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Category Archives: Bad Medicine

This Calgary local news story is somewhat disturbing. Not disturbing in the same way that CTV Calgary News presented a homeopathic remedy as a viable method of treating food allergies (which the ‘patient’ – read: son-who-has-a-sucker-for-a-mother – was unlikely to have had in the first place) without any input from the evidence-based medical community whatsoever to explain why this ‘treatment’ can not be differentiated from quackery. That was one of the most irresponsible and unethical pieces of journalism (I use the term very loosely) I have ever witnessed. You can read more about that debacle here.

No. This story carried by Global TV Calgary News was actually quite good and I give full marks to Shane Jones for his professional journalistic skills. Some people might see this and only see the weight loss and not listen to what sound science has to say on the matter, but there’s only so far we can go before personal responsibility for actions kicks in.

The subject of the segue was the so-called hCG diet (it can be viewed here, and begins at the 33′ 40″ mark). hCG – short for human chorionic gonadotropin – is a glycoprotein hormone released during pregnancy that prevents the disintegration of the corpus luteum of the ovary, thereby maintaining progesterone production. This is critical since progesterone is involved in the menstrual cycle and maintaining its production extends the luteal phase of the cycle. In other words, it’s what stops menstruation during pregnancy.
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They’ve done it again. Last October CTV Calgary News had (alongside an infectious disease expert) a homeopath espousing the virtues of discarding tried-and-true methods of fighting H1N1 – such as vaccination – in favor of ‘nosodes’, for which not one shred of evidence for its efficacy exists. Now this: On last night’s 6 o’clock news segue called Medical Watch (done by Karen Owen), a homeopathic treatment for food allergies was presented (link).
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(Note: this is the infamous article printed in The Guardian (Saturday April 19 2008) on chiropractic that got Simon Singh sued. It is being reposted all over the web today by multiple blogs and online magazines.)
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Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

Beware the spinal tap

This is Chiropractic Awareness Week. So let’s be aware. How about some awareness that may prevent harm and help you make truly informed choices? First, you might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that, “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus [changed to “utter nonsense” in the scrubbed version] because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Professor Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

Bearing all of this in mind, I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week – if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.
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Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

via Pharyngula