How Five Chiropractors Misdiagnosed a Healthy Child

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Many chiropractors advise parents to have their children checked and "adjusted" soon after birth and at regular intervals throughout life.

In the early 1970s, I supervised a study in which a young woman took her 4-year-old child to five chiropractors for a "checkup." The woman was worried that her sister, who had started working for a chiropractor, was being "brainwashed" into having unnecessary "spinal adjustments" every week. When she heard that I was interested in seeing how chiropractors deal with healthy people, she eagerly volunteered to help me find out.

At the time of our study, about 25% of the chiropractors in our community had engaged in advertising that was flamboyant and, to my mind, misleading. We decided to visit them first.

The child was apparently healthy and had had no serious illnesses. Before visiting any chiropractors, she was examined by a local pediatrician, who found no abnormalities. I instructed the woman to tell each chiropractor that she had heard about chiropractic and wanted her daughter checked. To be certain that what happened was faithfully reported, the mother carried a concealed tape recorder. (This practice is now illegal in Pennsylvania but was legal at that time.)

The first chiropractor examined the child for about a minute by running a "nervoscope" up and down her spine. He reported "pinched nerves to her stomach and gallbladder" and said that her shoulder blades were "out of place." He advised having an X-ray examination, which he said involved less radiation than three hours in the sun. He also said that his own little girl underwent weekly adjustments.

The second chiropractor showed a movie which stated that "chiropractic can also be effective in combating most childhood diseases." He said that the child's pelvis was "twisted" and advised that she have "adjustments, vitamins, and a check 'every four months."

The third chiropractor said that one hip was "elevated" and that spinal misalignments could cause the child to develop "headaches, nervousness, and equilibrium or digestive problems" in the future. He advised gerring an X-ray to see whether a supposed "weakness" was minor or serious. He stated that "there are over 26 different vitamins" and that chiropractic analysis can show whether any vitamins are lacking in the body. (Of course, there are only 13 vitamins.)

The fourth chiropractor predicted "bad periods and rough childbirth" if the child's "shorter left leg" was not treated. He also found "tension" in the young girl's neck. The chiropractor also said he adjusted his own family once a week and recommended weekly checkups and adjustments for everyone else.

The fifth chiropractor not only found hip and neck misalignments, but also "adjusted" them without bothering to ask permission--causing considerable pain. When I heard the child's tape-recorded screams, I discontinued the investigation.

In 1979, when the girl was 11 years old, her mother told me that she remained in good health and enjoyed gymnastics.

This article was revised on September 14, 2004.