Spinal Musings

Chiropractors – struggling to find the subluxation

Many of my patients have either been to a chiropractor, or ask me if they should go and see one.  Some of them are aware that there is some discrepancy between mainstream medicine and chiropractic theory, but aren’t sure of the specifics.  Here’s why I have problems giving an opinion on the matter.

Firstly, there’s two broad categories of chiropractors.  There are those who tend to be younger, who are struggling to define their art form in terms of evidence and reproducibility.  They tend to encourage sensible evidence based principles, concentrate on strengthening the spine, and treat spine-related symptoms.  They are to be encouraged, because it is through them that chiropractors may gain some credibility in the medical community.

Now let’s talk about the others – the “straights”; the vitalistic, intuitive, metaphysical practitioners who remain separate from the mainstream community, and who are determined to remain that way.  The irony is that they are also the one’s wanting to introduce chiropractors to primary health care roles.  I’m reminded of the desire to simultaneously have and eat cake.

A short history lesson…  A gent by the name of DD Palmer apparently cured a man’s deafness in 1895 by performing a manipulation on his neck, and this is the miracle upon which DD made his mark, and from which chiropractic began.  A connection was made, in the minds of some, that diseases come from malalignments within the spine.  Not just some, but all.  They figured that by fixing these malalignments, or “subluxations”, a person could be cured of all sorts of ailments.  Sounds simple, huh?  Sounds like a concept that’s plausible and attractive, especially for those seeking “natural” therapies.

So here’s the kicker.  There are simply no nerves, no pathways at all, that link the cervical spine to the parts of the ear to do with hearing.  There is a cervical (neck) nerve branch that supplies sensation to the skin near the outer part of the ear, but no neck nerve at all within the middle or inner ear.  So how does a manipulation of the neck affect hearing?  Well, it can’t.  No way.  It’s just not plausible.  No matter how hard you want to believe it, it just not possible.

When the Wright brothers built the first successful powered aeroplane, they formed the basis for the development of aircraft we see today, and people can still build replicas of the plane and fly it.  The scientific principles haven’t changed – techniques and understandings have deepened, but the Wright Flyer can still fly today.

Likewise, if DD Palmer was able to cure deafness in 1895, then modern chiropractors should be able to do this as well – they should be able to fly the first plane.  According to my checks, there is little evidence that this trick hasn’t been performed since.  Why not?  DD Palmer did it, so why aren’t chiropractors curing deaf people world wide?  Surely that should be the first therapy taught to young chiropractors!

If you want another reason to doubt the concept, then what about high quadriplegics, like Christopher Reeve, who had perfect hearing, but a non-functioning spinal cord.  Not malaligned or subluxed – not functioning at all.  So when you hear someone tell you this story, just remember that you’re hearing it without using your spinal cord.

Some chiropractors insist that adjusting the spine can, indeed, fix your hearing, your diabetes, your child’s autism and asthma, and “enhance” your immune system.  They invented the concept of “innate intelligence” to explain it, which is some sort of life force that cannot be seen, does not follow nerve pathways, yet can somehow be manipulated and adjusted by cracking a person’s neck or back.  How is it that something, that cannot be seen or touched or imaged, be “adjusted”?  How can you know that the supposed “adjustment” is being performed correctly, healing the “innate”, when it cannot even be measured?  You’ll need to ask a chiropractor that.  It’s a convenient and intuitive concept, but completely without evidence.  None.  And much evidence to the contrary.  It’s a fairy tale, designed to make people believe.

Many chiropractors claim that they can help with middle ear infections in children, but once again, there are simply no nerves that come from the neck and go to the drainage tube (Eustachian tube) of the middle ear.  They are simply not connected.  No nerves in the cervical spine goes to or comes from the Eustachian tube.  Is it the “innate” again?  It must be, because it’s not anatomy.

At some point you’ll probably come across the term subluxation.  This is a chiropractic subluxation which implies an abnormal movement of the facet joint.  It is not visible on X-ray or MRI studies.  This is opposed to the subluxations that I treat, which are demonstrable with imaging.  If the chiropractic subluxation was the cause of disease, then why aren’t people with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis riddled with disease?  After all, their spines are abnormally curved in all sorts of directions and have abnormal and unbalanced movements.  Long term studies of these patients however show no difference in their health compared to the general population (unless the curvature impacts on their breathing, but this is only for people with very large curves).  In the UK, the General Chiropractic Council stated that the chiropractic vertebral subluxation complex “is an historical concept” and “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.”  So throw that out as well.  If you want to respect your chiropractor, ask them to never speak of subluxation.

Some chiropractors go so far as to claim that by adjusting the spine they can “boost” the immune system, to the point that you do not need vaccination.  This is a very attractive sounding claim, but again, seriously flawed.  There is simply no proof for the claim.  Nada.  And what if by “boosting” the immune system, it brings about auto-immune disease like rheumatoid arthritis?  Do you want someone doing that to you?  The only proven way to reduce the risk of many deadly infectious diseases is – you guessed it – vaccination.

The vitalistic chiropractors claim to address the body as a whole (vitalism), and that conventional doctors only see the body as a sum of parts.  Doctors are fully aware of the entire body functioning as a whole, and any claim to the contrary is just nonsense.  I’ve seen chiropractors claim that the SF-36 score (a whole-body health score) is only used by holistic or vitalistic practitioners like themselves, but even a quick browse of the literature shows that scores like this are used all the time by all branches of medicine.  Contrary to their claim, conventional doctors receive an education that covers all aspects of the human body.  To become a highly specialised spinal surgeon I’ve had to pass exams in fields as diverse as immunology, renal physiology, biomechanics, radiology, epidemiology, anatomy, pharmacology and pathology.  Who is “holistic” now?

Let’s be honest, if your chiropractor mentions the words innate or subluxation, or attempts to provide you treatment that isn’t directly related to spinal complaints, then you’re dealing with a non-evidence based practitioner.  That may be fine for you, if that’s what you’re looking for.  Enjoy it.  But please don’t expect it to produce anything more than the placebo effect.  If that’s what you’re willing to spend money on, then that’s your choice.

As you may appreciate, there are many chiropractors actively seeking to establish themselves as evidence based practitioners.  They are to be encouraged, and if they can produce good evidence, then I’ll be the first to applaud them.

Only once a treatment modality, no matter what it is (chiropractic, physiotherapy, homeopathy, and conventional medicine) can describe it’s mechanism of action, its effectiveness and its safety profile, will it, can it, should it, be accepted.  Life is too short, and dare I say, the health dollar is too limited.  Show me the evidence, and I will embrace.


Want to know more?  On the history of chiropractic, good documents can be found HEREHERE.  Another simpler version can be found HERE, but we’re not related.  Here’s the latest Cochrane review.