“To you journalists looking for your Woodward-and-Bernstein-esque defining moment, take note: THIS IS NOT YOUR WATERGATE. Look elsewhere, try again, and do better next time – much better. Rather than bombarding the country with endless fear-mongering and alarmist garbage journalism that thrives on dirty laundry…”
On March 30, 2020, I woke up, as I always do, listening to CBC Radio 1. It had long ago become my “trusted news source”. However, on this particular morning, I had a visceral response to what I heard. A few soundbites from a couple individuals the CBC was putting forward as authorities on the matter were ridiculing claims from Ontario chiropractors that chiropractic care could improve immune system function and therefore help people ward off illness, such as COVID-19.
A common-sense piece of information – that misalignment equals stress, equals weakened immune response, equals heightened vulnerability to the COVID-19 pandemic – had been conflated into an outlandish accusation that chiropractors were claiming that chiropractic treatment would make one immune to the novel coronavirus and prevent COVID-19. Quite a stretch. But is it really so far-fetched that a healthy spine can improve one’s ability to fight off the coronavirus should one contract it? Or that an individual might suffer milder symptoms should they develop COVID-19? I think not.
I emailed my own chiropractor, asking if he had heard the report. His response bemoaned the fact that the CBC has a tendency to attack chiropractors, naturopaths, and the like. He provided me with a video that describes how misalignment in the spine can have a negative impact on various bodily processes:
I decided to email the video to the CBC. In my email, I mentioned my own experience with spinal injuries and the benefits I have derived from chiropractic. I also pointed out the well-known negative health effects of associated stress and the benefits of reducing stress to improve overall health. I beseeched the CBC not to dismiss the benefits offered by para-medical practitioners and to present the information in a more balanced fashion. While the response I received acknowledged the validity of the points I had made “about pain, misalignment and over [sic] good health,” I was told, as in the news report, that “chiropractic care will not make a person immune to the virus. Period…There is nothing nuanced about a pandemic.”
In my rebuttal, I voiced my doubt that any chiropractor had explicitly stated that a chiropractic adjustment would make people immune to the novel coronavirus. In fact, in reviewing the online news report, I noted the screenshot from Erin Mills Optimum Health – Chiropractic and Wellness Centre, which described, much as I did, how stress can depress the immune system’s response: “Neural dysfunction stresses a body out, which may lead to a weakened immune system and lowered response to a foreign body, such as the cold or any other virus.” Further, “Spinal adjustments have been shown to boost immune function.” Nowhere in that screenshot nor in the report does the CBC show or claim that any chiropractor said, “Come for an adjustment and you won’t get COVID-19.” It is also interesting that while the individual from the CBC didn’t dispute the comments I made in my email regarding the benefits of reduced stress, the same information posted by Erin Mills Optimum Health was held up as proof of false claims. I am puzzled as to why the chiropractic profession should be under attack for stating what is common knowledge. This is not a matter of nuance. It’s a matter of fair and unbiased reporting.
I also noted in my rebuttal that even yoga can improve overall health by reducing stress. And what do yoga and chiropractic have in common? They are all about alignment. They also both promote better breathing habits. Anyone who has taken a yoga class will know that breathing technique is very much incorporated into yoga practice. As for chiropractic, anyone with a bound-up spine and adjoining muscles will know that constricted muscles around the ribcage – which attach to the spine – will inhibit the ability to take a full breath. When one muscle or joint doesn’t move properly, other muscles will compensate, and before you know it, your whole body is in knots, which causes all kinds of stress, which can depress the immune system. More on that later.
The news report makes much of “one Ontario man” who had submitted at least 34 complaints against various chiropractic clinics, citing “misinformation” regarding the health benefits of chiropractic. Ryan Armstrong, with his PhD in biomedical engineering, heads up an organization called “Bad Science Watch,” which according to its website is “an independent non-profit consumer protection watchdog and science advocacy organization dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians by countering bad science.” Armstrong’s conclusions about the efficacy of chiropractic in boosting immune system function are based on a lack of science, or more accurately, on his inability to find any. “There’s very immediate harm from this type of misinformation,” he says. Indeed, making assumptions and publicly dismissing claims of health benefits based on a lack of information, rather than on evidence that the claims are false, is truly harmful and bad science.
I remember my GP telling me that the immune system is the most complicated system in the body and the one we know the least about. Given all the variables, not the least of which are the mysteries of the immune system, it would be exceedingly difficult to either prove or disprove in a measurable scientific study that a chiropractic adjustment has a direct causal effect on improved immune system function. But while the CBC is only too happy to dismiss claims that chiropractic care could be of benefit in improving immune system function, it is willing to support sweeping statements that it does not.
