Challenging misleading healthcare claims

Working within the "cranial paradigm"

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published another of our 'master' complaints today. This time it was about claims being made on a website advertising craniosacral therapy, Being in Stillness (BIS). The full adjudication can be found here, but it's worth considering some of its points.

As part of their general response, BIS stated that they:

…worked within the cranial paradigm, rather than a conventional scientific paradigm.

The didn't, however, explain in any understandable terms what this different paradigm was other than to claim:

[craniosacral therapists] worked with the subtle energies of the individual, which represented and seemed to correspond to physical tissues and emotions. Practitioners, experienced in their hands certain sensations, or ‘energy fields’, around the client, which was in turn experienced by the client as subtle movements in the body, or various emotions and insights. BIS said that was a highly subjective experience and each practitioner may experience the work differently.

None of this is evidence-based, of course. The BIS website explains further:

'Being in Stillness' means resting in a place of deep peace and wholeness that encourages profound relaxation of the body, mind, emotions and energy, and enhances our natural healing, self-repair and self-correction abilities, reminding us who we are underneath the conditioning of our day to day lives and unresolved experiences. It is inherently non-judgmental, honouring our body's present perception of how things feel.

Recognise this for what it is: non-specific yet possibly sciency-sounding to some and typical of far too many webpages promoting alternative therapies.

However, it's a huge leap from talk of relaxation to claims that this can treat any illness or condition, never mind serious ones like the ones mentioned by BIS: autism, learning difficulties, epilepsy, recurrent infections, migraines, headaches and asthma that need proper medical attention, as well as all the usual suspects of colic, feeding problems, poor sleep and 'failure to thrive'.

But another recurrent theme on many sites advertising alternative therapies is 'birth trauma'. This is certainly a favourite of many chiropractors and suchlike, but preys on women at a time when they are understandably concerned about the well-being of their baby. BIS stepped up the pressure:

During birth the baby's head is subjected to strong compressive forces. Particularly with a long or difficult labour, forceps or ventouse [suction] intervention, there may be residual effects which need some help to clear. Craniosacral therapy recognises the subtle effects of birth trauma on the still-forming bones of the skull which if left untreated may lead to more persistent problems.

Fully upheld

The ASA identified 10 points in our complaint and upheld them all, including one that the ad could discourage people from seeking essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.

However, it is disappointing to note that, although the page on craniosacral therapy (cached) on the BIS website has changed in light of the ASA's adjudication and some text has been altered, the website now contains three disclaimers in what would appear to be an attempt to comply with the adjudication, but without removing many of the claims or the long list of medical conditions. The ASA have been notified of this.

Regulatory paradigm

In the regulatory paradigm, claims made have to be evidence-based and the ASA require that evidence be robust and scientific. The ASA demand this because their remit is to protect the public from being misled: if an advertiser makes a claim, the advertiser should be prepared to substantiate that claim with robust evidence. If they cannot substantiate it, then they should remove the claim.

Now that this adjudication adds to the CAP Code and previous adjudications on craniosacral therapy, there can even less excuse for craniosacral therapists to make misleading claims.

BIS should have been well aware of these requirements: the therapist at BIS is Amanda Biggs and she is a member of the Craniosacral Therapy Association of the UK. The reason the CSTA know all about the ASA's rules is because of the adjudication against them just over a year ago after a complaint by Al Grant. The ASA have also told us that they had informed the CSTA of our current complaint.

As part of our complaint, we supplied the ASA with a list of several hundred other cranisacral therapy websites and the ASA will now be contacting them to ensure they are well aware of the rules they have to abide by. They will now also be contacting the CSTA again and another trade body, the Upledger Institute, to inform them of their decision and to work with them to help seek compliance by their members.

We sincerely hope that both trade bodies will realise their professional responsibilities and cooperate fully with the ASA to bring their members into line with the CAP Code.

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