Babies, Chiropractors, and the Curse of Wishful Thinking

Chiropractors treating infants have claimed to cure everything from colic to constipation — but the evidence is flimsy.

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  • Chiropractors in the U.S. are currently free to treat babies, though critics are calling for improved regulation.

    Visual: Humbert / Corbis / Getty Images


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In a video posted on Facebook in August of 2018, an Australian chiropractor hangs a two-week-old newborn upside down by the ankles. After a few seconds, he lays the baby on a table and begins to apply spinal and neck manipulation treatments. With a spring-loaded device called an “activator,” on what he says is “the lowest setting,” he repeatedly delivers pulses of pressure to the baby’s tailbone and neck, and then continues to push and prod various parts of the infant’s body. This lasts for three minutes. As the baby screams and tries to wriggle away, the chiropractor reassures the parents that “a bit of a cry is a good thing.”

The video prompted Harry Nespolon, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, to call for a ban on chiropractors treating infants. The concept of manipulating a baby’s back was unnecessary, unacceptable, and “horrifying,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald in February.

In the U.S., critics of complementary and alternative medicine have also taken issue with the efficacy and safety of chiropractic treatment for infants and are calling for improved regulation, but chiropractors stateside are currently free to treat infants — and many do, including national franchise chain The Joint. Proponents argue that chiropractic manipulations are harmless and can help with everything from colic to constipation. But while the evidence for the efficacy of infant chiropractic is shaky, the potential harms are very real.

Ever since it was founded more than a century ago by “spiritist” Daniel David Palmer, who claimed to have received its wisdom from the ghost of a deceased doctor, the chiropractic profession has been rife with evidence-scarce and even made-up claims. (There remains a strongly vocal sect of pediatric chiropractors who staunchly oppose vaccines, a stance rooted in Palmer’s own opinion that “it is the very height of absurdity to strive to ‘protect’ any person from smallpox or any other malady by inoculating them with a filthy animal poison.”)

Despite its popularity, the practice is controversial to its core: Chiropractic adjustments hinge on correcting vertebral subluxations, or misalignments, despite the fact that these misalignments may not show up in X-ray images and their existence is widely questioned by mainstream physicians. (Chiropractic subluxation is not to be confused with orthopedic subluxation, a well-established medical condition in which a joint partially dislocates.)

As chiropractors tell it, humans engage nearly every day in activities that misalign their vertebrae, and these subluxations can disrupt the proper functioning of the nervous system, manifesting as a variety of ailments. And they say the trouble can start at birth, whether with a traumatic trip through the birth canal, or an “unnatural” entry via C-section.

Pathways magazine, published by the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association, claims that a whopping 90 percent of newborns suffer birth trauma — strain through the neck and head sustained during labor and delivery. Core Chiropractic, which bills itself as one of Houston’s most trusted chiropractic offices, goes so far as to suggest that “traumatic birth syndrome” can lead to nerve dysfunction even when there are no symptoms or detectable injuries. This trauma, chiropractors assert, must be treated in order for the baby to “grow, develop, and function at its highest potential.”

But the astonishing rate of birth trauma cited by Pathways Magazine is based on a highly questionable interpretation of a single, 50-year-old study. Other estimates suggest the rate of mechanical injuries related to birth is less than 3 percent.

Clay Jones, a pediatrician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and a regular contributor to the blog Science-Based Medicine, is even more skeptical: “There is no basic science research that supports the notion that spinal misalignment occurs during or after birth and impairs any aspect of infant health,” he says.

Birth trauma aside, chiropractors argue that even the mere act of getting a diaper change can misalign a baby’s spine. And they claim that spinal manipulations to treat such misalignments can help with colic, ear infections, sleep problems, gas, difficulty latching to the breast for feeding, and far more.

