Jan 14 2008

Making the Lame See and the Blind Walk

The story of a man who regained his vision after a chiropractic manipulation has been circulating around the internet, causing anyone with the slightest knowledge of human anatomy and appreciation for the truth to cringe. Here are the facts of the story, as related by the media. Doug Harkey went suddenly blind in his left eye 12 years ago. Recently, after a “routine visit” to his chiropractor, Tim Stackis, in which he received neck manipulation, Harkey noticed that his eyes were watering, first his left eye then his right eye. While wiping his right eye, and therefore occluding it, he noticed that he could see out of his left eye.

Doctor Stackis reports that he manipulated the bones in Harkey’s neck because they were out of alignment, adding:

“That interferes with the messages and energy the brain sends down to the rest of the body.”

There is no report of Stackis saying directly that his manipulation restored Harkey’s sight, and he is reported to be “surprised” by this outcome. Harkey himself credits the manipulation with the return of his sight, saying:

“He has miracle hands, I guess.”

How should we interpret this sequence of events? First, let us dispense with any notion that chiropractic manipulation of the neck can restore lost vision. I will refer to this highly detailed anatomical drawing by Leonardo DaVinci, which I have labeled for convenience, to demonstrate that the pathway from the eyes to the brain is fairly direct and does not pass anywhere near the neck. There is simply no biological mechanism for neck manipulation to restore vision to one or both eyes.

Stackis’s comment about “messages and energy” is a reference to the chiropractic religious belief that a life energy, which they call innate intelligence, flows from god, to the brain, and then through the spinal cord and nerves to the whole body, maintaining health. Those chiropractors who still adhere to this strange dogma, sometimes referred to as “straight chiropractors,” further believe that subluxations – displacements in the spinal column that cannot be objectively demonstrated – block the flow of innate intelligence and cause disease.

Interestingly, even within this bizarre pre-scientific belief system manipulating the neck should not influence vision – if innate intelligence flows through the spinal cord and nerves it would not have to go through the neck to get to the eyes. So in order to believe this claim you would also have to adhere to some alternate version of neuroanatomy.

It is interesting to note that D.D. Palmer, the inventor of chiropractic (by which I mean he made it up out of his own magical thinking and wild speculation) based his ideas on a single case observation in which he believed to cure a patient of deafness by manipulating his neck. The anatomical pathways responsible for hearing do not travel through the neck anymore than those for vision do. Those this new case is strangely reminiscent of the origins of chiropractic itself.

So if chiropractic did not restore Harkey’s vision, what did? I have access to a dearth of medical information on this case, so I can only speculate, but numerous possibilities suggest themselves. The assumption that the manipulation restored Harkey’s vision is nothing but a post-hoc ergo propter-hoc logical fallacy, assuming that because A follows B that A was caused by B. Because a causal connection is extremely implausible (a politically correct way of saying “impossible”) even an extreme coincidence is a more likely explanation for the association.

However, I don’t think we have to postulate an extreme coincidence, a minor one will do. The story reports that the chiropractic visit was “routine” so it seems that Harkey frequently visited his chiropractor. Therefore, any time his vision improved would likely to be temporally close to a visit to his chiropractor.

Further, we do not know when Harkey’s vision improved, only when he noticed it improved. He reports that he did not notice it until he closed his right eye, so presumably his improvement may have occurred even before his visit to the chiropractor. It’s probable that his vision was slowly improving for months, in fact. It may seem strange that someone would not know if they can see out of one eye or not, but I have seen this myself multiple times. In fact I had a patient who was completely unaware that they were totally blind in one eye, until I did a formal exam of their vision.

So the timing is uncertain and not all that compelling or coincidental. But that aside, what did cause the improvement in Harkey’s vision? I don’t know, largely because I don’t know why he lost the vision in his left eye to begin with. There are a number of neurological and opthalmological causes for rapid or sudden loss of vision in one eye, and most allow for spontaneous recovery or improvement over time. We need not invoke miraculous or highly implausible causes to explain Harkey’s improvement.

This story is not an example of the healing powers of chiropractic. Rather it is a story about how easily belief and poor thinking leads to false and outlandish conclusions, and how readily the media will spread such stories without providing any helpful analysis. The story is ironically just another example of how anecdotes are more misleading then they are helpful.

