UK osteopaths and chiropractors often claim that their treatments are “very safe”. However, there is a paucity of evidence to back up these claims and any practitioner who claims this is therefore misleading patients and the general public. A recent study suggests that the potential for long-term harm from the types of treatments provided by osteopaths and chiropractors may be significantly higher than previously thought.
This study looked at the adverse effects experienced by students after having manual techniques performed on them as part of their orthopaedic manual physical therapy training. The questionnaire was completed by 1640 respondents spread over 22 countries. This survey highlighted more people suffering longer-term adverse effects from treatments than have previously been reported. The treatments that caused most of the adverse effects were manipulation and mobilisation, treatments that are used frequently by osteopaths and chiropractors. The two key areas highlighted were major adverse effects and moderate adverse effects.
With regards to major adverse effects, participants in the survey were asked “To your knowledge, have any of your fellow students experienced a major adverse effect (e.g. stroke, death or permanent neurological damage) directly resulting from a technique performed on them during their manual therapy training?” If these types of therapies are really “very safe” then you would expect nothing other than ZERO positive responses to this question. In actual fact 3.3% of respondents reported knowing of a fellow student experiencing a major adverse event (stroke, death or permanent neurological damage). Let’s just reflect on this for a moment. 3.3% on the face of it seems like a pretty small number. However, when you consider the severity of the effect: stroke, death or permanent neurological damage, anything other than 0% is a cause for concern. This certainly isn’t what you would expect from a treatment that is described as “very safe”. As the paper states, it’s not possible to quantify the absolute number of major adverse events from this data as we don’t know if some of the respondents are referring to the same cases. However, what this study does tell us is that some people do suffer very serious harm from the types of treatments provided by osteopaths and chiropractors. It is therefore unreasonable for any osteopath or chiropractor to claim that their treatments are “very safe” unless they can provide evidence to back up this claim. (I’m not aware of any such evidence.)
Looking at moderate adverse effects, 6.7% of respondents reported still experiencing adverse effects from the treatment they had during their training. The most common effects were chronic or recurrent neck pain, headache and low back pain. In the vast majority of cases these adverse effects were reported after manipulation or mobilisation, exactly the treatments that are used frequently by osteopaths and chiropractors. Most osteopaths and chiropractors don’t even highlight these risks to patients and instead (if they even talk about risks at all) only mention the mild transient risks of tiredness, temporary increase in pain or stiffness that typically last less than 48 hours. The frequency with which the participants in this study reported long-term effects highlights the potential for much greater harm from chiropractic or osteopathic treatment. In this study, 1 in 15 people treated suffered long-term problems due to the treatment.
Osteopaths and chiropractors will undoubtedly argue that this study was based on treatments carried out by students during their training and does not reflect the risks to patients being treated by someone with many years’ experience. That may be true, although these were postgraduate students developing their skills to an advanced level not undergraduates just starting out. In any case, what this study does do is make it clear that these treatments are NOT inherently safe. It’s possible that the risks from being treated by an experienced practitioner will be lower than in this study but the fact that these serious risks do exist cannot be ignored. Furthermore, how does an osteopath or chiropractor gain their many years of experience? By treating patients, of course. Therefore, some patients are going to be treated by someone who has just graduated or is only very early in their career. In this situation it seems likely that the risks of treatments will be closer to the figures quoted here which are far higher than most osteopaths or chiropractors are willing to admit.
This is an important study that highlights the potential for the types of treatments used by osteopaths and chiropractors to cause long-term damage to patients, in some cases including stroke, death or permanent neurological damage. Given the lack of effectiveness of these treatments for the most often treated patient group (low back pain) it’s important to consider whether the risks involved actually justify the use of the treatment at all. If a drug was developed that provided no or small benefits to patients and carried risks of long-term harm including the possibility of stroke, death or permanent neurological damage it would not get licensed. It’s therefore puzzling why these types of treatments are allowed to be offered at all.