The Simon Singh/BCA libel case is having the unintended consequence of the media being full of reports of the strange beliefs of chiropractors. They are a cult like body of people and are demonstrating that they are unwilling to discuss matters of evidence but very happy to call their lawyers to get at their critics. In this way they show behaviour more readily expected from scientologists than a responsible health profession.
Another unintended consequence of the BCA decision to sue Simon Singh is that an army of bloggers, scientists and sceptics have been scouring leaflets, advertising and web sites of chiropractors resulting in hundreds of complaints being made to the Advertising Standards Authority, Trading Standards and directly to the General Chiropractic Council. What was once considered a strength of Chiropractic – Statutory Regulation – is now being turned back on them as the GCC is obliged by law to investigate every complaint made to them. They are now sitting on a huge pile of letters. The ASA has recently ruled on one claim by a Dr Carl Irwin that he should not call himself ‘Dr’ or claim he can treat things like babies colic. Hundreds of chiropractors make similar claims. The GCC will be busy.
This sort of mass complaint would be powerless against homeopaths. It is now well established that the homeopath’s regulatory bodies, such as the Society of Homeopaths, do not upkeep their own code of conduct and ethics. They are under no obligation to do so by law. But Chiropractors now have to suffer from their own status.
Statutory Regulation of chiropractic makes a number of demands on the trade. Importantly, their education must be from one of three approved schools that provide a degree level education. One school stands out here: the McTimoney College based in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, where the degrees are underwritten by the University of Wales. McTimoney Chiropractic is a sect within the bigger cult. It has its own ideas about how hard you should hit the body when it is ill. According to the McTimoney Chiropractic Association, the School was set up in Oxfordshire by John McTimoney who believed that “health depends on healthy nerve messages, subluxations of the vertebrae or other joints interfere with these, and that such subluxations can affect not only joints and muscles, but every cell and organ in the body.” McTimoney Chiropractors do not rely on X-rays to ‘diagnose’ problems, but use their hands to ‘feel’ for things to ‘correct’. Their Latin motto, In Manu Vis Medendi, means ‘in the hands is the power of healing’.
These sort of beliefs would appear to be the root of the sort of claims that Simon Singh was disputing. Whilst there is some plausibility that a chiropractic back massage may help back pain, there is no good evidence that chiropractic subluxations exist and that correcting them allows general health conditions to be treated.
The McTimoney Association is quite explicit in its beliefs. Singh was questioning the role of chiropractic in children. McTimoney’s believe that the act of birth harms children and that chiropractic can correct birth problems:
Birth is probably one of the toughest events we undergo as humans. A baby’s head has to squeeze through a small birth canal to be born. In doing so the baby’s head in particular will absorb much of the shock, and the soft bones will yield slightly allowing it to travel down the birth canal. This is called ‘moulding’. After birth the baby’s head will gradually revert to a more normal shape. However, if this ‘unmoulding’ doesn’t take place completely, the baby can be left in some discomfort which they are unable to communicate.
Most babies cope extremely well with the process and emerge contented, happy, able to feed, sleep, and grow normally. However, for some, the recovery can take longer, especially those who had a particularly difficult entry into the world and these babies may show some, all, or a combination of the following signs:
- Irritability, fractiousness
- Feeding problems
- Continuous crying
- Sleeps little, difficult to settle
- Colic, sickness and wind
All of these could indicate that there is a misalignment in the baby’s skeletal system and that the baby is uncomfortable as a result.
Evidence for this is of course lacking. It’s nonsense.
Of course birth is not the only problem, but growing children also suffer “simple bumps and tumbles associated with growing up can often cause misalignments of the skeleton”. Naturally, only chiropractors appear to be able to detect these problems. There appears to be few childhood conditions that a good bone rub can’t help:
There is also a range of problems which cannot necessarily be associated with a bump or fall, but which may nonetheless be due to bony misalignment and the subsequent interference with nerves. There are many recorded incidences where treatment has been beneficial for the following symptoms:
- Some childhood asthma
- Learning difficulties and behavioural problems including:
- Poor concentration and inattentiveness
- Fidgeting and difficulty sitting still
- Vunerability [sic] to infections including:
- Ear infections
- Repetitive colds
- Sinus and dental problems
- Clumsiness or poor co-ordination
It would appear that a huge source of bogus* chiropractic claims come straight from the (undoubtedly sincerely held) beliefs of the McTimoney’s.
Amazingly, the McTimoney School offers a MSc in Chiropractic Paediatrics. This postgraduate degree is underwritten by the University of Wales. You can also gain a similar MSc in crunching the bones of animals as well as babies. The University validates these degrees and presumably passes them as meeting acceptable standards. What these standards are though must surely exclude having a sound scientific basis. It is the GCC that assesses the content of the courses. We may not expect the GCC to be too harsh in assessment – its own survival depends on the survival of the college. It may also be worth noting that the McTimoney College Principal, Christina Cunliffe, is on the Education Committee and General Council of the GCC.
Without the degree awarding body of the University of Wales endorsement of these courses, students could not join the GCC and subsequently practice as Chiropractors. By underwriting the claims that chiropractic can treat colic, the University has allowed this whole affair to happen.
Recently, Universities have been attacked for offering bogus* science degrees in pseudoscientific subjects, such as homeopathy. Many courses have closed as a result. This does not harm homeopaths too much; most learn their trade from private unaccredited schools.
Somehow, the Chiropractic degrees have escaped this scrutiny. I do not think that will last. And if similar decisions are made in places like the University of Wales as has happened elsewhere, the very future of chiropractic in the UK will be severely threatened.
Chiropractic statutory regulation has given this form of quackery* great strength. But that strength may well be turned against itself and be the undoing in the long run.
* Deliberate deception not implied.