I’ve been keeping my ear close to the ground on all things chiropractic lately, often coming across strange and unethical practices that are in need of a well-deserved scientific flogging. Most of these I let pass in anticipation of a bigger catch, but there is one practice that I can’t get over how funny it would be if it weren’t so troubling. First, some history.
Chiropractic originated from the father and son team of D.D. Palmer and his younger counterpart B.J. Palmer. Papa Palmer is largely attributed as the inventor of chiropractic, but B.J. Palmer and his unparalleled marketing skills helped make the profession what it is today. A prolific promoter, B.J. was an author, a radio host, and even at one point a circus hand. He was certainly no stranger to gimmicks.
In expanding the diagnostic scope of chiropractic practice, B.J. introduced two devices into the clinic. The first was the x-ray machine, which is often of no use when treating lower back pain and is recommended against by Choosing Wisely Canada. Despite this, they are used widely by chiropractors in the treatment of lower back pain. The second device, was the neurocalometer – a gadget that B.J. fervently advertised and sold. What’s unique about the neurocalometer is that even many chiropractors agree that its introduction and promotion was unethical.
So what is the neurocalometer? It’s a thermometer. No really, it’s basically just a thermometer.
The idea is that chiropractors use temperature as a gauge to measure subluxations – displacements of the vertebrae that impinge on the spinal nerves. They (I should be clear – not all chiropractors) believe that this interference in the nerves causes dissipation of heat to surrounding tissue, allowing them to precisely diagnose subluxations. There’s just one problem: subluxations don’t exist. In fact, a group of chiropractors and researchers found no evidence that they exist or are causally related to any disease process. Despite this, a large number of chiropractors still claim to be able to diagnose and treat the mythical vertebral subluxation.
As you can imagine, since vertebral subluxations don’t exist, there isn’t much hope for the neurocalometer as an effective diagnostic instrument, but it gets worse; even the Canadian Chiropractors Association stated that the “validity and reliability of measurement are highly doubtful.” This makes sense. Even if we granted the existence of subluxations, do nerves create heat when pinched? If nerves create heat when pinched, is it enough to be measured? Is enough heat created to be measured indirectly at the surface of the skin? The answer to all of these questions is an affirmative no.
Regardless, many chiropractors still make use of variants of the neurocalometer at great expense to their credibility. Luckily, crafty chiropractors at least avoid the great expense to their overhead and recognize that neurocalometers are really just overpriced thermometers. So why not just use a cheap ear thermometer instead? They measure surface temperature and are much more widely available. Even though they might not be very reliable, they make up for it by being cheap and easy to come by. You can even pick them up at Toys R Us:
In fact, one local chiropractor uses a similar (if not the exact same) model in a video “demonstrating” its use:
That’s not to say the thermometer doesn’t work; it certainly is a real thermometer, but what is the chiropractor using it for? Well, in the video posted by his practice to Facebook (which my good friend Dennis forwarded to me), he is using it to diagnose subluxations. On a 2-week-old infant.
I left a comment on the post expressing my concerns. It was promptly removed and I was blocked from the page. After composing the initial draft of this article, I sent it to the Kay Harris Chiropractic & Wellness Center asking if they would respond or at least offer corrections if they found issues. They haven’t responded. Why is it that chiropractors have the audacity to promote such things without the integrity to defend them?
Remember, subluxations are to chiropractors as the tooth fairy is to children; they don’t exist, but still seem to bring in the money. That’s not all; there is no reason to think that chiropractic offers any benefits to children:
I don’t know of any reason to believe that it might be necessary to refer a child to a pediatric chiropractor or to use spinal manipulation on a child prior to onset of adolescence. “Wellness care” in the form of “subluxation correction” is unnecessary and scientifically indefensible, and it places children at risk.
-Sam Homola, Chiropractor
Yet here is a chiropractor with an infant in one hand and a thermometer in the other. He claims that treatment for a subluxation is needed for a 0.2 degree differential in temperature. Well not only are ear thermometers not designed for this purpose, but they are not terribly accurate. The thermometer in question has an accuracy of ±0.2°C even though its display resolution is 0.1 °C. It might be surprising to you at this point, but that means that a 0.2 degree differential cannot be reliably measured with this device. Because the accuracy is even worse outside its normal operating range, it’s likely that the device couldn’t even diagnose Harvey Lillard‘s Mother of all Subluxations. That is, if subluxations existed.
Further, according to the manual, “this thermometer is intended for household use only.” So I hope the chiropractor’s practice is at home; I want him to be comfortable when he hears this: what you are doing in this video is entirely useless.