Kinesiology – it’s a bit scary.

Complementary and alternative medicines: while I don’t have much faith in many of them actually working (at least in the way that their proponents say they do), the hippy in me finds the idea of a lot of them quite appealing. The gentleness, the naturalness, the earnest likeability of many practitioners. I can go on feeling all fluffy about a particular practice for years, but then I hear a story like this one about kinesiology and all that gets blown clean out of the water.

Kinesiology is a popular pseudoscience invented by a Chiropractor in the ‘60s. It combines assessing muscle response with the Chinese medicine concepts of qi (life energy) and meridians (the paths via which the qi whooshes about one’s body). The idea is that the practitioner applies manual pressure to a particular muscle in the patient’s body, and infers from the muscle’s response whether there is an energy blockage in the meridian that intersects with it. Once a dodgy meridian is identified, a whole panoply of illnesses both mental and physical, real and imaginary can be diagnosed.

This interesting practice is probably best known as a method for diagnosing food intolerances. A sample of the offending food is either held in the patient’s mouth or encased in some sort of container and given to them to hold. The patient then lifts their arm, and the practitioner tries to push it down. If the arm resists or yields smoothly then you’re fine. If it wobbles about and yields in what the practitioner determines is an ‘inappropriate’ way, the food is messing with your qi and isn’t any good for you.

Despite the questionable logic, I’d never considered kinesiology practitioners to be particularly irresponsible. Getting a food intolerance diagnosis is mainly a hobby for the well and the well off, and if somebody was really feeling awful, surely they’d do something a bit more sensible, like getting a blood test or excluding likely candidates from their diet and seeing if they felt better. But then a traumatised friend told me how kinesiology is practiced in a Steiner school in Bristol for children with special needs – I shall call it school X for added suspense. It is really horrible – don’t look if you are easily disturbed.

As is the way with Steiner schools, lots of eccentric stuff went on, but arguably the most disturbing practice was the frequent use of kinesiology to diagnose children with food intolerances. However, because of the nature of the children’s disabilities, a variant of the diagnostic model is used that makes the whole process even more surreal than it is anyway. A pellet containing the trigger food is placed in the student’s belly button. A member of staff then touches the child with one hand (thus plugging themselves into the student’s qi) and raises their other arm, which is pushed down by a second member of staff in order to establish whether an entire food group should be eliminated from the diet of a non-owner of said arm.

This is, I was disappointed to discover, not the school’s own invention, but a fairly widely mentioned adaptation of the technique, called ‘surrogate kinesiology’. Conveniently, this adaptation makes kinesiology available to everybody; not only benefiting people with physical disabilities, but also babies – not to mention rabbits.

I find this story alarming from several aspects. Mainly it serves as such a good reminder that complementary and alternative medicines are not just consumed by people who are fully informed (or could be if they so chose) about their treatment options. As an SEN teacher myself I know how important it is, if somebody with special needs requires me to advocate for them, that I do so with as much empathy and as little self interest as possible. If I had a learning disability and needed an advocate to choose a method for deciding if I had a food intolerance, I would like that person to be sane and objective about finding the most reliable method. Somehow I don’t think that sort of person would come up with kinesiology. Steiner schools are eccentric and alternative, and it seems like the method was chosen to fit the vibe of the school, rather than the needs of the child.

The other freaky thing is that the method used at school X undermines the already bonkers rationale behind kinesiology. The whole idea of qi, as it pertains to the surrogate technique (oh, and generally) confuses me. The idea that by making physical contact, one person’s qi flows into the other person’s body and influences their physical responses stretches even my easily won credulity. I have so many questions: If the child’s qi is circuiting around two bodies, isn’t it going to be perilously diluted? And why doesn’t it get mixed up in the other person’s qi? And it’s one thing to be diagnosed with something based on the way in which you wave your own arm up and down – in fact, it sounds like quite a fun game. Quite another surely for your diagnosis to depend on how somebody else decides (whether consciously or not) to wave their arm. I really really hate this: when on the one hand complementary and alternative medicine is infused with credibility through its basis in ancient unchanging wisdom, and on the other hand the practitioner is allowed to meddle with the formula all they like as long as they are being intuitive and well meaning about it.