Katherine Pohlman, a chiropractor and director of research at Parker University in Texas, sees potential benefits to the treatments. “Using the best available information currently, there is a scarcity of evidence for harm and some evidence of potential positive effects for chiropractic care in the pediatric population,” she says. For example, she references three randomized controlled trials on the effects of manual spinal manipulation on ear infections in young children. In two of the studies, groups that received manipulation in addition to standard medical care showed either fewer recurrent ear infections or less fluid buildup over time than the groups that received routine pediatric care alone. A third study found no link between manipulations and the risk of recurrent ear infections. Pohlman points out that the findings are “inconclusive due to the need for more rigorous study designs,” but adds that “this is the best empirical evidence that we have at this time.”

Despite the evidence being so questionable, parents can’t seem to quit chiropractors. Indeed, a retrospective study published in 2008 based on data from a chiropractic college in England found that 85 percent of parents reported improvement in their children’s symptoms. “Parents who bring their children to a doctor of chiropractic are highly satisfied with the care and experience,” says the American Chiropractic Association in a June 2016 statement.

The problem is that most of the pediatric conditions chiropractors treat involve subjective symptoms, and a parent’s perception — often shaped through the lens of exhaustion and frustration — is sensitive to numerous placebo effects. Or as Jones puts it, “patient satisfaction is a poor stand-in for quality of care,” because chiropractors can “provide reassurance that their interventions are safe and effective and then take credit when the natural course of the child’s symptoms results in a resolution.”

Take colic. These bouts of frequent, prolonged and intense crying or fussiness are common in healthy infants but poorly understood. They tend to peak around six weeks after birth and decline significantly between three and four months of age. If a chiropractor adjusts a colicky infant’s spine and their crying bouts improve shortly thereafter, the parent may believe that the chiropractor cured their little one’s colic.

To be fair, most infant chiropractors don’t apply the kind of aggressive adjustments that would cause a baby to shriek in pain. Rather, the vast majority do little more than indent the skin a bit; they commonly compare the applied pressure to the force one might use to check a tomato for ripeness. So even if the treatments aren’t as effective as chiropractors claim them to be, is there any harm?

While it’s reassuring to know that chiropractors are extremely unlikely to break an infant’s neck or otherwise cause physical injury, the concern is that parents who take their children to a chiropractor will do so in place of seeing a traditional primary care physician, which could delay the diagnosis and treatment of potentially serious conditions. Says Jones, a growing number of chiropractors are claiming primary care status, but “chiropractic education simply does not prepare chiropractic students to recognize the wide variety of presentations of serious illness and to appropriately refer to proper medical professionals.”

If more parents are relying on chiropractors to know when to refer their child to a medical professional, “kids are going to be harmed,” Jones says. And that’s a risk we should all be worried about.

I personally have never seen a chiropractor, nor have I taken my children to see one. But I can understand why some parents would. If I’ve learned one thing about infants, it’s that they’re ornery, needy little people who, prior to several months of age, aren’t really capable of self-soothing. As an added stressor for new parents, an infant’s bouts of crying aren’t easy to attribute to anything specific, especially if they’re still crying after being fed, rocked, and changed.

For parents with established relationships with chiropractors, the idea that a gentle adjustment could alleviate colic, gas, or whatever else a chiropractor suggests could be happening, must sound pretty compelling. But sometimes the best remedy is simply to take a deep breath and accept that babies cry a lot and you can’t always fix it. And if a baby shows signs that something might be wrong, nothing can stand in for a trip to the doctor’s office.


Kavin Senapathy is a freelance writer covering science, health, parenting, and food, based in Madison, Wisconsin. She’s the co-founder and contributing editor at SciMoms.com and the co-host of the Point of Inquiry podcast. Find her on Twitter @ksenapathy.

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28 comments / Join the Discussion

    Wow. The ignorant and anti-science are out in force.

    The problem is the term “alternative medicine”. It should be labelled imagination.

    Just like “anti-VAX” should be re-labelled “stupid, pro-disease child abuse”.

    Reply

    The article says, “So even if the treatments aren’t as effective as chiropractors claim them to be, is there any harm?”

    You bet there is harm. Harm to the general public’s science understanding. Harm to people too challenged to make rational medical care decisions. Harm to the education of any person aware of their family’s tacit endorsement of chiropractic; which leads to an openness toward all of the other voodoo “medicine” like homeopathy, cleanses, and the majority of “natural” and “eastern” alternatives.

