The challenge, of course, with allergy and asthma medication is there is no end-point. There is no cure. Asthma and allergies, for the most part, are lifelong conditions requiring lifelong medication. Might there be a better way, an alternative solution?

“Alternative” is the key word. Medical treatment is designed to combat symptoms, and is successful to a certain extent with allergies and asthma. Underlying causes are not addressed, however, and symptoms continue year after year. What else might be done?

Enter chiropractic care. Chiropractic health care, with its unique comprehensive approach, is able to offer positive benefit to a variety of conditions and ailments. In the case of allergies and asthma, these “hypersensitivity conditions” may respond well to therapy designed to normalize the body’s flow of nerve signals. To use a metaphor, chiropractic treatment removes roadblocks to the body’s natural healing abilities. Restoring these imbalances may help reduce such hypersensitivity reactions."

Blackbourn’s web site describes him thus

"As a Doctor of Chiropractic, Dr. Doug Blackbourn . . ."

But the qualifications of “Dr” Blackbourn are B.App.Sc (Chiro) M.N.Z.C.A , the same as those of “Dr” Brian Kelly.

After a performance like this, perhaps someone should submit a complaint to the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority.

After all, I notice that they have dismissed complaints from one chiropractor, Sean Parker, after a TV programme looked at the business practices of his private chiropractic practice, The Spinal Health Foundation. Perhaps the BSA understands business better than it understands science.

Follow-up

Is chiropractic crumbling in New Zealand? The New Zealand College of Chiropractic featured in my editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal, and in the fallout from that article, It’s principle, “Dr” Brian Kelly (B App Sci (Chiro)) seems to be getting desperate. His college is now canvassing for recruits in Canada. They are promised all the woo.

  • Subluxation centered techniques – Gonstead, Toggle Recoil, Thompson, Diversified
  • Traditional philosophy featuring vitalism and innate healing – congruent curriculum

Perhaps Canada is a good place to recruit, gven the $500 million class action being brought against chiropractors in Canada, after Sandra Nette became tetraplegic immediately after a chiropractor manipulated her neck, Canadian chiropractors must be looking for somewhere to hide.

Stuff and Nonsense. jdc described this story at the time the complaint was lodged.

Shaun Holt’s own blog follows the action.

New Zealand Doctor covers the story.

Bay of Plenty TimesBay researcher slams television complaint ruling

Shortly after I published my editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal, Dr Who?, I was delighted to get a letter from someone who had trained in chiropractic and seen it all from the inside.

Sadly this wonderful letter had to be removed within a few weeks of posting it because its author was threatened and bullied by chiropractors. Its author is too young and too vulnerable to risk his future career. As a result of this shameful and vindictive treatment, I was asked to remove the letter and did so immediately.  Other copies on the web have now vanished too.

The experiences described in the letter justified much of what I said in the editorial, and in some ways went further.  This letter doubtless contributed to dropping of the threatened legal action by chiropractors against the Journal and against me.  The letter was posted originally on 21 August 2008, with the permission of its author.  See also the follow-up in Chiropractic wars. Part 3: internecine conflict.

Now I have been sent a much more anonymous version, and it is a great pleasure to post this inside information.

David

I must begin by stating my background in relation to chiropractic.  I am a graduate of a chiropractic college and have practiced for several years. I have elected not to register or practice again and have returned to study to begin a new career.  Prior to studying chiropractic, I gained undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in science.

First I would like to address your comment about the validity of a qualification from a private chiropractic college, especially in relation to the difference between studying there and studying at a university.

A major difference is the education and experience of faculty.  At the time I was there, most of the faculty at my college had only undergraduate qualifications (I would suggest that the American DC degree is of undergraduate level as it is the primary qualifying degree for chiropractic in the US and Canada -it is not the equivalent of a doctorate in a British or Australasian university) and have not published in peer-reviewed journals.  This is quite different to my experience of universities where the all of the faculty usually have at least a PhD and are actively involved in research.

The content of the chiropractic curriculum was voluminous.  It included basic sciences, chiropractic subjects and social sciences. The college I attended did not have any laboratory facilities so the experience of learning science from a textbook was quite different to the way I had been taught at university, where each subject had a significant laboratory program that had to be passed separately to pass the subject.

As chiropractic is a clinical discipline, the course contained subjects in common with a medical degree. Sadly, the attitude towards medicine and the medical profession was not always the most constructive.  For example, I can recall a noticeboard where newspaper clippings of media reports of medical misadventure and adverse effects of pharmaceuticals were posted regularly.

Clinical experience was gained by a 2 year internship in the school health centre concurrent with the last 2 years of academic study; so it was not a full-time internship.  The requirements for passing this component of the course were complex but centred around seeing a number of patients, a number of visits, performing a number of various kinds of x-rays and reading a number of x-ray films.  Every student was responsible for finding all of their own patients to meet the requirements.  The result of this was a clinical experience that was quite narrow for most people.  This would seem to be quite different to the hospital internship of a medical degree, the clinical internship of a dental degree or the range of placements in a physiotherapy degree in terms of the breadth of experience of different kinds of patients of different ages and states of health.

