When there’s more to working with children than adjusting small bodies, and the chiropractic benefits for children are wide ranging
For more than 15 years I have been treating children with chiropractic care and seeing the chiropractic benefits for children firsthand. I’m currently a senior clinician and assistant professor of pediatrics and manage trimester 8-10 students in the pediatric rotation, one of the most coveted and competitive clinical rotations at the university.
As a practicing pediatric clinician, I treat a wide variety of cases every day, from ear infections and plagiocephaly to torticollis and colic. I am constantly solving new challenges, but nothing has compared to the whirlwind of a case my team and I recently took on that had left medical professionals stumped for years. This patient originally came to us for a musculoskeletal-related issue, but after conducting a thorough evaluation, we discovered a multitude of symptoms and psychosocial triggers below the surface. We were blown away by the depth of this patient’s case and how much these symptoms were affecting him psychosocially.
Case Study: Matthew
Matthew (names in this article have been changed for confidentiality purposes) is a 9-year-old boy who loves laughing, telling jokes, playing video games and spending time with his friends. But when we first met Matthew for his initial exam, he looked like he had been on a weeklong sabbatical from sleep.
He had dark bags under his eyes, he was extremely fatigued, his lips, hands and feet were swollen, he was overweight, his whole body was in pain and his emotions had gone haywire. There was no happiness in Matthew, and it was clear he was exhausted from fighting to enjoy his life.
Matthew had a difficult start to life. He was born addicted to narcotics but was adopted as an infant into a loving and supportive home. Shortly after his adoption, he had his first medical scare in the back seat of his mother’s car. While driving on a long, desolate stretch of Kentucky highway on the way to visit family, Matthew’s mother, Kathy, noticed her son had suddenly stopped babbling. She figured he fell asleep and continued driving, but a gut feeling told her something wasn’t right, so she pulled the car to the side of the road. Kathy began to panic when she realized Matthew’s lips were blue, and she couldn’t tell if he was breathing. She called 911 and within minutes, emergency medical services were rushing her baby to the nearest hospital.
Matthew was diagnosed with idiopathic angioedema — swelling triggered by an allergic reaction or medication — which is a very serious and sometimes life-threatening diagnosis. Following this incident, Matthew was seemingly fine until he turned 6 and began having similar attacks. Over the next few years, Matthew experienced month-long periods where he would have 2-3 episodes each week.
He and his mother sought answers from a multitude of specialists and medical professionals, but they continued to receive the same diagnosis with no clear treatment plan. Matthew was prescribed a variety of medications by different doctors in hopes of finding something to solve the problem, but the only thing that seemed to stop the progression of his breathing difficulties was an EpiPen.
For three years, Matthew lived off EpiPen injections. Each administration resulted in a trip to the emergency room, where they would monitor his symptoms and give him fluids until they were comfortable discharging him. Matthew would return home and live life as usual until another attack struck, sometimes just days later. It was an endless cycle that continued for three years, which was when my team was presented with this case.
Seeking chiropractic care
Kathy originally sought chiropractic care for Matthew after noticing he was struggling with joint pain and fatigue, but after we conducted a thorough history and exam, we discovered a variety of symptoms and psychosocial triggers that warranted further attention. Matthew, like most children, was voicing frustration from virtual schooling, separation from friends and family, and the overall lack of socialization brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At first, the adjustments Matthew received seemed to keep the attacks under control, but the relief didn’t last long, as there was no clear rhyme or reason for the attacks. We could tell he was immunocompromised and that something was aggravating his system, and while the cause seemed to be internal, the exact origin was unknown. As we began to unravel this complicated case, we noticed an increase in Matthew’s emotional outbursts and irritability. These episodes appeared to be directed at his mother and typically worsened following the use of the EpiPen.
Putting the puzzle pieces together
Since chiropractic care is not about treating symptoms but figuring out why the symptoms are occurring in the first place, we got to work locating the source or cause of Matthew’s issue by putting the puzzle pieces — or symptoms — together and looking at the big picture.
Every attack started the same way: with an intense stomachache. His lips would begin to swell along with his uvula, which would induce the use of his EpiPen. Matthew is on a lot of over-the-counter and prescription allergy medications, but no one has been able to determine what he’s actually allergic to, so we referred him to a different immunologist and suggested ordering a complete blood panel and urinalysis to see what else we could learn about him.
After two weeks, we received the test results that revealed inflammatory markers in his bloodwork, but nothing correlated with a specific diagnosis. His medical doctors and my pediatric team were once again left with more questions than answers.
During one of our pediatric clinical case discussions, we debated the possibility that Matthew was using the episodes as an excuse to not participate in certain activities, as the attacks typically occurred while he was experiencing an uncomfortable situation or was forced to do something he did not want to do. We began considering that he had the ability to initiate an episode and reframed our thinking entirely, now looking at the patient through the lens of anxiety instead of allergies.
If our thinking was correct, Matthew had been living on the fake adrenaline high of an EpiPen for the last two years. What additional problems could this unnecessary epinephrine be causing for the rest of his body?
The following week, Matthew attended a summer camp. He was anxious and stressed about going, but his mother talked him into it. On the first day of camp, Matthew had an attack. The nurse administered his EpiPen, and he was taken to the emergency room. On the way home, Matthew confessed to Kathy that he faked the attack to get out of attending the summer camp.
Kathy immediately made an appointment at the university, just like she did after every other attack. This time, however, Matthew threw a fit and refused to come, which was extremely out of character for him. I believe Matthew knew my team and I had caught on to what was really happening, and he was scared to see us, feeling as if he had broken the trust and strong bond we had formed with one another.
During Matthew’s appointment, we calmed him down and performed his typical adjustment. We made a referral for Matthew to be evaluated by a psychologist and psychiatrist and created a plan to implement counseling in tandem with his regular chiropractic adjustments, which has since eliminated the use of the EpiPen and emergency room visits. Additionally, through our diligent approach of looking at the whole patient, we found a drug interaction that caused increased heart rate and decreased stomach pH, which allowed us to eliminate two of the main symptoms of Matthew’s attacks.
Chiropractic benefits for children and holistic solutions
Through our dedication to solving Matthew’s case and digging beyond surface-level information, a 9-year-old boy can now enjoy a more normal life. We educated and empowered Matthew and his mother to help better dictate their care throughout the entire medical system, we discovered Matthew’s ability to initiate and control his attacks, and we uncovered the psychosocial aspect of this case, proving this was much deeper than an immune response.
My team and I have learned a lot from our experience with Matthew and his mother, as it reminded us there is so much more to pediatric chiropractic and the chiropractic benefits for children than adjusting small bodies. He taught us about the challenges that lie in treating pediatric patients relating to psychosocial, communication and emotional difficulties.
Pediatric chiropractic did not necessarily save his life, but the dedication of the pediatric chiropractic clinicians and students may have in the end.
ALLISON HARVEY, DC, is a senior clinician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Logan University. She earned a BS in Kinesiology from Illinois State University in 2001 and graduated from Palmer College of Chiropractic’s DC program in 2006. Her goal is to have every patient experience his or her optimal health. She strives to educate the patient on what is causing their pain and then form a plan on how they can help and what they can do to be proactive in their health. She is the proud mother of identical twin girls and was the supervising chiropractor on Logan’s inaugural Clinic Abroad trip to Costa Rica.