Mary Wakefield Mary Wakefield

My son and the back-crackers of Harley Street

What happened when I took my son to an appointment with an osteopath

All along Harley Street, charlatans and medical experts have set up side by side with no obvious way to tell them apart. The same wide steps lead up to the same glossy front doors, all with prestigious brass knobs. Each separate house is itself a layered stack of quacks and docs: radiology one floor above absence healing, flower therapy down the corridor from paediatric ENT. The magnificent Harley Street address confers a blessing on every dubious therapy. Perhaps it has a placebo effect all of its own.

I know the street quacks well, or used to. My mother had a horror of antibiotics and would pack us off to Harley Street’s alternative therapists. I remember a mournful young Russian who was said to have treated astronauts. He hovered his healing hands over my wheezing chest — could I feel the heat? Yes. Did I get better? Well… no. There were celebrity homeopaths, kinesiologists, an earnest woman with the brow ridge of a gorilla who explained that with her ‘Vega’ machine she could detect the very first bat-squeaks of disease. If we only bought enough expensive zinc pills we might all live forever.

It was when she died of cancer that the first seeds of doubt began to sprout. Poor lady, but… shouldn’t she have seen it coming? In 2008, on the recommendation of a doctor friend, I read Trick or Treatment by Edzard Ernst, an A-Z of alternative therapies detailing which of them stand up to rigorous, randomised tests. The answer, I’m afraid, is not many. Ernst is especially anxious about the back-crackers: chiropractors who manipulate spines, and osteopaths. I had been sure they were all bona fide doctors, but it turns out they come from the medieval tradition of ‘bone-setting’ via various Victorian mystics. I became a dinner party bore on the subject: ‘You went to the osteopath last week? Oh!’ I’d say.

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