Finally, why were so many children at School X being tested for food intolerances in the first place? Apparently children on kinesiology dictated regimes of dairy or gluten (or dairy and gluten) free diets were very common, as were intolerances to vegetables of the deadly nightshade family (i.e. quite a lot of vegetables). I suspect that as with the method of diagnosis, suffering from food intolerances is a lifestyle choice that fits the vibe of the school. Nothing about this farce is to do with the children as individuals – what a shame they have to be associated with it.

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10 Responses to “Kinesiology – it’s a bit scary.”

  1. Catherine Collins RD Says:

    It is well recognised that some children with autism/ autistic spectrum disorders benefit from a trial of a gluten and casein free diet, but as this can result in a nutritionally inadequate diet at a crucial period of development the advice of an RD – particularly a paediatric/ community dietitian – should be sought before ‘trying this at home’.

    Your cynical view of Applied Kinesiology (AK) is entirely grounded, it being one version of the non-science (or should that be non-sense) forms of irrelevant ‘tests’ used to ‘diagnose’ food allergy/ intolerance (the terms being used interchangeably by the alt.health market, despite meaning very different things). AK/ IgG testing/ Vega tests are all proven not to be of any benefit in diagnosing true allergy, let alone presumed ones.

    Despite the risk of nutritional and developmental harm to children submitted to such diets by willing parents and gullible teachers, I remain amazed by how easy it has been for the self-styled guru’s – and their acolytes – to access this vulnerable group of children via the school networks, and how they continue to do so. In my experiences such encounters follow a particular process, which your readers may care to be alert to.

    First, the benign approach (we’re doing it for the kids/ an extension of ‘Jamies healthy eating plans’) that no rational nutritional professional would contest, and which is quickly accepted by the school as part of their healthy ‘Food In Schools’ approach.

    Only after a few weeks worth of educational ‘healthy eating’ to kids and parents has been safely tucked under the belt and trust gained, comes the real offensive – which, of course, comes at a cost. ‘Optimum nutrition’ can only be achieved if that healthy eating approach is augmented with a particular vitamin and mineral supplement, and of course the ubiquitous fish oil capsule – the latter supported by a paucity of actual clinical research but with a high media spend to push the allusion of instant intelligence if you swallow it (so to speak).

    Finally comes the tentative but persistently persuasive grooming that ‘food intolerance’ ‘diagnosis’ will optimise development – resulting in unnecessary tests and irrelevant food exclusions, made all the more severe with the pre-existing issues with food common in this group of children with behavioural problems.

    But what concerns and abhors me most of all is the apparent dismissiveness of LEA’s and the Headteachers concerned when their benign acceptance of these unregulated and self-styled guru’s are challenged. ‘No Harm Done’ is their mantra, as the therapists move on to the next school willing to finance their input and allow them to exploit the trust between school and community. It must be difficult for a senior teacher to admit they were as duped as the parents, but they should acknowledge this honestly rather than hide it behind their need to maintain educational professionalism.

    But the harm is done. A pervasive opinion that diet can never be sufficient without supplements. A reluctance to reintroduce foods that should never have been excluded on the basis of flaky tests such as those above, condemning the child to totally irrelevant dietary restrictions. And worse of all, no nutritional follow-up to ensure growth centiles are tracked – but with a cut-and-run approach within 2 terms or so, its easy to hide the dietary mess left behind …

    thank you for highlighting this in your column

  2. Miall James Says:

    The only practical use I’ve ever found for “qi” is in Scrabble.

  3. R Hocking Says:

    KINESIOLOGY WAS EFFECTIVE IN HELPING OUR SON
    Our son was diagnosed using kinesiology – which found an intolerance to milk products. He was fine with goats’ milk or soya milk – but broke out in eczema and had severe behaviour problems and other difficulties whenever he took cow’s milk. This was subsequently tested in the home over and over by eliminating milk, then reintroducing it into his diet. So we were satisfied that the diagnosis was proven to be correct.
    Over the next 12 months, he had several sessions of health kinesiology to desensitise him to the intolerance after which he could then manage cow’s milk without any reaction. It is now a normal part of his diet.
    It worked for us.
    By the way – he is autistic (as are many of the children at Steiner Schools).
    Curiosity means looking at what happens in life and wondering why? It is the basis of scientific research and is fundamental to progress in our understanding of the world.
    Dogma is looking at what happens and ignoring the results because it doesn’t fit with conventional logic.
    I once read a doctor who wrote that he didn’t believe in kinesiology and even if someone could prove it, he STILL wouldn’t believe it. Sad that…..
    Your posting is more of the same………

  4. Ray Girvan Says:

    “Over the next 12 months, he had several sessions of health kinesiology to desensitise him to the intolerance after which he could then manage cow’s milk without any reaction”.

