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Experts urge cautious approach with chiropractors treating colic

April 11, 2000
Web posted at: 5:34 PM EDT (2134 GMT)

In this story:

A credibility boost

Babies with back pain?

Questions about safety

Proceed with caution


(WebMD) -- Parents will go a long way just to quiet a colicky baby. The quest often starts with a baby swing, progresses to 3 a.m. drives around the neighborhood and ends in a pediatrician's office, where parents get condolences and little else.

But desperate moms and dads don't have to stop there. Although pediatricians may be baffled by colic, it's still fairly easy to find a doctor who believes the cure is at hand. Just look in the phone book under "Chiropractor."

"I've helped hundreds of babies with colic," says Maxine McMullen, D.C., a chiropractor in Davenport, Iowa, and president of the International Chiropractic Association's Pediatric Council. "Every one of them simply needed a spinal adjustment."

Given McMullen's specialty, her remedy isn't surprising. But is it really a good idea to put a tiny body in the hands of a chiropractor? Gentle adjustments do seem to be safe, and a new study suggests they really can help ease the symptoms of colic. What concerns skeptics is that not all pediatric chiropractors limit themselves to such mild techniques, and some may offer questionable advice. So any parent considering chiropractic for a baby should use extreme caution.

A credibility boost

Pediatric chiropractors have long been dismissed by mainstream doctors. Their credibility rose a bit with the publication of a study in the October 1999 issue of the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark reported that colicky babies who underwent spinal adjustments cried far less than those who received dimethicone drops, the standard (and generally ineffective) treatment.

The manipulation was nothing like the forceful shoves sometimes given to adult backs. Instead, chiropractors applied light pressure to the spine with their fingertips. Twenty-five randomly selected colicky infants received three to five of these treatments over two weeks.

By the end of the treatment period, diaries kept by parents showed that the babies shortened their daily crying episodes by three hours. In contrast, the crying of 20 infants taking dimethicone decreased by only one hour.

In a previous study, published in the journal's August 1989 issue, researchers tried the same technique on 316 colicky babies and found that their crying soon diminished. For the 1989 study, however, they did not look at a group of babies not treated with chiropractic.

Babies with back pain?

Doctors have spent decades trying to connect colic to digestive problems, but Niels Nilsson, D.C., M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical biomechanics and co-author of the study, believes the real trouble lies in the spine and back muscles.

"For all we know, those infants may suffer from back pain," Nilsson says. Infants don't do much heavy lifting, but they could easily strain their backs while being born, he says.

Back pain or no, colicky infants probably find comfort in the touch of a hand -- whether that of a chiropractor, massage therapist or concerned parent, says Samuel Homola, D.C., a Florida chiropractor who practiced for 43 years before retiring in 1998. Furthermore, gently pressing the spine is probably safe at any age, he says.

Questions about safety

Unfortunately, not all chiropractors work with a light touch. Many practitioners (including McMullen) routinely adjust the necks of infants, while others apply enough force to the spine to produce the popping sound familiar to adult patients. In youngsters with still-developing bones, such techniques could invite serious injury, says Homola, author of Inside Chiropractic: A Patient's Guide.

"I would never take a baby or a young child to a chiropractor," he says. "There's no good reason to do it, and there may be some risk."

The dangers go beyond potential damage to growing bones. Pediatric chiropractors often cling to concepts from the far fringes of medicine, Homola says. For instance, many tell parents that spinal manipulations should take the place of vaccines. And despite a shortage of evidence, chiropractors often claim to be able to cure ear infections, asthma, attention deficit disorder and a host of other childhood illnesses, he says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics declined to comment on the subject, but Victor Turow, M.D., a pediatrician at North Shore University Hospital in Great Neck, New York, adds another warning to those of Homola: Chiropractors are rarely qualified to diagnose a baby's ailment. A baby who cries inconsolably may have colic, or he may have constipation, acid reflux or a milk allergy, he says.

Proceed with caution

For sleep-deprived parents willing to give chiropractic a chance, Turow offers this advice: Take your baby to a pediatrician first to rule out any hidden disorders. If the doctor diagnoses colic, ask him or her to recommend a reputable chiropractor. And when you visit the chiropractor, insist that your baby's neck is off-limits.

There is another option. All colicky babies eventually stop wailing on their own, usually around their third month, Turow says. So if parents don't want to entrust their infants to a chiropractor, they could always try the only sure-fire remedy: time.

© 2000 Healtheon/WebMD. All rights reserved.

National Institutes of Health report on chiropractic
Effectiveness of treatments for infantile colic

What a rational chiropractor can do for you
Chiropractic in the United States: Training

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