Response to chiropractor’s claims in Australian Jewish News

Australian Jewish News is a print weekly, distributed in the Jewish communities of Australia with a reported readership of 100,000* (as point of reference, according to the 2006 census, the number of Jews in Australia is 88,830).

On the 16th of July 2010, the AJN published an article in its health segment which was written by chiropractor Orly Zuker. The article was indistinguishable from an advertisement for Ms Zuker’s services, and contained egregious misrepresentations of fact and dangerous claims and insinuations regarding the effectiveness of chiropractic.

A response sent to the AJN was not published. We also never received an acknowledgement and our phone calls have not been returned for several weeks, so we decided to publish the letter here. Just before we did, we managed to get the AJN on the phone. They told us that our letter was too long. We asked what was short enough, and they said 100 words. Ms Zuker got about 650 to peddle her questionable services, but in any case they said it was too late and they wouldn’t run it now even if it were short enough.

Unfortunately, for legal reasons, it is not possible for us to reproduce the original article/ad, but that may be a good thing, as we would hate to include such drivel on this website.

So, this is the letter sent to the Australian Jewish News, but not published:

“Dr” Orly Zuker’s article in the Health supplement on the 16th of July was so full of myths, misconceptions and outright falsehoods that a comprehensive response would require several pages, but we will try to provide some basic facts about the article and about chiropractic in general for those who are interested in what science actually says.

Ms Zuker (who can call herself a doctor if she wishes but is neither a medical doctor nor a PhD) starts by saying that “Hippocrates, widely considered the father of medicine, noted that knowledge of the spine is prerequisite in treating many diseases.” Like most great falsehoods, this has a kernel of truth in it, because Hippocrates really is considered the father of medicine, and indeed it is uncontested that knowledge of the spine is required when treating diseases related to the spine.

However, that kernel of truth has nothing at all to do with what chiropractors claim, because the fundamental principle of chiropractic is that all dis-ease (sic) is the result of subluxations of the spine causing pressure on nerves and inhibiting the transmission of the signals which allow the “innate intelligence” of the body to heal itself.  That is the claim, but there is no good scientific evidence that the “vertebral subluxations” chiropractors claim to treat actually exist, nor “innate intelligence”.

So while Hippocrates would suggest that to treat a heart condition you would need to know the heart, chiropractors claim that heart conditions can be caused by subluxations. Indeed, the inventor of chiropractic, Daniel Palmer, claimed that his first cure was that of a deaf man, but since there are no nerves going from the spine to any part of the auditory system, treating the spine could have nothing to do with this alleged cure.

Ms Zuker’s claim that the nervous system is the body’s master controller is a glib attempt at linking the function of the spine with the function of the brain. Much of the function of “the nervous system” has nothing to do with the spine. Memories, emotions, hormone regulation – those are functions of “the nervous system” that have nothing to do with the spine, which chiropractors focus on. By calling it “the nervous system” instead of being honest and talking about the spinal column or the peripheral nervous system, Ms Zuker is misleading the reader into making a connection where none exists.

Ms Zuker then goes on to describe subluxations and sing the praise of chiropractors as “the only health professionals trained to detect and correct subluxations”. There are several major problems with those claims:

  1. The definition of subluxations as used by chiropractors is not the same as that used by real health professionals, such as orthopaedic surgeons. In a very real sense, the chiropractors’ concept of subluxations does not exist outside their clinics.
  2. Despite Ms Zuker’s claims, chiropractors regularly fail to diagnose subluxations in x-ray images. Give the same x-ray to several chiropractors in a properly blinded test, and they are likely to fail to agree on a diagnosis. So much for “trained to detect”.
  3. Since chiropractors cannot reliably detect something which real doctors are not sure even exists, saying that they can correct it is a dubious claim, at best.

Next, Ms Zuker makes a series of claims about symptoms that can be caused by subluxations of the spine. While some of the symptoms described can in rare cases be caused by peripheral nervous system conditions, they mostly are not; and some of the claims are lacking any evidence at all, not to mention the complete lack of scientific plausibility: allergies, lowered immunity, anxiety, stress and sinusitis are just a few conditions mentioned for which seeing a chiropractor would be, at best, a very expensive placebo. At worst, patients will be putting themselves in jeopardy, either by the risks inherent to chiropractic treatment (especially regarding neck manipulation) – for which there is plenty of evidence, despite Ms Zuker’s claims to the contrary – or by avoiding scientifically proven treatments. Vaccines are a case in point; chiropractors feature prominently in the anti-vaccination movement, since many of them believe that chiropractic can cure vaccine preventable diseases; some of them even think that germs don’t cause disease at all, as subluxations of the spine cause most disease.

But chiropractors are walking on thin ice. Outside of journals written by and for chiropractors there is little valid evidence that chiropractic is useful to treat any medical condition other than some forms of back pain. There is no scientific plausibility to the hypothesis that subluxations of the spine (as defined by chiropractors) impair nerve function or that such impairment affects the operation of the body’s immune system. When properly evaluated, chiropractic has failed as a treatment for non-musculoskeletal conditions. This is not surprising, as there is no plausible reason why this treatment should help with these conditions.  Of particular concern is the increasing promotion of chiropractic as a paediatric intervention. Again, the evidence is strong that there is no benefit in using chiropractic for any of the conditions chiropractors claim to treat, including bed-wetting, colic, ear infections and asthma. In addition, there is the risk of exposure to unnecessary radiation through the x-rays used by chiropractors, which again have no basis as a diagnostic tool, since they can’t actually demonstrate the supposed subluxations.

Ms Zuker keeps the most outrageous claims to last, by insinuating that chiropractic care can help prevent cancer and heart attacks. Her clinic’s website even suggests HIV might be treatable. The reason Ms Zuker and the website don’t say it outright is that since there is not a shred of credible evidence that that claim is true, Australian law prohibits her from saying she can treat serious illnesses such as cancer, heart attacks and AIDS. But the law doesn’t cover clever insinuation, so Ms Zuker gets away with it. And she ends by encouraging people to spend more money at her clinic and those of other evidence-free practitioners like herself, which is probably what this article is really all about.

For more information readers are encouraged to read the excellent book Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh & Prof Edzard Ernst.

Eran Segev
President – Australian Skeptics Inc

Joanne Benhamu
Member of Australian Skeptics Inc Committee and Registered Nurse