The Chiropractors Who Kill

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but chiropractic adjustment is a scam! It’s quackery of the purest kind, which unbeknownst to the general public is frequently associated with mild to moderate adverse effects. These include headaches, increased neck pain or stiffness, fatigue, dizziness or imbalance, extremity weakness, tinnitus, depression, anxiety, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, and confusion, to name a few. Although serious and fatal complications are rare, they do still occur. A systematic review of the latest available evidence found at least 700 people who had serious complications and 50 people had died as a direct result of spinal manipulation from a chiropractor. The review noted however that these are probably not reliable figures, referencing five surveys published in the literature, in which doctors were asked to report instances where their patients have experienced serious adverse effects after visiting a chiropractor. All five reported a multitude of complications, all of which were never reported in the literature, implying that the actual numbers are much higher. I also came to the same conclusion after I was contacted by several doctors, who after watching my videos critical of chiropractic wanted to reach out and share their horror stories. 

If you haven’t guessed it already, I am of the opinion that manipulation like that performed by a chiropractor should never be done, because it’s far too dangerous. This is because there is no scientific evidence that chiropractic can restore or maintain health, and only lukewarm evidence that it can help with lower back pain, with most credible research putting it on par with a good massage. Therefore I believe that any risk, even the very small risk of very serious complications associated with manipulation by a chiropractor, is unacceptable. To drive this point home, in my first video on the subject I mentioned Playboy model and Instagram influencer Katie May, who died of a stroke in 2016 after a chiropractor tore her left vertebral artery. Little did I know at the time that there was a better example closer to home. 

In August 2017 chiropractor Arleen Scholten was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter after 80-year-old retired bank manager John Lawler died following her treatment for his bad leg. John, a keen walker, had developed pains in his leg, which although not serious, would keep him awake at night. His GP suggested he might benefit from a course of physiotherapy. However, due to long waiting lists for both NHS and private physios, he and his wife Joan decided to make an appointment with a chiropractor, believing them to be one and the same. According to John’s youngest daughter Clare:

“I don’t think Mum actually knew there was a difference between a physio and a chiropractor”

“I wouldn’t have been that aware of the differences either. I was only vaguely aware that Dad was going for a spot of physio.”

The chiropractor the couple made an appointment to see was Arleen Scholten (“Dr” Arleen Scholten according to her website at the time) at her “clinic” Chiropractic1st in York. 

John Lawler, 80, died a day after visiting Arleen Scholten at her Chiropractic 1st clinic in York

Like so many chiropractors, Arleen liked to give the impression to her customers that she was medically trained, when at the time she didn’t even have a first aid qualification. She received her doctorate in chiropractic from the Northwestern College of Chiropractic, an institution which also offers courses in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, telling you all you need to know. Despite trawling their website I’ve been unable to decipher which flavour of chiropractic they teach, but after reading what Arleen published on her company website, I’m fairly confident that they’re deep in the quack camp. 

“Chiropractic is a lifestyle for our family. This includes good nutrition, regular exercise, plenty of time outdoors, little screen time and regular chiropractic care.”

“Yes, all five of us are adjusted regularly. Our children were all adjusted the day they were born, two were homebirths and I continue to check their spines regularly. There is a saying in chiropractic, ‘If the twig is bent so grows the tree.”

“I will forever be dedicated to sharing the health benefits of chiropractic. I am passionate about the science of human wellness and feel morally obligated to educate my patients on ways to increase health and well-being through eating, thinking and moving, in ways congruent with our bodies.

There is no doubt that John and his wife were under the impression that Arleen was medically trained and who could blame them? After all, she referred to herself as “Dr”, something which she was not allowed to do under British rules. When John’s eldest son David was asked if his father believed that Arleen was a medical doctor he replied:

“You do, don’t you? Particularly that generation… You see certificates on the wall and you think, “These are people who know what they are doing.” You put yourself into their hands.

Arleen was told that John had undergone back surgery a decade earlier for spinal stenosis and had metal rods inserted into his lower back. Yet despite this knowledge, and not asking for an x-ray or other imaging techniques on his back, she believed that she could relieve some of his leg pain by what she described as “gentle manipulation”. This gentle manipulation involved using a drop table, a device which allows for sudden thrust to a ‘patient’s’ spinal or pelvic area, while simultaneously dropping a section of the table a small distance. 

According to John’s wife Joan, he began screaming minutes into the procedure, when the table was dropped and raised without warning. He shouted, “You are hurting me. You are hurting me.” Then he began moaning and said, “I can’t feel my arms.”. Unbeknownst to all at the time, Arleen had torn and dislocated John’s C4/C5 intervertebral disc, paralysing him. For some unfathomable reason she decided to turn him over and then manoeuvre him into a chair next to the treatment table, describing him as a “rag doll”. She wondered if he had had a stroke, but dismissed the possibility because “his features were symmetrical”. At this point she noted that his lips were blue and tipped his head backwards, before giving “mouth to mouth” breaths. 

When the ambulance finally arrived, Arleen provided an inaccurate and misleading history to the paramedic and ambulance controller, leading the paramedic to treat the incident as “medical”, not “traumatic”, before transporting John downstairs to the ambulance without stabilising his neck. If given the correct information, the paramedic would have stablised the neck in situ, and transported John on a scoop stretcher, which would have greatly increased his chances of survival.

John was rushed to York Hospital, after which he was later transferred to Leeds General Infirmary. There, he underwent an MRI, and his wife was told that the results indicated that he had suffered a broken neck. She was also told that he was now a paraplegic and required a 14-hour operation to stabilise the spine. Unfortunately however, he died the next day. 

After his death John’s family were convinced that this was not just a freak accident but an avoidable tragedy – one that every patient should be aware of. Recently they published a statement hoping to highlight the very real dangers of visiting a chiropractor. 