    Reply

    I disagree with your lumping eastern medicine in with what you call “voodoo medicine” since many eastern modalities such as Ayurveda are being scientifically proven as valid treatments for many disorders. As a Registered Nurse I know for a fact that all “alternative” treatments cannot be cast aside as invalid and relegated to the trash heap as “voodoo medicine.” Otherwise, I agree with most of your statement.

    Reply

    Just because our current healthcare system is not ideal, mostly due to the profit motive and corporate greed, that does not make chiropractic any better. Chiropractors are filling the vacuum where the healthcare system has failed. They are really good marketers, or their pseudo scientific nonsense. I have never heard of any chiropractor, ever diagnosing a serious condition, and referring a patient to a physician, even when the patient has cancer, or a serious injury that can only be remedied by surgery.

    Nowadays chiropractors are selling vitamin infusions, and stem cell therapies, with no evidence they work either. No agency keeps track of how many people are hurt by this, or how patients are harmed when the postpone medical care. Chiropractors have used the lack of regulation and the dysfunction in our healthcare system, to exploit vulnerable sick people. There used to be laws against this, but our for profit healthcare system, views any exploitation of sick people as a good business model.

    I my state the chiropractors, and other quacks are lobbying to be “primary care physicians” to further exploit the sick and vulnerable, who lack access to healthcare. Chiropractors and the other quacks also peddled anti vaxx ideas, because they were profitable and brought in business. Their victims were told they did not need vaccines, instead they could take vitamins and supplements sold by the practitioner, at a high mark up instead.
    We can no longer expect the regulatory agencies to protect us from healthcare fraud, faulty medical devices or bad pharmaceuticals. The regulations that covered health related marketing are gone or not enforced anymore. I got to see first hand how these frauds do business, duping vulnerable people out of their money, and making sure they won’t be scrutinized or held accountable. They simply took a few moves from massage, which did help relieve tension, and turned that into a profitable business model. Masseuses can’t see 4 to 6 people in an hour like a chiropractor, so the profit potential is not there.

    These frauds depend on patients denial, after all it is much better to believe a quick “adjustment” is all that is needed, rather than get a serious diagnosis. Our healthcare system is broken, and chiropractors are taking full advantage, there is plenty of money to be made, off of vulnerable sick people, that don’t have competent healthcare, or are too misled by mass media and deceptive advertising to know better.

    No study was ever done on how many people postponed medical care, because they went to a chiropractor. How many cancer patients were either misdiagnosed or dismissed by a physician and then went to a chiropractor, while their cancer grew and metastasized. How many people developed intractable chronic pain or needed back surgery after seeing a chiropractor for years. Of course no research has been done on any of that. The only research that gets funded or reported by chiropractors or other professions is the research that presents them in a good light.

    Reply

    The day doctors (or journalists) stop listening to parents and think them simply hysterical is the day we lose our humanity to science. Science has its place in medicine and so do parents and chiropractors.

    Reply

    All chiropractors are different, just like doctors. I can say with absolute certainty that without my current chiropractic team, my congenital hip dysplasia (poorly treated by MDs and my parents) and my 30 plus years in the service industry would have me in a wheelchair. I can 100% tell when I need an adjustment. They will not treat you without xrays and a full exam. They recheck you periodically to look for anything abnormal and do new xrays every year.
    My overall health has improved over the years and I rarely get sick, which was not the case most of my life. I know many people whose children have been adjusted since infancy. They have helped me with so many injuries and kept me working unlike medical doctors.
    I have a couple chiropractors that I didn’t like, just like doctors, your styles have to mesh. But I don’t care what anybody has to say, CHIROPRACTIC CARE WORKS.

    Reply

    So, what you’re saying is that part of your pain was psychological. Which is very common and not at all unusual. But chiro doesn’t actually *do* anything. They way alt med works is the same way therapy often works, through the relationship between the “healer” and the patient.
    I’m not saying western med could necessarily do a better job, I’m just saying what’s *working* is not what you think it is.

