Back for good?

Posted on December 23, 2011


Daily Express

Dateline: 16 October 2011 // Posted by: Mary Duggan
Source: Daily Express

Story: “Back for good: How to beat crippling back pain”

Summary: Everyone will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives according to spinal surgeon, Colin Natali, founder of a private clinic that treats back pain called Back2Normal.  According to Back2Normal, they offer an alternative pioneering treatment in the form of a combination of physiotherapy and spine-strengthening machinery. Even though Mr Natali is a spinal surgeon, he would never recommend spinal surgery; according to him, it should be a last resort. He boasts “specialised” equipment, and treatment that lasts around 6 weeks.  His prices run at £75 for an assessment and £56 per treatment.

Why is this PseudoNews? The main reason why I think this is pseudoscientific news is because they seem to be coming up with too simple a solution for a serious medical problem. What they fail to consider is that back pain is not a diagnosis in itself but a symptom of one of a number of medical conditions.  Such conditions could be: (a) Intervertebral disk degeneration, where the disks located between the vertebrae of the spine break down with age; (b) Spinal injuries such as sprains and fractures which can cause chronic pain and can be either short-term or long-term; (c) Some serious medical conditions that can be the cause of back pain are curvature of the spine, usually causing pain in middle age, spondylolisthese, various forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis and spinal stenosis, where a narrowing of the spinal column puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves; and (d) Infections, such as osteomyelitis or diskitis are other causes of back pain.  Tumors are another factor to be considered (see National Institute of Arthritis and Muscoskeletal and Skin Diseases, USA, for more information.)

Of course a person would need to consult with their GP first, but it is fairly obvious to me at first glance that spinal strengthening therapy is not appropriate for the most serious cases of back pain.

In summary, when back pain is chronic and when medications and other conventional therapies do not relieve a condition, complementary and alternative treatments may, depending on suitable medical advice, be useful for managing pain but they won’t cure the disease or injury.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? The first pseudoscientific feature in this article is science by press conference.   The new treatment is announced in the media, and what is bewildering is that it is in The Daily Express, a middle-market tabloid newspaper known for its controversial and often alarmist front page headlines.

The second pseudoscientific feature is that it lacks evidence and theoretical agreement.  This is an extraordinary claim, so the burden of proof lies with Back2Normal to prove that this new treatment works.  Instead they rely on personal testimonials and anecdotes from patients, instead of referring to well-documented studies.  Severe back pain is a major medical problem, but Back2Normal seem to be coming up with a simple solution that would lead a person to wonder why this treatment has been overlooked for all this time?

The third pseudoscientific feature is the exaggerated importance of their founder, Colin Nutali, by explaining that he is a spinal surgeon, which results in argument from authority.

Fourth, there is an appeal to holism (rather than just dealing with the physical symptoms of the condition, they also say that the treatment promotes psychological wellbeing), and finally, the article shows vagueness in measurement with respect to the amount of treatments that a person would need per week.

The moral of the story: Talk to your doctor.  Pain can manifest itself in a variety of different ways and does not always originate from where you think it does.