    If you’re so keen on curiosity, looking at life and wondering why, why not apply that approach yourself? Did you explore the possibility that the change might not be down to the sessions but to the passage of 12 months? Google is your friend: ["cow's milk" outgrow]. Not so difficult to confirm that it’s a very common pattern for infants to have an intolerance to cow’s milk that goes away spontaneously by the age of 3-4.

  5. jonhw Says:

    Curiosity means looking at what happens in life and wondering why? It is the basis of scientific research and is fundamental to progress in our understanding of the world.

    Then I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know the Prof John Garrow has looked at Applied Kinesiology in a BMJ article, and wondered if it works. It turns out to works as well as chance alone, when subjected to a blind test.

    Now, it’s hard to know why practitioners of AK make the diagnoses they do. However, if I were asked to guess what one food someone is intolerant of, milk would likely be my first guess…

  6. Catherine Collins RD Says:

    the Hocking family- have you considered that your son was actually intolerant of milk products DESPITE, not because of, AK? This is a common intolerance which can be permanent or transient, depending on which nutritional componant of milk is the cause. It worries me that the therapist ‘diagnosing’ this intolerance merely called on the most commonly found intolerance in children and voila! – another convert to the process. I assume from the episode that it was lactose, not milk protein, that was the cause.

    The AK did NOT ‘desensitize’ him. The gradual reintroduction of milk products would have induced digestive enzymes in the small bowel to allow him to tolerate milk once more. Nothing ‘magical’ nor ‘holistic’ here, and sadly, no ‘unconventional logic’ at work either. Just exploitation by your AK therapist of the general publics lack of knowledge about how the body works, and what its capable of.

    But in order to add neutral comment to the debate, this article – written by the very people who use AK as ‘diagnostic techniques’ is required reading. This is where I get my opinions from. Dogma doesn’t feature. If it is not biologically plausible then I’m sorry, its a charlatan at work…

    http://www.chiroandosteo.com/content/pdf/1746-1340-15-11.pdf

    The authors (Haas et al) conclude
    “When AK is disentangled from standard orthopedic muscle testing, the few studies evaluating unique AK procedures either refute or cannot support the validity of AK procedures as diagnostic tests.
    The evidence to date does not support the use of MMT for the diagnosis of organic disease or pre/subclinical conditions”

    Your accusation of – as an registered Health Professional of ‘dogma’, then perhaps you will

  7. Claire O'Beirne Says:

    loser length link, sorry, can’t do the blue writing thing but this study – http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/120/3/e669?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=spinal+bmc&andorexactfulltext=and&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=date&resourcetype=HWCIT reported worrying findings about bone mineralisation in girls restricting dairy intake, often due to perceived intolerance. Mis- or self-diagnosing dairy intolerance might have lifelong effects.

  8. Claire O'Beirne Says:

    trying again with hopefully less loser-length link! Pediatrics in September 2006 included a study of the impact on spinal bone mineralisation in girls who restricted dairy intake, often due to perceived intolerance. Medscape (registration required, then it’s free) wrote it up here:

    http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/562475

    Misdiagnosing or self-diagnosing dairy intolerance in children can have lifelong effects.

  9. wewillfixit Says:

    R Hocking – just wondering, did you go to the A with the idea that cows milk intolerence might be a problem, and even mentio this to the practioner?

    Aside from that, my son is intolerant to cow’s milk too (the whey proteins, so he is fine with cheese) and he can also tolerate goat’s milk. As a baby he would vomit copiously even if *I* had drunk cow’s milk (he was breastfed) and get a bad eczema rash all over his body. A year ago he would be sick if he had a fair amount of cow’s milk and smaller amounts would trigger an eczema rash (less extensive than before). Now he is fine unless he has a lot of cow’s milk, in which case he gets a bit of eczema. He had nothing like AK, and still got better. Sometimes we do things at the same time as we get better from an illness. It doesn’t mean that whatever we did was the cure.

  10. Claire O'Beirne Says:

    Correction to my second post: Pediatrics article was September 2007

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