Not all chiropractors practice chiropractic identically, or even similarly. If you go to three different chiropractors, it is possible you may end up with three different diagnoses and thereby, three different treatments. While chiropractors are committed to eradicating “subluxations”, they disagree with each other on how to find “subluxations”, by X-ray or by touch, whether they are visible on X-ray, and what exactly does “subluxation” mean. Some places also have laws that constraint treatment claims. In California, for example, a bill was passed last month prohibiting chiropractors from treating allergies.
Critics often allege that chiropractors often portray themselves as primary health providers and make claims without sufficient evidence. In 2008, award-winning science writer Simon Singh published Beware the Spinal Trap, a story critical of chiropractic claims such as the ability to treat children with colic, ear infections and asthma. The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued and The Guardian took the article down. Libel action was discontinued when the Court of Appeal ruled in Singh’s favour and on 15 April 2010, the article was happily reinstated. (Additional criticism of chiropractic therapy can be found here.)
With this is mind, I registered for the workshop. I arrived early on the day and was looking at huge pictures of people with horrible postures and pained expressions outside the clinic when Joseph, not his real name, sidled up to me and struck up a conversation. “Just like that,” he said, motioning to a picture and the back of his neck. As it turned out, Joseph had sought relief for his neck aches from this chiropractic clinic after other chiropractors failed him for six months. He only just began his treatment, three sessions a week for three months. It cost him $1,000. “When I first came here in 2007, they told me, ‘$10,000 for the full package’, but how can I afford it?” he said. “Now they are clever. They do a lot very fast. Like selling chicken rice: chop, chop, chop.”
Printouts were available on the seats in the waiting room of the glossy clinic. They touted excerpts from reputable medical journals such as the British Medical Journal on the efficacy of chiropractic therapy for back pain. On one of the walls headshot X-rays were hung side by side—before-and-after. Symptoms and therapy effects were listed beneath the X-rays like testimonials. It wasn’t clear what these success stories meant; which treatments helped what conditions, but never mind, since these were the “adjustments of the month”, visitors could safely assume chiropractic therapy helped.
The treatment area was partially cordoned off from the waiting area so I could witness what seemed like standard fare: a patient lies face-first on an examination bed lined with levers on its sides. The chiropractor circles it breezily, cranks the levers with his foot to raise or lower a body part, jabs the patient with what looks like an acupuncture pen, presses down on a part of the patient’s back, the patient then flips over and the chiropractor twists the patient’s neck sharply. It doesn’t take five minutes. Loud, fast, and public. Chop, chop, chop!
The speaker, a resident chiropractor, opened with the importance of having the right information about healthcare: “Empowered with the right information, anyone can improve their health, reduce their dependency on prescription drugs, and enhance their quality of life.” He then spoke about his father who tried to “cover up” his aches and pains with medication, and took increasingly powerful drugs as they became less effective over time. Finally, the drugs stop working and his organs were damaged. “Modern medicine can keep us going,” he lamented about his now drug-dependent father, “it’s just that the quality of life isn’t very good.”
He quoted Thomas Edison who spoke wistfully of a future without medicine and of physicians who cared for the “human frame”. Articles were pulled up demonstrating the side effects of some drugs, and how some drug companies knowingly put these out anyway. Attendees were warned of dangers of medicating with antibiotics, of doctors who overprescribe them and the “superbugs” that might arise. Statistics were then presented which showed “Death by medicine” e.g. prescription of the wrong drugs, as the number one killer in the United States. This isn’t the case in Singapore, he said, before speculating aloud that it will soon be. “The difference between me and my dad is that I got the chance to learn this information.”
He went on to speak about chiropractic therapy. Judging from the attendee reaction, the juxtaposition was effective. The nervous system is all-important, he said. Unlike those who focus on individual parts of the body, chiropractors are specialists of the nervous system which underlies everything, the “whole picture of health”. There’s an ideal structure to the spine (“we have done a lot of research to prove that this is necessary”), and if it is misaligned, it “squeezes” the spinal nerves. “For some people, this is painful, but for the majority of the population, this is actually painless. Over time, this weakens the entire body. This is where our health breaks down and where a lot of our symptoms come from... We are not saying misalignments are the cause of all of our health problems. But for a lot of people we know this is the underlying cause. ”
There was no specific mention of what chiropractic therapy could help with even though the workshop’s overall message was that chiropractic therapy can help with a lot more than just back pain. The speaker took care to mention that chiropractic therapy does not cure anything, instead it helps the body cure itself. This reminded me of Palmer’s “innate intelligence” rigmarole. Unfortunately, after a testimonial from a satisfied patient was read aloud, the half-an-hour workshop ended without a question and answer session. In retrospect, I have a lot of questions—admittedly rhetorical—to ask on behalf of the spellbound attendees:
What are these conditions specifically that chiropractic can treat better than medical practices which require prescription medication, and provide a better quality of life? Isn’t it true that there is no evidence that a misaligned spine can cause non-musculoskeletal conditions; and whenever it was tested as a treatment for specific non-musculoskeletal conditions, chiropractic therapy fails? Why did you only show the number of deaths by medicine but not the number of people helped? For its part, does chiropractic even keep such records? Given what was said during the workshop, why hasn’t a Chiropractor won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine?
On a hunch, I called several chiropractic clinics, presented them with an ailment each—clinical depression, autism (4-year old), ADHD (8-year old), asthma (11-year old), deafness in left ear—and asked if chiropractic therapy can help. They all said, "Yes".
“How much is the consultation?”
“Consultation is $50, together with treatment it is $90.”
“One session is enough?”
“Nooooh of course one session is not enough.”
By Lim Say Liang