    Reply

    Hit pieces like this against chiropractic’s effectiveness in infants and children are sad because of their lack of truthfulness.
    The osteopathic profession, (which is part of the medical profession) have demonstrated by recent studies in American hospitals that the rate of even healthy infants born with spinal somatic dysfunction (subluxation) to be over 90%. Over the last 124 years chiropractic has tens of thousands of case studies supporting the safety and effectiveness of the use of care on infants and children.

    Reply

    Kavin, are you being paid immensely for throwing a negative opinion about the chiropractic profession? If you have never been to a chiropractor, to feel personally the sensation of an adjustment, then how can you be so sure about its effectiveness, in order to dismiss it all together?

    Reply

    Sad that a general g. p.. Is ignorant to a a colleague. In 1980 I spent a year taking my child to different drs. She was showing signs that we discovered later of whooping cough. No one wanted to admit it. I now realize 40 yrs later it might have been vaccine related. Even the Seattle Chidrens hospital said. Take her home we cant do more than you can. So we took our baby home propped her up on pillow at night so she wouldnt choke on the awful gobs of stuff that was coming out of her. . My mother came out from Montana to visit a chiropractor for a hridal hernia. So while there I asked about them working on babies she was 10 months by this time. The lady said sure all the time the Dr. Was able to fit her in after my mom. What a blessing. My baby was calm during exam. No problems. So… on the way home mom said pull over so she could get baby in better position in her coughing fit. Mom opened the door and leaned my baby out. She coughed a huge gob of phlegm and that was it. It never happened again. So noone can tell me not to trust my gut when needing help. 6 drs were totally useless except with their pads and pens. So we see our chiropractic when needed.

    Reply

    According to the comments, conventional medical mistakes kill 10s of thousands, 400,000 or 800,000 people a year in the U.S. Which is it? What are your sources, people?

    Does one have to try chiropractice to comment on it? Does one have to spend time as a white supremacist to decide whether it’s wrong or not?

    Reply

    I completetly disagree. No two chiropractors are alike and there are many different methods out there. I had regular adjustments and massage once a month through pregnancy and then took our son from birth to now, age 19. If he is cranky, I know he needs to go. After having an adjustment, his aches and pains are relieved. Since you have never gone to one or had injuries that create chronic pain, you do not know how pain can affect health.Since age 2o, I have had migraines after a lifting accident at work. I went to docs and chiropractor. The chiropractor gave me relief.

    Reply

    I have been seeing a DC for over 20 years. I do NOT have children. But my DC has tested many of them for ALOT OF Childhood and Infant Related Issues. The families keep bringing their kids and infants in to be treated because THE PARENTS see A IMPROVEMENTS AS WE ADULTS DO IN OUR OVERALL HEALTH. So I am an Advocate for Chiropractic and speak as a 59 yr old woman who has fibro and also herniated disc issues. I support Chiropractic Care.

    Reply

    Sounds like a witch hunt agsinst chiropractors AGAIN to me.
    It is a political and money fight. The medical profession hates them because rhey hate anyhing that bites into the money they make.

    I have had excellent help from chiropractors for problems that mds were no help with. No cure, just want to give me drugs.

    I have had some good medical doctors and walked out on several horrible ones. Both professions have some bad apples.

    I am a nurse and I know when I am receiving good or poor treatment.

    This witch hunt should stop.

    Reply

    So I never tried chocolate and I have never fed chocolate to my children, but I am going to write a story about chocolate?
    This story will possibly persuade mommy’s and children from getting help form a doctor who doesn’t have to use medication to get sick people well. It’s the safest and most affordable healthcare option on the planet.

