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My Experience with an Unethical Chiropractor

J. Kesterson

This is the story of my recent experience with a chiropractor, whom I shall refer to as "Dr. Chiro." It is long, but it is well worth your time if you are looking for a chiropractor and don't know what to look for and what to avoid. Looking back, I realize now that he fit the description of "what to avoid" that I read about in so many of the online links I read -- some of which were written by other chiropractors!

First visit: Evaluation of my back pain and additional physical problems such as any GI distress, etc. History of previous injuries to my back. Full set of spinal x-rays including 10x36" full spine plus neck. I was told to come back the following Monday to receive a report of the findings on the x-ray and was told that my "husband needs to come too."

The following Monday morning: Arrived with my husband for the report of my x-rays. First we had to watch a video of Dr. Chiro talking about chiropractic in general. It also stressed how important it is to continue the treatment as recommended by him. After the video ended, Dr. Chiro came into the room with my x-rays and his findings. He pointed out my scoliosis (which I already knew about) and the compressed cervical disk and bone spurs in my cervical spine (which I did not know about). He then quickly pointed to my right hip (which was clearly lower than the left) and said "and your right leg is shorter" but made no mention of any problems in my very low back which was the reason I went to him in the first place.

He then sat us down and talked about the "subluxation" theory, using a model of a vertebra and nerve roots to demonstrate what happens to them when the vertebrae are out of alignment. He reviewed my complaints with me, emphasizing my history of 2 severe accidents (his interpretation, not exactly my words) and then gave me his recommended treatment plan: every day for 2 weeks, then every other day for 4 weeks, then tapering off to about 1 day a week after that for a total of 52 treatments. He said my treatment plan would be for at least several months. He then said "If we accept you here, you will need agree to follow this treatment plan." [At this point, we both thought "Huh? If YOU accept ME?", but we were too stunned to say anything.] Then, he said "In addition to this, if we accept you here you will need to come to the health class tomorrow night and your husband will need to come too." We submissively nodded and agreed.

He then asked for my insurance card and took it out to the receptionist to check it for coverage. He returned and said "Your insurance won't cover your treatment." I was very surprised (I know for a fact that my insurance covers chiropractic care) and I asked him to re-check. He left the room and returned and again said that my insurance (Blue Cross Prudent Buyer) doesn't cover the treatment. [THE TRUTH: My insurance does cover chiropractic, but only with participating providers. Dr. Chiro is not a participating provider and did not state that honestly; instead, he just simply said that my insurance won't cover. This was deceptive.]

He told us that the treatment would cost a total of $2,500 which we could pay for in full up front (!!!), or, he offered us an "affordable" plan whereby if we paid in 2 payments, we would get a 20% discount. By this point, I was leery (because of his above comments) and wasn't sure whether to proceed with treatment, so I decided to pay for each treatment one at a time.

At the end of this session, he told me I will get my first treatment. The receptionist led me to the treatment room and gave me the instructions I was to follow for each visit: Put my card on the holder outside the door, and "lie face down on the table and wait for the doctor to come in." I thought that last instruction was rather strange, but I didn't question it. I received my first "adjustment", then went into another treatment room for a heat treatment on my upper back and electrical stimulation of my neck. Then, I purchased my cervical pillow, heal lift, and left with my husband. On my way out the door, Dr. Chiro passed by and I asked him if he could give me some exercises to strengthen and stretch my back to make it feel better (I knew he had them because I saw them in a 3-ring binder on a table in the waiting room). He said "That will come later on."

The feeling we both had about him after we left was "fast-talking car salesman."

That night, Dr. Chiro called me at home to ask how I felt after my first visit. I said I felt good and he enthusiastically said "Allright!" in his usual cheerful, charismatic tone.

The next day (day #2 of treatment): I received my treatment and went to the "health care class" which consisted of several slides showing bad and good posture, a lesson on so-called "subluxations," some heartwarming pictures of Dr. Chiro with his family on vacation, some before and after x-rays of patients he had treated, and a sermon on the importance of chiropractic treatment for correcting the spine (the sales pitch). During the course of this, he was critical of traditional medical doctors (another chiropractic red flag). Then came the subtle new-patient recruitment ploy: He asked each of us (there were about 12 people in the room) to write down the names and contact numbers of people we know who could benefit from chiropractic treatment, again emphasizing how important it is, and to turn the papers in to the receptionist on our way out. He dismissed the "class", left the room ahead of us, and went to the receptionist desk where he whispered something to the receptionist (I was immediately behind him as I was the first student to leave the room). I did not provide any names, and left.

Second week of treatment: I told Dr. Chiro that I was uncomfortable about having my neck adjusted. He asked me why, and I told him I was concerned about the effects of twisting my neck to adjust it. He then gave me a very kind, tender explanation of why it was not in my best interest to not adjust my neck, that he would not do it if he thought it wasn't safe, and told me about the same low odds of risk of injury I had read on-line. Reluctantly, I let him adjust my neck, but was told to remind him to go "easy" on it.

For the second time, I asked Dr. Chiro for some exercises I could do at home to strengthen and stretch my back. He said "we'll discuss that later" (meaning, later on in my treatment). I also asked him "what about my lower back?" By this time, he hadn't treated or asked me about how my lower back was feeling, which was my primary complaint in the first place.

