‘C’ word raises red flags: National Fibromyalgia Association founder says she’s heard about ‘cures’ before
April 16, 2005
Paul Whitcomb, a South Lake Tahoe chiropractor, believes he has found a cure for fibromyalgia, a disease that hypersensitizes the nervous system and causes debilitating pain in millions of Americans, most of whom are women.
He says his repeated neck adjustments realign the top vertebra of the spine and allow 95 percent of his fibromyalgia patients to get well. Experts on the illness and its leading researcher in the country are skeptical of this claim. They did not dismiss it altogether, but say controlled studies would be needed to prove it.
“When I hear this red flags go up all over the place,” said Lynne Matallana, president of the National Fibromyalgia Association. “You start using the ‘c’ word and I get very nervous. As far as we know there isn’t a cure yet.”
Matallana, who was in bed for more than two years because of fibromyalgia, said Whitcomb’s theory is interesting because as many as 60 percent of people diagnosed with fibromyalgia have experienced some type of physical trauma, such as a car accident that induces whiplash.
“We have ideas, but we have a lot to learn,” Mantallana said. “I know a lot people with fibromyalgia who have pain in the neck and shoulder area. It’s an area that we think needs more research. Anecdotally, from the patients’ point of view, there seems to be something there.”
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Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a rheumatologist and professor of medicine at the University of Illinois, who has studied fibromyalgia since 1980 and is a leading expert in the field, said there is a chiropractor near his Peoria office that claims similar success in treating the disease.
Fibromyalgia, Yunus said, is a neurochemical disease – a chemical imbalance causing hypersensitivity in the nervous system that amplifies pain. Trauma to the neck can trigger fibromyalgia, but so can stress, genetics, poor sleep and infection, Yunus said.
“It’s very easy to have the testimony of one person, but one person does not represent the total population,” Yunus said. “I think the thing you should really emphasize is that anybody can make claims, and the patients may indeed feel better, but there should be controlled studies.”
Patients become believers
Whitcomb’s waiting room is small and packed with sick women and an occasional man who are starting to feel better. Since his treatment can last for several months, and involve neck adjustments up to three times a day, the group bonds and empathize with each other’s symptoms.
“It’s so wonderful to meet other people who understood what you’re going through,” said Jannie Hills, 52, of Brandeton, Fla.
The empathy that fibromyalgia patients find at Whitcomb’s office after years of isolation caused by their illness could contribute to a placebo effect, Yunus said. That would mean people are getting well because they think they are being treated correctly.
“I’m glad to hear about that doctor, that he’s doing good things for people,” said Rae Marie Gleason, executive director of the National Fibromyalgia Research Association. “But remember these people have gone to so many doctors who told them they are crazy and that if they wanted to get well they could get well. So if they find a doctor who understands their problem and reassures them he can get them better, they believe the doctor.”
Gleason said she knows of other chiropractors and physicians in the country who claim to provide relief from fibromyalgia through vitamin therapy or neck adjustments.
Husbands and doctors
Bill Cornwell, whose wife, Betty, was treated by Whitcomb, rejects the notion that the improvement in his wife’s health is all in her head.
“I know what I see,” said Cornwell, who lives in Ohio and took out a loan to pay for Betty’s treatment. “She’s been able to do a lot more, she’s got lot more stamina, she’s not in pain and she’s sleeping now. A lot of good things happened and it only changed because she went there.”
Dr. Adnan Sammour, an internal medicine physician who treats Hills, knows how much pain his patient was in before she left to be treated by Whitcomb.
“She’s almost completely pain-free, sleeping through the night and not requiring any pain medication,” Sammour said. “She tried pain medicine, physical therapy, message, acupuncture, and that did not help. His manipulation I’m not familiar with, so it’s hard to judge what’s being done. But it works.”
Other chiropractors work on fibro, too
Mary Glass, a chiropractor in South Lake Tahoe, said she can provide relief for fibromyalgia patients through adjustments of the spine, but her treatment also requires dietary changes and exercise.
“I see that in all my fibromyalgia patients, some kind of trauma, a fall or head injury,” Glass said. “I don’t believe that’s the only thing. I’ve seen through my own experience since 1986 that fibromyalgia is an accumulation of different faults. I think if you just do that adjustment and don’t address other factors, it’s going to return.”
The American Chiropractic Association said the research it’s compiling does show fibromyalgia can be treated through their profession.
“Of the scientific papers published in the last five years definitely some are supportive of the chiropractic treatment of this disease,” said Angela Kargus, communications manager for the association. “Studies have shown that treating it is really within the realm of chiropractics.”