A big bear of a guy with a warm and friendly manner, Paul Whitcomb comes across as very sincere. Fibromyalgia patients travel from all over the country and the world to be treated by Whitcomb at his chiropractic clinic in South Lake Tahoe, California attracted by the compelling stories of the success of his method described in his traveling seminar, the website stopfibro.com and in his book “Fibromyalgia; Finally Solving the Mystery”. At the clinic Dr. Whitcomb makes each of his patients feel special and cared for. He is an attentive listener, exudes compassion and has a good understanding of the symptoms and suffering of those with fibromyalgia. This coupled with dramatic improvements in health experienced by the majority of the patients at Whitcomb’s clinic and the close friendships formed with other patients make the experience at Tahoe a very positive one. As reflected in the personal testimonies on Dr. Whitcomb’s website most patients leave Tahoe elated by the progress they have made in their health and glowing with praise for their savior Paul Whitcomb. But this is only part one of the story.
Part two is what happens to patients after they leave Tahoe and return home. The truth is that for the majority of patients who are treated by the “Whitcomb method” the cure or relief of symptoms is temporary. Gradually most or all the symptoms of fibromyalgia return. The time frame of relapse and degree varies from patient to patient, the average being six weeks. Initially patients suspect that their relapse was brought on by overdoing it physically or by stress in their personal lives. Not realizing that this experience is common to most of Whitcomb's patients they tend to blame themselves or think they are somehow unique. In my case I blamed it on my sympathetic nervous system that never really settled down at Tahoe despite improvement in other fibromyalgia symptoms.
When I was a patient in Tahoe I had no idea that the effects of the treatment were not lasting for most patients however in retrospect I had a few clues. I communicated via email with Carol Sue a friend I made at the beginning of my stay who completed her treatment a couple weeks thereafter. Her symptoms began to return after a month. She told me she wished she could have stayed in Tahoe longer because that might have helped her. This encouraged me to stay an extra month in Tahoe but to no avail, my symptoms returned as well. A year later Carol Sue is as sick as when she first went to Tahoe. In an email she wrote: “If anyone asked me if his treatment helped I would say ‘yes, it helped relieve me of $20,000’. I think it is unfair to post only positive testimonials on his website”. Another clue was Bebe, a patient at the clinic during my stay who was at there for her third time. Bebe’s symptoms returned after her first two extended visits (she had personal reasons she attributed this to) but she was so determined to stay well that during her last visit she stayed for four months only to relapse again.
One by one I heard about disappointing relapses of many wonderful friends I made in Tahoe. Some of the “miracle” cases were most distressing. After years of suffering they claimed to be 100% better and had gotten off multiple medications only to have their fibromyalgia come crashing back when they returned home. Their glowing testimonies remained on Dr. Whitcomb’s website for weeks until they asked to have them removed. (I know of other former Whitcomb patients who did not stay well but still have their testimony on the website). Here is a pretty typical report written by Sharon the wife of a patient that describes what happened to her husband Ron after returning home.
“Ron came home from Tahoe last March feeling pretty wonderful. Within a few weeks he forgot and threw one of our 78 lb granddaughters up in the air (in the pool) and spent several bad days in bed. I called Dr. W. and arranged a phone call with him and a chiropractor here. The doctor here put Ron's neck back in place and he seemed good for a few days. Then it went out again. He's had to go back to this doctor as it continued to go out for no reason that we know of. He saw this chiropractor weekly then twice a month all of 2007 and now into 2008. The doctor here insists he's doing exactly what Dr. W. told him to do but we seriously wonder as Ron is exactly as he was before Tahoe! This is not good! Ron started taking Lyrica a month ago. It has dramatically eliminated his pain but for two weeks all he wanted to do was sleep. That stopped but now he is slightly spacey and forgetful. He's trying to decide if he should continue taking it. So where is Ron at? Back to where he was before being treated by Dr. W.”