The second authority interviewed was Tim Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a professor at the University of Alberta. This is what Professor Caulfield had to say about research conducted by an “alleged author” finding that chiropractic could boost immune system function by 200%:
Caulfield said spinal manipulation won’t boost immune function.
“There’s really no evidence to support that at all,” he said. “I’ve looked to find any kind of clinical support for that claim, and I can’t. I can’t find it.”
Note two things: firstly, Caulfield apparently made the unequivocal statement that “spinal manipulation won’t boost immune function.” I say “apparently” because that part isn’t in quotes and at least based on the 50-second video included in the news reports, he did not, in fact, say that. What he said is that he couldn’t find the study that found the 200% increase in immune function. Maybe he did say it and maybe he didn’t. Secondly, similar to Armstrong, and contrary to the initial statement, Caulfield said that he couldn’t find any evidence to support that 200% increase, in particular, and not that he couldn’t find any evidence of an increase in function at all. Not to mention that his search for this study consisted of a “quick Google search,” which apparently was fruitless, and which the CBC is implying as evidence that the study doesn’t exist. That’s just misleading representation of his words and shoddy reporting. Even if that is exactly what he meant by referring to an “alleged author,” implying that the study is fabricated by the chiropractic community to support their claims, again, it was sloppy journalism on the part of the CBC to blindly accept that and promote that interpretation. There were three journalists on this story – did none of them have the time to bother looking for the study themselves?
By the way, Tim Caulfield and Ryan Armstrong, to your claims that “there is no science behind it,” my own “quick Google search” yielded this “partial list” of 114 citations regarding the effects of spinal adjustment on immune system function, including the one Tim couldn’t find by “alleged author” Dr. Ronald Pero, PhD, chief of cancer prevention research at New York’s Preventive Medicine Institute and professor of medicine at New York University. Fill your boots.
Conversely, Caulfield did not say that he did find evidence debunking an increase, 200% or otherwise. No surprise there. He is, however, quoted as characterizing chiropractic care as a means to ward off the coronavirus as a “waste of money” and dismisses that concept as “magical thinking.” Most of all, I am amused and disgusted by his comment about the erosion of our critical thinking. Indeed, it is a pity that our biases should erode our critical thinking skills.
So I got curious – who exactly is this Caulfield character? I came across his resume on the University of Alberta’s website: https://cloudfront.ualberta.ca/-/media/law/faculty-research/hli/people/timothy-caulfield/timothy-caulfield-cv-2019.pdf. He is not a chiropractor, not a medical nor para-medical practitioner of any description, not even a lab technician. He’s a lawyer with a BSc in biology, although it looks like he was a practicing lawyer for only one year and has spent the bulk of his career in academia. More’s the pity, since as far as making defensible arguments goes, he really is “out of practice”. Think about that – as above, he’s making definitive statements about chiropractic and its inability to improve immune system function, without any evidence one way or the other. Is that really how a lawyer would present a case in court? Is that what Professor Caulfield teaches his law students as the correct method of building a case? Are we to expect entire cohorts of new lawyers making unsubstantiated claims to publicly discredit entire professions? Was this “quick Google search” the extent of his research into the matter? Not only has he written multiple books (I certainly hope he researched those better) he’s a professor at a university – I would expect that he would make use of the university’s library facilities to do a more thorough search. Or is he so biased that he was sure he’d find nothing and didn’t bother putting more effort into looking for the information? It would be alarming if that’s what a professor of law working at a reputable university had done, particularly in his capacity as Research Chair. As it happens, he would have lost badly in court, since there’s a treasure trove of information on the subject.
While some might be intimidated by his extensive list of accolades and research projects, I am left with the view that his conclusions above show a shocking lack of common sense, or even a basic understanding of how the body works holistically. Sometimes researchers get so caught up in minutiae that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Not to mention that one’s biases can prevent one from admitting that they can, in fact, see the forest. The love affair we have with scientific studies clouds people’s ability to simply use their heads.