“There were several events that went very wrong with John’s chiropractic treatment, before, during, and after the actual manipulation that broke his neck. Firstly, John thought he was being treated by a medically qualified doctor, when he was not. Furthermore, he had not given informed consent to this treatment. 

The chiropractor diagnosed so-called ‘vertebral subluxation complex’ which she aimed to treat by manipulating his neck. We heard this week from medical experts that John had ossified ligaments in his spine, where previously flexible ligaments had turned to bone and become rigid. This condition is not uncommon, and is present in about 10% of those over 50. It would have showed on an X-ray or other imaging technique. The chiropractor did not ask for any images before commencing treatment and was seemingly unaware of the risks of doing a manual manipulation on an elderly patient.

It has become clear that the chiropractor did the manipulation incorrectly, and broke these rigid ligaments during a so-called ‘drop table’ manipulation, causing discs in the cervical spine to rupture and the spinal cord to become crushed. Although these manipulations are done frequently by chiropractors, we have heard that the force applied to his neck by the chiropractor would have had to have been “significant”.

Immediately John reported loss of sensation and paralysis in his arms. At this stage the only safe and appropriate response was to leave him on the treatment bed and await the arrival of the paramedics, and provide an accurate history to the ambulance controller and paramedics. The chiropractor, in fact, manhandled John from the treatment bed into a chair; then tipped his head backwards and gave “mouth to mouth” breaths. She provided an inaccurate and misleading history to the paramedic and ambulance controller, causing the paramedic to treat the incident as “medical” not “traumatic” and to transport John downstairs to the ambulance without stabilising his neck. If the paramedics had been given the full and accurate story, they would have stabilised his neck in situ and transported him on a scoop stretcher – and he would have subsequently survived.”

John’s family had hoped that the coroner would have recorded a verdict of unlawful killing however Coroner Jonathan Heath concluded that John suffered spinal injuries while undergoing chiropractic adjustments and died from respiratory depression. He did ask the chiropractic regulatory authorities to consider first aid training for chiropractors and called on the General Chiropractic Council (GCC) to bring pre-tratment imagines, such as X-rays or scans, to protect the vulnerable. 

So what happened to Arleen? She was initially arrested on suspicion of manslaughter but police dropped the case. An investigative committee of the GCC met to decide whether or not to issue an interim suspension order against Arleen and decided to allow her to continue to practice. Bizarrely, and contrary to the usual practice of the GCC, it conducted its hearing in private would not allow John’s son David to attend. 

Suspension hearings are normally open to the public but, on the day, they said I couldn’t be there. I find that unacceptable. This is a different world. It seems to be a little self-regulatory chiropractic bubble, where chiropractors regulate chiropractors.

I believe David’s hit the nail on the head here, with the problem giving legal status to pseudoscience and quackery. Not only does it legitimise this bullshit, it acts as a shield for people who I believe should be in prison. John was killed by a woman who put significant pressure on his neck, in a procedure he did not consent to. She then greatly reduced his chances of survival when she moved him and provided inaccurate and misleading information to the paramedic, which, to me, implies guilt. Yes, despite this, the GCC – an independent statutory body established by Parliament to regulate the chiropractic profession and protect the health and safety of the public – seem to have done nothing!

John’s family voiced their frustration with the GCC in their statement:

The General Chiropractic Council decided not to suspend the chiropractor from practicing in September 2017. They heard evidence from the chiropractor that she had “not touched the neck during the appointment” and from an expert chiropractor that it would be “physically impossible” for the treatment provided to cause the injury which followed. We have heard this week that this is incorrect. The family was not allowed to attend or give evidence at that hearing, and we are waiting – now 2 years further on – for the GCC to complete their investigations.

Arleen appears to have got away with it and all she had to do was update her website to make it clear that she’s not a medical doctor (something that she should have been doing since the beginning). Presumably she also went on a first aid course so she can learn things like, if you suspect someone has a spinal injury, DO NOT MOVE THEM! I think American surgical oncologist, and professor of surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine described it perfectly when he said:

“Patients like John Lawlor are just collateral damage to the licensure of quackery.”

There are very real dangers associated with spinal manipulation. Yes, the risk is very low, but as chiropractic has literally been shown to be at best on par with a good massage, it’s a risk that you’re better off not taking. 

I think the best place to end this blog post is with the final section of John’s family’s statement:

We hope that the publicity surrounding this event will highlight the dangers of chiropractic, especially in the elderly and those with already compromised spines. We would again urge the regulator to take immediate measures to ensure that the profession is properly controlled: that chiropractors are prevented from styling themselves as medical professionals; that patients are fully informed and consent to the risks involved; that imaging is done before certain procedures and on high risk clients; and that the limits of the benefits chiropractic can provide are fully explored.

About Myles Power (723 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

2 Comments on The Chiropractors Who Kill

  1. Jenna Virtue // January 28, 2020 at 5:54 pm // Reply

    Thank you for this article. VERY informative, personally I was unaware that these people were NOT in fact doctors! Scary & wrong that they can police/govern themselves. WTF is this world coming to?????

    Like

  2. There are some chiropractors that have their act together significantly more than the chiro in this story. And those chiros do have a place.

    After an unfortunate encounter with a train (no lights/no gates at the crossing), I had “S” curves in my spine. After two ERs shrugged and had no suggestions for how to remedy that, a DO I went to by chance recommended chiropractic. After polling my coworkers, I visited an amazingly gentle and cautious chiropractor, who slowly realigned my spine into a straight line. I was free of pain, and could breathe again.

    Yes, in the interim, I have been to other chiropractors who have not been careful, or gentle, or effective. So, let’s not write off all chiropractors as useless and ineffectivr. There are some really good, and some not so much.

    Like

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