Pediatricians are sounding the alarm in response to hundreds of videos that have been shared to social media showing infants and babies being physically manipulated by chiropractors in an effort to soothe symptoms of colic, constipation and other discomfort.
The chiropractors uploading these videos, mostly to TikTok, insist that their methods are safe and gentle, but doctors say the treatments could be risky — especially in the wrong hands.
“Ultimately, there is no way you’re going to get an improvement in a newborn from a manipulation,” Sean Tabaie, an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s National Hospital in D.C., told The Washington Post. “The only thing that you might possibly cause is harm.”
One TikTok, uploaded by bodybuilder Kevin Clevenger, shows a chiropractor dangling a baby upside down by her legs. Viewers can hear pops as her back and neck are gently cracked, and she stays calm the whole time.
Clevenger told BuzzFeed News that his daughter was “less fussy and a lot happier” after the visit and she’s been seeing a chiropractor once a month, since.
Dr. Lindsay Pelley, a chiropractor in Oregon specializing in pediatrics, told the outlet that while adults can be nervous about chiropractic care because the adjustments seem “a little aggressive,” a visit to a specialized pediatric chiropractor comes with “minimal risk.”
“It’s a very gentle, conservative way to improve the baby and most likely mom’s quality of life with minimal intervention,” she said, adding that baby manipulations usually use only enough pressure “to bruise a tomato.”
Many chiropractors say that their methods are beneficial for babies, who often undergo a traumatic birthing process or suffer from colic in their early months. They also maintain that they can help with a common condition known as torticollis — when babies are born with, or later develop, a twisted neck.
Desperate parents, wishing to relieve their babies of pain and/or quell long crying spells and fussiness, seek out chiropractic care when methods offered by traditional medicine don’t seem to work.
Colic, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), is sustained or prolonged periods of crying that can’t be explained in otherwise healthy young babies. It’s typically seen in babies around three to 12 weeks of age, and usually lessens over time.
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CPS does not mention or recommend chiropractic adjustments as a treatment option on their website, instead urging parents to contact their doctor or public health nurse.
Several studies have looked at how chiropractic care can help babies, and while their findings look promising there’s often been flawed methodology.
A 2021 Danish trial, conducted in a randomized, controlled group of 185 colicky babies, found that babies who were treated with light pressure on their neck and spine showed a trend of crying less. However, the findings weren’t found to be statistically meaningful, even after a follow-up analysis of babies with just musculoskeletal issues, reports The Washington Post.
A 2019 study, conducted on 58 colicky babies in Spain found that babies who were given gentle manual manipulation cried significantly less, but unlike the Danish study, the Spanish babies weren’t “blinded,” meaning parents were aware of the treatment, which could lead to bias in their self-reports.
And another randomized study, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2001 and reported by BuzzFeed, found that babies treated by a chiropractor vs. held by a nurse as a placebo, did no better or worse in terms of their colic.
Anthony Stans, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, Minn., told The Washington Post that he cautions parents against chiropractic treatment for babies.
“To my knowledge, there is little to no evidence that chiropractic care changes the natural history of any disease or condition,” he said.
Dr. Stephen George, an orthopedic surgeon and director of spine surgery at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Florida, agreed, telling BuzzFeed that chiropractors need to look at a child’s medical history and understand the cause of pain or misalignment, otherwise they could “be doing patients harm if they blindly assume that a manipulation won’t hurt them.”
“When you look at the literature, the risk profile of a lot of the techniques and manipulations they do is pretty low, but the data on the success of them is also not always strong,” George said. “In our treatment algorithm, we may try some things that are less evidence-based, but we always have to risk stratify … and being realistic about what your appetite for risk is very important.”
According to the Canadian Chiropractic Association, Canadian chiropractors undergo national standardized education requirements and practical education and pass a licensing exam in their working province.
Canadians do not need a referral from a doctor to access chiropractic care, and it is common for health professionals to make recommendations or write referrals to chiropractors.