The chiropractor really should stick to bones

By Grant Jacobs 26/11/2009 11

His latest “advertisement” tilts at cough and cold medicines for young kids. (His previous advertisement that I wrote about was aimed at swine flu.)

He seems to not realise that the same reasoning he uses could be applied to chiropractic treatment, to the point that you could replace the appropriate words and his reasoning would fit ever so well as a critique of his own field:

It’s a good idea to take a precautionary approach to about the chemicals chiropractic treatments you put into onto your body and avoid those which are not absolutely necessary. The fact that a chemical mix chiropractic claim is popular, well-used or recommended by experts doesn’t necessarily make it any good for you.

[…] However, in the past three years several healthcare authorities internationally have formally recognised that most over-the-counter cough and cold medicines chiropractic treatments given to children under six have virtually no benefits and too many risks. […]

And so on. You get the picture.

If you want to read some science backing this general claim, try at Science-based Medicine. (This post points out evidence that shows chiropractic treatments for childhood remedies do not show benefits under controlled tests.)

Of course the comparison doesn’t fit exactly, none would. But the overall line of reasoning certainly could be applied to chiropractic treatment. It’s silly accusing others of what could be said of your own lot. Importantly, the implication that this makes chiropractic treatment better isn’t valid. (Remember this is an advertisement for chiropractic services.)

Am I recommending or defending use of cough and cold remedies for young kids. No. I’m just saying that pointing at others when the same reasoning could be applied to your own branch of remedies is silly. He doesn’t get brownie points for pointing at others.

But that’s not the main thing bothering me. After all, this is just a sloppy argument. It’s silly, but it happens.

What really bothers me is that he’s using this to go on to claim that “synthetic” chemicals in general are harmful:

The human body finds very few synthetic chemicals useful. Most it has to tolerate, break down and dispose of ASAP. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, avoid them where you can.

Notice the switch. First he’s on about cough remedies, now he’s jumped to sticking it for all ‘synthetic chemicals’. I’ve seen him do this two-step in many of his avertisements, it’s his template format practically. (Like good “good” advertising he doesn’t state that the first thing implicates the other; he leaves that to the reader to imply. But it’s clear what he wants the implication to be.)

This is where I have to remind him again to stick to bones.

The phrase ‘synthetic chemicals’ simply means compounds that are manufactured rather than extracted.

Here’s the thing: they’re exactly the same compounds whether they are manufactured or synthesized.

If one is manufactored and the other extracted, it doesn’t make a jot of difference. They’re the same thing.

Bad compounds are bad, because they’re bad, not because of how they were derived. Likewise, good compounds are good, because they’re good, not because of how they were derived. I’m being simplistic about it, but you get the picture, right? (Dosages matter too, but that’s another topic.)

Want some examples? You know the “healthy” vitamin supplement tablets? The ones that contain “extra” vitamins and all the rest? They don’t get the vitamins for them by squeezing oranges (or whatever) and extracting them.

Vitamins usually either produced using industrial cultures of microorganisms (bacteria, yeast or fungi) that are able to make these compounds, or they are chemically synthetised. (If a mixed process is used, they’re ‘semi-synthetic’.)

There’s a good explanation giving some of the ins and out of this on the “how made” website. (Not the source I’d usually choose (!), but it’s as fine clear balanced explanation for a general reader as you could wish for.)

They’re not “natural”, but manufactored. They’re also exactly the same compound as something you body needs as an essential compound; that’s what a vitamin is, an essential compound. Far from having to “tolerate, break down and dispose of ASAP”, your body needs them.

Important aside: My personal preference is for people get vitamins from eating a decent balanced diet unless they have a demonstrated deficiency. Amanda Johnson is the person to read or ask about this around here. (She’s the food expert, I’m just another “random biologist”; the linked article is on this topic.)

If some vitamin tablets claimed to be extracted from “natural sources”, it wouldn’t make any difference. The key is that they’re the same compound, regardless of the source. His claim that because something is ‘synthetic’, it must be harmful is not right. It’s playing on people’s fears, really.

That chemicals used as pharmaceuticals (or vitamins) are synthesized is because this is a practical means of making reasonable amount of the stuff at a reasonable cost. If it were cheaper to extract them, with the required level of purity, companies would. They’re the same compounds in the end, after all, and these people are in business: they’re not going to make things in a more expensive way unless there is an up-side to it.

Playing the “if it’s manufactured it must be bad” gambit is a lousy deal.

He should stick to his bones.

Quotes taken from the advertisement on page 5, The Star November 26. No on-line copy is available to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing.

11 Responses to “The chiropractor really should stick to bones”

  • Excellent post, Grant :-) And good luck – if the gentleman concerned finds this post you will doubtless be hearing from him!

  • Robert,

    He stopped putting his advertisements/advertorials up on his website some time ago (the latest is from January 2009). I mentioned this in one of my earlier posts, but didn’t repeat it here. I quite forgot, though, that the Star itself is available on-line. I did link to this in an earlier post, too. In my defense, it’s one of those local “free” papers, so you don’t think of it as being substantial enough to be on-line! Last time I tried this, the on-line edition was running behind the print edition, so that the current edition I was writing about wasn’t available; this time it’s available.

    If you’re going to compare chiropractors with anyone, my opinion is that’d it’d be more correct to compare them with physiotherapists (as you mention), not doctors. In any event, they’re not on the medical register, so they’re not doctors in the sense most people associate with the term.

    The reason I say he should “stick to bones” is a little subtle and complex, really. A clumsy short version is that for treatment of bones/the spine in and of itself (and nothing else), it’s not my thing to criticise. There are apparently some studies reporting that any manual treatment of spinal injuries (from any kind of practitioner) have mixed success. I think you’ll find reports to this effect on the Science-based Medicine blog (I haven’t time to look them up again). However, what chiropractors are wont to do is treat things other than spinal issues per se via “manipulation” of the spine. That’s a key claim for them, right? What I’m doing is boxing in their claim, as it were: keep to bones only. It’s an intentional middle ground step on my part. Perhaps it’s too subtle for a blog? They do tend to be blunt instruments sometimes :-)

    In any event, it’s only my opinion in the end.

    I should add for clarity, that I have no interest in the particular practitioner or his practice, but rather the claims made and the broader chiropractic “movement”. That’s the reason he or his practice isn’t mentioned in my posts; I’m not “after” the person or that practice, but the claims made. Call me timid if you like :-/ I prefer to think of it as a balanced thing to do.

  • Even keeping to bones can be problematic – there are suggestions from the US that the cervical spine, for example, should be left strictly alone; sudden high-velocity manipulations are suggested to carry some risk of causing dissection of the vertebral/carotid arteries, with fairly dire consequences. Lower back? Probably OK. Anything much higher? I wouldn’t, myself. (Ernst & Singh’s “Trick or Treatment” has some fairly acerbic things to say in this area.)

  • Hi Alison,

    Been really slow getting back to my comments… sorry.

    I thought of this stuff when I was writing the piece, thought about including it, then thought “stuff it, this is getting too complicated for a blog article unless I want to write a huge thing like Orac’s that rambles all over the place”. Besides, he does the finer points better than I could and I wanted to stick to just the claims in the advertisement.

    I’ve read somewhere reports of people being seriously injured through some of these “high-velocity manipulations”. It does seem dodgy, but I’d rather leave it to a “bones” specialist (orthopedic) to talk about that than me. (Reminds me that there is an orthopedic in my extended family…)

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