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DOMINIC LAWSON on the dangers posed by chiropractors

Surprising as it may seem, there is a widely practised treatment, available on the NHS in some parts of this country, which involves an action banned on the rugby field.

It’s called chiropractic, and last week the Mail reported on a casualty of its patented remedy for all manner of ailments: spinal manipulation.

Dr Arleen Scholten — a chiropractic doctor, that is — had been arrested for manslaughter following the death of a healthy 80-year-old grandfather and former bank manager, John Lawler. He lost consciousness during chiropractic treatment and expired a day later as a result of what Leeds General Infirmary called ‘traumatic spinal cord injury’.

Mr Lawler had, not for the first time, visited Scholten’s firm, Chiropractic 1st — accompanied by his wife of 55 years, Joan — to get treatment for ‘lower back ache’. In fact, the Lawler family had not made a complaint following his sudden death: it was after being alerted by Leeds General Infirmary that the police arrested Scholten ‘on suspicion of manslaughter’.

Many doctors regard the business of osteopathy as ‘dangerous quackery’, claims Dominic Lawson 

The doctors had perhaps understood better than Mr Lawler’s grieving family just how direct can be the possible link between chiropractic and sudden paralysis from the shoulders down (which is how they found the dying man).

Forceful twisting of the neck and rotation of the head is something that on the rugby field is viewed as so dangerous that any player responsible for such actions is given an immediate red card. But this, more or less, is what chiropractors do.

It has been a frequent cause of strokes among patients who were perfectly healthy before submitting themselves to this not-so-tender embrace. In her book Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All, Rose Shapiro describes how the mother of a 20-year-old victim of chiropractic, whose death was attributed to ‘traumatic rupture of the left vertebral artery’, had been told by the (real) doctor as her child was rushed through A&E: ‘Never let those buggers touch you above the shoulders.’ Too late.

I don’t question the sincerity of many of the men and women responsible for chiropractic: those practitioners genuinely believe that they are offering a form of treatment that can alleviate symptoms in a way no other medicine could — and that does not require the use of drugs which have their own side-effects.

 Chiropractors' twisting of the neck and rotation of the head has been linked to strokes among patients

 Chiropractors’ twisting of the neck and rotation of the head has been linked to strokes among patients

Indeed, NHS Choices, while pointing out that ‘it isn’t generally available on the NHS’, describes chiropractic as ‘generally very safe when performed correctly by a trained and registered chiropractor’.

And it reassures the public that while ‘there is a risk of more serious problems, such as stroke, from spinal manipulation, the risk is extremely small’. At least, I think that is meant to be reassuring.

But it’s worth going back to the origins of it all, just to understand why many doctors regard the whole business as dangerous quackery.

Chiropractic was founded in the late 19th century by an American called Daniel David Palmer. He claimed to have found the cause of all medical problems in an invented condition called ‘subluxation’, a supposed dislocation of the joints which no X-ray has ever detected.

Palmer claimed to have received this insight ‘from another world’ and that what he called Chiropractic ‘must have a religious head, such as Christ, Mohammed . . . and others who have founded religions. I am the fountainhead’.

My fellow journalists of the time seem to have had his number. Palmer’s local newspaper in 1894 declared: ‘A crank has a crazy notion that he can cure the sick and crippled by his magnetic hands. His victims are the weak-minded, ignorant and superstitious . . . he has certainly profited by the ignorance of his victims.’

That newspaper editorialist would have been astounded to learn that there are now around 20 ‘colleges of chiropractic’ in the U.S. (and, indeed, a couple in the UK) offering accredited ‘degrees’.

Actually, the most devastating account of this so-called profession comes from within it. A few years ago Preston Long, who performed more than 10,000 chiropractic care evaluations, published Chiropractic Abuse: An Insider’s Lament.

He wrote: ‘The fact that patients swear by us does not mean that we are actually helping them. Many who believe they have been helped had conditions that would have resolved without treatment. Some have had treatment for dangers that did not exist, but were said by the chiropractor to be imminent. Many chiropractors actually take courses on how to trick patients to believe in them.’

It’s a money thing. Or, as Preston Long puts it: ‘Many chiropractors, particularly those who find “subluxations” in everyone, advise patients to come for months, years, and even for their lifetime.’

On her company website, Arleen Scholten declares: ‘Chiropractic is a lifestyle for our family. Yes, all five of us are adjusted regularly. Our children were all adjusted the day they were born . . . and I continue to check their spines regularly.’

Princess Diana was a firm believer in 'alternative remedies', writes Dominic Lawson

Princess Diana was a firm believer in ‘alternative remedies’, writes Dominic Lawson

I find this talk of ‘adjustment’ quite spooky, though it is stock chiropractic jargon. And as for doing it to her newborn infants, the mind boggles.

But the General Chiropractic Council met on September 28 to discuss the arrest for manslaughter of Arleen Scholten and decided not to suspend her. She was allowed to continue to practise.

I must confess to having once attended the clinic of a ‘cranial osteopath’ — a distantly related form of pseudo-scientific manipulation for all ailments. The patient was my then one-year-old daughter, Domenica, whose acid reflux seemed resistant to conventional treatment.

Her godmother, who happened to be Diana, Princess of Wales, a firm believer in ‘alternative remedies’, insisted this form of skull manipulation might offer a cure and arranged for an appointment in her favourite cranial osteopath’s Harley Street clinic.

I shed tears as this man put on agonised expressions while massaging Domenica’s tiny skull: they were tears of suppressed laughter, at the absurdity of his performance. But at least it was — while expensive — entirely harmless.

 Finally, a train announcement to treasure

How right my colleague Craig Brown was, in last Tuesday’s Mail, to let off steam about the increasingly irritating plethora of recorded announcements on trains.

I especially sympathised with his dislike of the one calling on us to report anything ‘that does not look right’ ending with the ghastly rubric ‘See it, say it, sorted’.

Every time I hear it, it’s all I can do not to announce to my fellow passengers: ‘Does anyone on this train know what that even means?’ But there is a more general problem with these constantly repeated recorded announcements.

Far from attracting the careful attention of the listener, they become ignorable or meaningless exactly because of their tedious familiarity. It is analogous to the way in which we might pay attention to a car alarm that goes off for the first time, but when it happens repeatedly we treat it as an irritant, rather than wonder if someone’s car is at risk.

So it was a refreshing change, on a recent journey on Southeastern rail down to our home in Sussex, to hear a little clearing of the throat and a live announcement from a real guard.

And this is what he said: ‘We regret to inform passengers that there are no working trains on this toilet. We apologise for any inconvenience.’

My wife and I looked at each other, before collapsing in giggles — as, indeed did all the other passengers in the compartment. No recorded announcement could ever have given such pleasure.



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