Consumer Reports Gives Bad Advice on Chiropractors

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
August 7, 2011

The September 2011 issue of Consumer Reports gives ignorant and irresponsible advice about chiropractors. The advice is part of a report about a survey that asked subscribers much various types of treatments had helped them with back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, digestive problems, depression, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, colds & flu, and allergies [1].More than 35,000 people responded to the survey. For ten of these conditions, prescription medication was rated best, but for back and neck pain, chiropractic scored highest. The magazine’s editors noted that the survey data might not represent the experiences of the general population, did not take the placebo effect into account. That’s correct—though incomplete—but in a “User’s Guide” that accompanied the tabulations, the magazine gave this advice:

Manipulating or adjusting the spine by applying controlled force, or a gentler mobilization technique, purportedly relieves impingement of spinal nerves, called subluxations, and helps the body heal itself.

Chiropractic is possibly effective for back pain. But there’s insufficient clinical evidence to rate its effectiveness for neck pain and many other conditions. Our medical experts warn that it might be risky for neck pain.

Find a practitioner
Contact the American Chiropractic Association.

I am puzzled that Consumer Reports would use words that support the claim that chiropractors treat subluxations and thereby help the body heal itself. The chiropractic “subluxation” is a figment of chiropractic imagination [2]—a fact that at least some of the magazine’s editors know. The word “purportedly” is a weasely way to attribute the claim to chiropractors. But there is no good reason to give the subluxation concept or any chiropractors who use it the slightest credibility.

A photograph that accompanies the article shows Dennis Seese, D.C. of Belleview, Florida giving a chiropractic “adjustment” to a patient. I know nothing about Seese’s therapeutic talents but I find it odd that the magazine would promote a chiropractor whose Web site is filled with subluxation-based rubbish. One page, for example, states: “Your nervous system controls every cell, tissue, organ and system of your body. These nerve impulses travel through your spine. So having a spine free of vertebral subluxation is essential for optimal health.” [3] There isn’t the slightest evidence that spinal manipulation promotes optimal health.

Recommending the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) referral source is also bad advice. The only requirements for membership are possession of a license and payment of annual dues. The ACA does not require evidence of sensible practice and does not evaluate what its members do. People considering chiropractic services need to be told what to look for and what to avoid [4].

The Bottom Line

I believe that the September 2011 article will be seen by many readers and trumpeted by chiropractors as a powerful endorsement by Consumer Reports. Evidence of this has already started to appear on chiropractic Web sites.

I don’t doubt that some people who see chiropractors are helped. But the editors failed to place the survey data in proper perspective. Many people who consult chiropractors are told that they have an underlying problem that requires huge numbers of “spinal adjustments” to correct [5]. Many are subjected to dozens of tests and treatments that do not have the slightest basis in reality. And they may be exposed to misinformation about vaccinations [6], prescription drugs, and medical treatment in general. Thus, even minimal advice on selecting a chiropractor should warn people to avoid those who oversell themselves or criticize science-based health care. In 1975 and 1994, Consumer Reports published comprehensive reports that debunked chiropractic’s subluxation concept and warned very clearly about bad chiropractic advice and overselling [7,8]. The magazine’s recent failure to accompany its survey report with similar advice is inexcusable [9].

  1. Alternative therapies: More than 45,000 readers tell us what helped. Consumer Reports 76(9):20-25, 2011.
  2. Barrett S. Chiropractic’s elusive subluxation. Quackwatch, Sept 21, 2009.
  3. What are subluxations? Belleview Chiropractic Clinic Web site, accessed Aug 6, 201.1
  4. Barrett S. Tips on choosing a chiropractor. Quackwatch, Oct 13, 2000.
  5. Barrett S. Don’t pay or contract in advance for chiropractic visits at a “discount” price. Chirobase, July 11, 2010.
  6. Barrett S. Chiropractors and immunization. Quackwatch, June 12, 2005.
  7. Chiropractors: Healers or quacks? Part 1: The 80-year war with science. Part II: How chiropractors can help or harm. Consumer Reports 542-548, 606-610, 1975.
  8. Chiropractors: Many chiropractors now claim they can do much more than treat back pain. But are they true hands-on healers or just master manipulators? Consumer Reports 59:383-390, 1994.
  9. Gorski D. Consumer Reports drops the ball on alternative medicine. Science-Based Medicine Blog. July 27, 2011.

This article was revised on August 7, 2011.