To the CBC journalists (Andrea Bellemare, Jason Ho, and Katie Nicholson) and to Ryan Armstrong and Tim Caulfield, I say that if you’re unable to find any information on the effects of chiropractic on the immune system, first of all, you’re clearly not looking hard enough, since I found 114 references in about 10 minutes. Secondly, you need to think laterally. Chiropractic is not, as Armstrong thought, limited to only musculoskeletal issues. However, one does not need to understand the highly technical effects on the immune system that are detailed in those 114 references. This is not that complicated. Think about it – when people are stressed for ANY reason – emotionally, physically, or mentally – it is very common for people to feel run down and consequently become ill. Clearly, reducing the stress – whether through rest, exercise, meditation, chiropractic care, or whatever other means one finds effective in lowering stress – will benefit overall health and improve immune system response to any foreign body – virus, bacteria, or splinter. Why? Because all your resources are going towards whatever is causing you the stress, commonly known as “fight or flight.” The stress response hormone cortisol can alter or shut down functions that you don’t immediately need, including your immune system.
As for my own credentials and knowledge with respect to the benefits of chiropractic in stress relief, as I noted, I have had multiple spinal injuries, as well as multiple degenerative spinal conditions, which used to result in shooting pains down my legs. Thanks to the services of my own excellent chiropractor, I no longer have those symptoms. Did that relieve any stress for me? Of course it did – physically and emotionally.
There is no shortage of information on the effects of stress on the body and the diseases it causes; yoga is recommended as one potential means to reduce stress. Among the benefits of yoga are increased flexibility, improved posture, breathing benefits, and reduced stress. It does not take a leap of faith to appreciate that chiropractic can also increase flexibility and improve posture, nor that it can yield breathing benefits. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that if yoga can decrease stress, which improves immune system function, then chiropractic care, which has similar benefits to yoga, also leads to improved immune system function.
In addition to the physical and emotional stress related to injury, years of emotional trauma can cause long-standing tension in the body, and yes, I can attest to that, too. For example, studies on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder have found that increases in anxiety and stress result in increased muscle tension. The nervous system will kick into survival mode during a traumatic event and it may have difficulty returning to its normal, relaxed state. A long-term stay in stress mode can cause a constant release of cortisol, which suppresses the immune system. The conclusion is that a combination of mental health treatment and physical therapy would be the obvious direction for helping these patients heal. Whether the physical therapy one chooses is chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, or physiotherapy is an entirely individual decision. For my conditions, I find that chiropractic is by far the most effective.
So can chiropractic care help to ward off COVID-19, just like any other virus? Of course it can. I believe retractions by the CBC, Ryan Armstrong, and Tim Caulfield are in order.
How ironic that the CBC should choose to end the news report with Ryan Armstrong’s statement that this “misinformation” about chiropractic “undermines our democracy.” I fail to see the democracy in the act of making sweeping one-sided statements based on a lack of information and understanding, particularly when, by his own admission, he has never been to see a chiropractor himself. I, for one, suggest that anyone who insists on discrediting an entire health care profession and dismissing the benefits it claims to offer needs to try it first before passing judgment. Far from doing the Canadian public a service through his work, he is dissuading us from availing ourselves of a valuable tool for improving and maintaining good health. This is particularly disadvantageous at this unprecedented time in history with worldwide quarantines, resulting in widespread job loss, leading to high levels of stress across the planet.
As for the quality of the CBC’s reporting, I am disappointed in my “trusted news source”. Whom did you listen to but two skeptics on a witch hunt with no information to back their views. The only effort that was made to tell the other side of the story was to seek rebuttals from Erin Mills Optimum Health and from the College of Chiropractors of Ontario. It is not surprising that after being lambasted in the media for years by others in the CBC such as Bethany Lindsay, the chiropractic community chose to cut their losses and take down any “potential [sic] inappropriate claims for the benefits of chiropractic.” Consequently, you are left in the embarrassing position of being caught disseminating false information, not to mention doing serious damage to the reputations of all chiropractors across the country.
To you journalists looking for your Woodward-and-Bernstein-esque defining moment, take note: THIS IS NOT YOUR WATERGATE. Look elsewhere, try again, and do better next time – much better. Rather than bombarding the country with endless fear-mongering and alarmist garbage journalism that thrives on dirty laundry, thereby stressing people out, which – guess what – will depress their immune systems and make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus, the CBC should kindly present balanced reporting that offers a multiplicity of ways in which Canadians can fortify themselves against the pandemic or any other illness. That includes a visit to your friendly neighbourhood chiropractor. Thanks, Doc, I’m feeling much better now.
Anita B., Concerned Citizen and Grateful Recipient of Chiropractic Care
Footnote: The author was contacted by Tim Caulfield within 24 hours of the limited release of the extended version of this article, and welcomes the on-going discussion. Only through open discussion can the truth be revealed.