    Reply

    The proof is in the outcomes. Chiropractic is a growing profession that has been attempted to be knocked down over and over by the medical and pharmaceutical industries yet continues to grow. 1200 studies prove vaccines injure our loved ones and our pets yet those studies / scientists are silenced from mainstream media and soon to be banned from the internet. Medicine given according to its guidelines kill over 6 jumbo jets of people every year in America. The public is starting to open their eyes and not be brainwashed by commercials. Facts are facts. 1 in 36 people are autistic and it’s epidemically growing. Don’t know what causes it? Read the research from Ending the Autism Epidemic. I don’t know how anyone survives without Chiropractic. It makes me feel 20 when I’m 45!!! No matter what some person says, who’s never been to a chiropractor, it would never change my mind! 1 in3.53 million suffer from a stroke from a Chiropractic adjustment. I had family member almost die this summer after a “preventive colonoscopy” perforated his colon. What are those odds? My dog developed severe food allergies and grand mal seizures 5 hours after a vaccine. Why are allergies in our schools getting so common? I think Chiropractic speaks for itself. I’ll take my chances… with Chiropractic.

    Reply

    Ha, you think that treatment was horrifying, I’ve seen far worse while working in a (medical) hospital. Every year, medical doctors kill tens of thousands of patients. Some of these deaths are caused directly (operational mistakes, wrong medications administered, and the whole opioid epidemic with medical doctors handing out opioids because they don’t have the knowledge or skill of a chiropractor to help the body move and work better thereby reducing pain…naturally and without any drugs). In my opinion, medical doctors are dangerous and an over paid drug pusher, where killing patients is looked an okay side effect.

    Reply

    chiropractic education simply does not prepare chiropractic students to recognize the wide variety of presentations of serious illness and to appropriately refer to proper medical professionals

    Chiropractic students take the same pathology and microbiology classes etc.. that medical students take. At least in Canada they do.

    Reply

    The idea that chiropractors take the same undergrad classes as chiropractors is ridiculous and absurd, and is promoted ONLY by the chiros themselves. Disabuse yourselves of this preposterous notion. I will never ever forget the time a patient of mine lost her life to breast cancer because her chiropractor had swindled her into believing that he could cure her breast cancer with manipulations. This is the behaviour of someone who has taken the same education as MDs?

    Reply

    You have some information on here that is simply not true. Chiropractors are absolutely trained as primary care physicians. Chiropractors are trained very well in screening for serious health conditions and absolutely no when and for what to refer a patient to the appropriate physician. You have the facts about DD palmer completely wrong. If anyone reads this and sees this comment, please just do your own research

    Reply

    Please research a but better. D. D. Palmer did not start chiropractic, his father B. J. Palmer did. As a retired chiropractor I also have issue with the statement that we don’t understand the symptoms that would require the services of a specialists. My background contains many classes on diagnosis and treatment of disease. When patients would present with certain symptoms I immediately referred them to the appropriate medical doctor. While I adjusted many infants, the description of the video was upsetting. That is not any appropriate technique that I know of. Use of an activator is also contraindicated in infants as the head of the instrument is designed for children to adults, not infants. Many of my family patients sought me out because they wanted a more natural way to help their children thrive. Over the course of practice I took care of many three generation families.

    Reply

    Most irresponsible article ever wtitten. First of all with regards to results of infant care. Chiropracticly the stats are fairly accurate when one claims 75 to 85% success. Infants especially, can not be subject to placebo. Just because it does not fit your indoctrinated medical model does not make it a falacy or voodoo. You stated it yourself, you or your children have never seen a chiropractor, that in itself warrants no credibility and shows your bias.
    If you like statistics then let this sink in; the number 3 cause of a death in the US 3rd to heart disease and cancer are medical mistakes, claiming the lives of more than 400,000 people. Chiropracticly they dont even have a stat. So to put it in perspective out of 100,000,000 patient adjustments 818 pts reported injury. 75 deaths were reported over 50 years. Using that 100,000,000 adjustments 80% succes is no too bad. Why dont you writing on something you know about!

    Reply

    You stated you have never been to a Chiropractor
    Maybe you should become more educated about how Chiropractic works.

    Reply

    No way. Pediatric Chiropractors are more trained than midwives. Chiropractors have the lowest cost malpractice, bc they screw up the least. Stop monopolizing the Free Press with propaganda opinion pieces. Ever wonder why such opposition pieces? WAKE UP

    Reply

    There are around 800 thousand patients that die every year from medical doctor mistakes. Why don’t you write an article about that, instead of publicly embarrassing a profession that helped thousands if not millions of people!

    Reply
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