For people who are not aware, there are a range of ideas within chiropractic about what it is and what it is for.  The “wellness”, subluxation-based kind of chiropractic is taught by a minority of schools and is what chiropractors call a “philosophical view”.  It advocates that chiropractic care be independent from symptoms or treatment and be a regular part of peoples’ lives.  The expectation is that healthy, asymptomatic people will be “adjusted” on a regular basis to keep them free from “vertebral subluxation”. To that end, the training at schools that teach this approach is adequate (and probably even excessive).

The issue that you wrote about related to the use of the title “doctor” by chiropractors in New Zealand. In licensing chiropractors and allowing them the use of the title “Dr” in front of their names (provided that the title is qualified by the word “chiropractor”) governments have awarded chiropractors with recognition and prestige that has usually been associated with a level of academic achievement or with a medical qualification. It indicates that the bearer of the title can be trusted to give credible advice within their area of expertise.

The issue may seem benign, but in allowing chiropractors to use the title, people who would not normally feel safe to submit to the treatment of an alternative health practitioner, choose to try chiropractic. I make this point because at its core, chiropractic is quite different to medicine, dentistry and physiotherapy.

A chiropractic office often looks like a lot like a doctor’s surgery.  The layout is similar (with waiting rooms and consultation rooms; there are things like stethoscopes and x-ray machines and there are often informative and education posters and brochures.  In many cases, the title “doctor” is used in
the office to describe the chiropractor.

I have found that some people believe chiropractors are medical doctors.  Some even believe that chiropractic is a kind of medical speciality. I have seen patients who choose chiropractic as their primary health care and come to a chiropractic office as their first port of call when they are unwell.  I
have seen offices where this behaviour is encouraged by the chiropractor. Equally, some of the most “philosophical” chiropractors are adamant that chiropractic does not treat anything. They maintain that it is simply something that everyone should do regularly, at all stages of life, to ensure they stay healthy. These chiropractors sometimes refuse to use the title “doctor” altogether.

Two practices are of particular concern in some chiropractic offices and in my view; these alone should be sufficient reason to prevent chiropractors from calling themselves “doctor”.   The first is the systematic and deliberate erosion of a person’s confidence in the medical system.  Many offices have anti medical literature in their libraries.  Chiropractors are sometimes taught practices to subvert medical credibility.  See http://chirobase.org/20PB/top7.html for an example.

The second is a subset of the first but is particularly damaging.  It is active opposition to vaccination.  At chiropractic school, I was taught anti-vaccination information in my paediatrics course.  I have seen books written by chiropractors opposing vaccination and I have seen many offices with anti vaccination leaflets and books in abundance.  Now I am all for informed choice but this type of material is rarely accurate or balanced.  People are being encouraged not to vaccinate their children by professionals who they believe to be a reliable and prestigious source of information.

Although it may sound paternalistic to people who have not had the privilege of clinical practice (albeit in a profession I no longer agree with), it made me realise several things. The first is that people who are unwell are vulnerable.  The second is that there are people who trust “medical” advice unquestioningly.

I believe we should be very careful about who we title as a credible source of advice about health care. Legislation treads a fine line between limiting personal freedom and protecting people from harm.

Aside from the qualification being inconsistent with the academic level that is usually required to use the title “Doctor”, the greatest danger, in my opinion, is that the legal recognition and permission to use the title has allowed chiropractors to assume the mantle of a doctor.  In the guise of this respectability, some chiropractors are deliberately eroding confidence in doctors and denying children (and possibly populations) the protection of vaccination.

David, thank you for having the courage to question the use of the title “doctor” by chiropractors. Historically (and in your case), chiropractors fight their battles through litigation so it takes personal courage and integrity to do so.


All I can say is, don’t thank me. It doesn’t take much courage at my age.  It takes a lot at yours and the world should be grateful to you.

Replies from chiropractors in the NZMJ

The New Zealand Medical Journal, very properly, allowed right of reply to chiropractore. This week’s issue contains three letters, one of which is from Paul Kelly. It is signed “Dr Brian Kelly B App Sci (Chiro), President, New Zealand College of Chiropractic”. This is not quite the same as appears on his College’s web site which shows the president’s welcome.

It seems that Kelly has not been quite so careful about use of his title on the web site because (as of 21 August) the signature on his address looks like this.

Dr Brian Kelly, President”. That does seem a bit careless, given that his usage of “Dr” was pointed out in my original editorial, published on 25th July.

Replies to these letters appeared in the September 5th issue of NZMJ.

Jump to follow-up

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.
NZMJ 22
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.

Follow-up

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.