On one visit, Dr. Chiro enthusiastically told me he had lunch the day before with my friends who are also his patients (one of them referred me to him). Whoa, THAT was a surprise! One of them is the same friend with whom I had openly discussed my apprehension about him, about chiropractic in general, and about having my neck adjusted (thinking she was nothing more than just one of his patients). He then said "They told me you're a little skittish" (referring to my discomfort with having my neck adjusted). I felt very uncomfortable with the thought that he and my friends discussed me over lunch (a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality).

I was growing more and more uneasy and reluctant to return. By now, I had begun researching chiropractic on the Internet. I found a lot of information warning people to avoid chiropractors who practice certain things such as over-prescribing treatment, insisting on manipulating the neck, and the subluxation theory -- the very things Dr. Chiro practices. I already knew that asking a patient to pay up front, making the comments "if we accept you here" as if I didn't have a choice myself, and pressing me into accepting a treatment I was not comfortable with were just simply bad business practice. Not to mention discussing me with my friends (his patients) over lunch.

I was continuing to research chiropractic, was growing more and more uneasy every day.... and I was starting to pray throughout the day for guidance, knowing that my friends believe he fixed their backs and perhaps I was just skeptical about something that would indeed be good for me. However, as each day passed, my skepticism turned into conviction as I grew more and more reluctant to return.

The subluxation theory made no sense to me. During some treatments as he was "adjusting" my spine, he'd say such things as "This is going to make your lungs work better!", or "This will improve your digestion!" I just kept thinking "How about just making my lower back feel better?"

I was also feeling absolutely no improvement in my back, except that the original flare-up (which sent me to the doctor in the first place) had subsided after just a few days -- which it always does even without any treatment.

Day 13 (my final visit): I waited for Dr. Chiro in the treatment room but instead of lying face down on the table as previously instructed (a ridiculous practice, I now realize), I just sat on the table. When he came into the room, I told him again how uncomfortable I was having my neck adjusted. He then said, in a very firm, short tone: "Why?" I gave him my reasons and he again told me how it was necessary to adjust my neck as well as the rest of my spine in order to get satisfactory improvement in my back. He said he'd have the receptionist pull my x-rays and he would review my cervical spine x-ray with me during my next appointment.

I also told him that after 2 different treatments, I had a mild feeling of lightheadedness when I entered the treatment room for the heat treatment. He said "That's a good sign, it means your nerves are starting to work again." Yeh, uhuh. I decided then and there that when he shows me my neck x-ray the next day, I would ask him to explain the physiology behind that statement.

I then received my treatment (including a very gentle cervical manipulation in spite of what I said), then left.

That night, I decided I'd had enough and no longer wanted to go back. I decided I would seek advice from an orthopedic spine surgeon, possibly for an MRI, and get another opinion on the diagnosis I received from Dr. Chiro based on the x-rays he took. I decided that I would call first thing the next morning and cancel all further appointments.

The final phone call: I called early in the morning and got a recording that started with the statement "Thank you for calling _________. This machine does not take cancellations [how convenient!]. If this is an emergency...." I decided to call back later after the office opened, and did so leaving a message with the receptionist saying that I was canceling my appointment for that day and would not be returning to the office. She just said "OK" and that she would let Dr. Chiro know.

Twice that day, Dr. Chiro tried to reach me at work. I knew he would call me and try to pressure me into coming back. He left voicemail messages on my machine and I called him back when I got home that evening.

We talked for a long time on the phone, with Dr. Chiro doing most of the talking. I told him I was considering going to an orthopedic doctor to get an MRI of my back to see if there is something else there that didn't show up on x-ray. He suggested that he could order the MRI for me through a lab he uses in Duarte, then he could review the findings with me and we could progress from there. He told me he was "concerned" about my GI problems (indigestion) and encouraged me to come back, saying he won't manipulate my neck (funny how he finally agreed to respect my wishes). He then resorted to scare tactics, saying "Your lower back is screaming now, in a year your middle back is going to be screaming, and soon after that your neck will be screaming." (He hadn't asked me how my lower back was feeling, not even once, since day 1. It was no longer hurting by this point.) Finally, he uttered his last desperate attempt: "As your primary care doctor...." and at that point I started laughing to myself as I realized he completely fits the description of the type of chiropractor I had read to AVOID. (A chiropractor is NOT a primary care doctor; he/she is a chiropractor, nothing more.) I was so firm in my decision to not go back that I could just comfortably sit and listen to him babble on about how "concerned" he was about me, how my back was only going to get worse, and listen to him swallow hard as he was trying to recite his hard-sell pitches and scare tactics. Finally I told him I would seek out other care on my own and if I wanted to return to him, I would call him and go back (though I had no intention of doing so). When I hung up, I just laughed as I considered all the red flags he had exposed about himself in that conversation: (1) scare tactics, (2) pressure tactics, (3) calling himself my "primary care doctor." The phone call lasted more than 10 minutes, with Dr. Chiro doing most of the talking in an attempt to talk me into coming back.

After the phone call, I felt immense relief -- and also a lot of anger. I felt manipulated (by his original hard-sell approach saying, "If we accept you here..."), controlled, and very annoyed by his pressuring manner and his tendency to ignore my requests.

Dr. Chiro clearly fits the profile of a chiropractor who should be avoided, as described in the many web articles I read (some of which were written by chiropractors!). Even if some of his patients might feel relief or even physical, observable improvements in their spine, Dr. Chiro does not practice scientific, ethical chiropractic business practices and is an example of the type of chiropractor that one should avoid.

After leaving the chiropractor, I consulted a physical therpist whose treatment has been very helpful.

_____________

Ms. Kesterson, a former orthopedic nurse, now works in computer software development in Southern California.

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This article was posted on September 15, 2002.