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9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Making the Lame See and the Blind Walk”

  1. Nitpickingon 14 Jan 2008 at 8:42 am

    “In fact I had a patient who was completely unaware that they were totally blind in one eye, until I did a formal exam of their vision.” Trying to conceal the patient’s gender, Doctor?

  2. daedalus2uon 14 Jan 2008 at 11:12 am

    I think the reason his eyes were watering is that he was crying from the bill. Then he rationalized that what he was paying was worth it because it had restored his vision after only 12 years.

  3. NYCSkepticon 14 Jan 2008 at 4:53 pm

    In the land of the blind, the one-eyed-man is still just a dubious anecdote.

    So if whatever situation that initially caused his blindness eventually recurs such that he loses it again, can he sue the chiropractor? I mean, now that he claims to be able to affect vision via his therapy, it should hold true both ways, no? I wonder if this was to occur, whether the chiropractor would defend himself using the scientific facts that nothing he is doing to the neck could affect the patient’s vision.

  4. Potter1000on 15 Jan 2008 at 3:24 pm

    What Mr. Smarty-Pantses Dr. Novella and Leonardo DaVinci are missing is that, just as the bulk of the universe is the unseen dark matter, the bulk of OUR bodies are invisible energy pathways. And these pathways don’t end at the finite limits that we normally perceive as the ends of our bodies. They run through the entire universe, connecting us all. Not everyone can feel these connections, much less manipulate them, and some of us are more innately gifted than others. But there are things we ALL can do to develop the innate abilities we ALL have to detect and manipulate the energy that flows through these pathways.

    I wrote a book describing many of the techniques one (all) can use to develop these talents, which I’ll refer you to shortly, but I’ll give you a free preview with this starter exercise:

    Call somebody you know and make a plan with that person to eat an enormous amount of high-fiber food the following day. Then synchronize your watches and plan to take a crap at the same time at the end of the day. While crapping, have the pre-designated “sender” imagine the “receiver” crapping, then have the sender stab him or herself with a push pin somewhere. After the crap, have the “receiver” call and see if he or she felt it and where. Depending on the skills of the participants this may work the first time or may take several attempts over many days, but it will work!

    When you’re ready for more, check out my book, “Quantum Energy: How to tap into unseen energy channels by wasting your time doing a bunch of useless crap that I made up that really hurts,” by Rob Potter

  5. TheBlackCaton 17 Jan 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I suggest you take a probability course. Of course if you keep doing it over and over you are going to match eventually. That is inevitable with the fairly small selections of choices. Especially considering some choices are more likely than others (arms, hands, legs, and feet are probably likely, torso and face less so), and people are unlikely to repeat the same body part. It is inevitable that it will eventually work. What you need to do is repeat the experiment over and over and see whether it works more often than you would expect from chance.

  6. Potter1000on 17 Jan 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Black Cat, of course, you’re right. I realize we sometimes breeze through people’s comments a little too quickly, so I’ll forgive you for missing my attempt at funnyness.

    Or maybe there’s just no funnyness to be found, in which case there’s nothing to forgive.

  7. whatever2008on 17 Jan 2008 at 7:29 pm

    I happen to know this man very well and he is a habitual liar. He craves attention anywhere he can get it. One question I have is……… How can someone be almost totally blind but has documented court records for being a habitual for DRIVING while barred? Hmmmm makes us wonder huh? Also is a lknow batterer towards females. Now if he is always bumping into things how the heck can he see good enough to beat someone up? Hmmm… these questions just keep going round and round in my head.. Think about it people.. Need I say more. I may just have to open up more cans of worms about this man!!!

  8. whatever2008on 18 Jan 2008 at 10:50 am

    Ok. I am letting it out now. As to my other post about knowing this man. I have an 18 year old son by this man. I have studied this eye disease for many years. My son has lost his pheriphrial vision alsready just as of this year. I get his eyes checked every year for this. As I was told it is degenerative and not something that can just be cured like this. This man has never tried to contact our son in the past 18 years except for when something happens to him. He called my son 31 times yesterday and also told him how he is going to be on the Morning Show. Can’t you people see that he is just after the media attention and it makes me sick to my stomache. One more thing to add is, hmmm if he can now see then maybe they should quit giving him disability checks!!!! Maybe he will have to go out and get a real job now!!!

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