Patients are devastated emotionally by the return of their fibro symptoms. As former Whitcomb patient Mary-Lynne Shank wrote “There is nothing worse than having a taste of what it feels to be healthy, only to have all of our former symptoms return with a vengeance”. To add to this disappointment patients are also often in debt financially. The average patient stay at the Fibromyalgia Relief Center is ten weeks, which costs $8750 for treatment plus lodging, meals and airfare to Tahoe. Many patients put the costs on a credit card and are told not to worry because after they complete treatment they will be well enough to go back to work. I think about some of the friends that I made at Tahoe who are now as sick as they have ever been and unable to work. One in particular whose spouse is working two jobs just to make ends meet and pay off the credit card debt. Another whose spouse is going back to work after being retired and one who had to move out of her home. Those who are single are struggling even more to make ends meet. I also know several patients whose marriages suffered considerable strains as a result of being separated for several months and then readjusting to life at home with their spouse, the disappointment of their fibromyalgia symptoms returning and their money wasted. These stories are heart breakers on every level.
In the fall of 2007 Dr. Whitcomb claimed that he had a new technique that he was teaching his patients to use and that it was helping them stay well after they returned home. Several people from my patient group including myself went back to Tahoe to learn this technique and to see if some further adjustments might be helpful. It turns out that the technique is a basic hold that involves pressing on the back of the head at top of the spine - a procedure that is known and practiced by every cranial sacral practitioner and rolfer to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. It was not helpful for me or the other patients I know who tried it. Around this time several of us began to confront Dr. Whitcomb about the high level of relapse in patients we knew. As a result of this Dr. Whitcomb hired Susan Uribe, a former patient to do follow up research. She contacted around 75 patients and told me that 95% of them reported they had relapsed. When she reported her findings to Whitcomb he simply said “they did not call me when their symptoms returned”, which was a blatant lie because many of these patients had called Whitbomb. After two weeks of disturbing phone calls with ex-patients and irate spouses Susan became disillusioned and quit her job. She posted a comment in my blog www.fibrofriends.typepad.com that concludes: “It is my opinion that Whitcomb is a master at charming very sick people out of their funds and does not look back.”
Dr. Whitcomb recruits individual patients using patient care representatives who make a commission on every person they get to come to the clinic. His latest method of recruitment is through radio stations where he airs advertisements and through Christian television where he was a guest on the Laura Schlinger show called “God Answers Prayers”.
Due to the high level of relapse in Whitcomb patients it is clear that the Whitcomb Method does not address the underlying cause of fibromyalgia for most people nor does it facilitate any permanent changes in the spinal structure. Dr. Whitcomb’s theory that fibromyalgia is caused by upper spinal cervical stenosis is in my opinion flawed. Whitcomb does not rely on x-rays because by his own admission he cannot see the displacement of the atlas or first vertebrae that supposedly causes a pulling on the meninges. There are many chiropractors who address misalignment of the atlas most notably members of the large professional association called National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association or NUCCA. This organization has over 40 years of research and development in the treatments of C-1 or atlas subluxations. There is also an alternative method of realigning the atlas called Atlas Profilax, which was developed in Switzerland and in most cases requires only one treatment. Addressing a misaligned atlas by these other methods is helpful for a variety of conditions however it is not specific to fibromyalgia.
There is no questions that fibromyalgia patients suffer from an over activated sympathetic nervous system. I suspect that Whitcomb is able to achieve a relief of symptoms by interrupting or dampening the nervous system at the top of the spine with frequent adjustments (2-3 per day over a period of weeks). One of the side effects of this method is that patients usually develop strained ligaments and muscles in the neck and develop neck pain. Since Whitcomb advises his patients not to have anyone touch or massage the neck the neck pain often persists for months.
Recently I corresponded with Sara Sharpsteen a very intelligent Structural Integrator using the Rolfing method whom I met in Tahoe. She reached a similar conclusion about the Whitcomb method, which she summarizes well in the following quote. “The fact is, fibromyalgia is a diagnosis of a condition. It is a diagnosis of a set of symptoms, and medically speaking there is no clear cause for those symptoms. In my experience, every person with fibro has a different, changing, set of symptoms. Any time that a doctor cannot find a cause for chronic, systemic pain, they diagnose fibro. I have seen so many different variations on this that I can't imagine that there is one single cause for this disease. I do believe that it is a disease of the fascia and of set off by a severe shock to the system. That shock might be different for every patient. And there might be some underlying medical predisposition to the disease. I don't know. Somehow the neuromuscular system gets all confused and the fascia is constantly getting the message to scar and harden. This is why Dr. Whitcomb's method "works". If you are interrupting the nervous system three times a day you are going to have some kind of effect. It's like you are short circuiting one step in the process. But as soon as you stop interrupting that message, things go wrong again. As I understand it, many chiropractors have seen this result and it has been discussed at length in their professional community. This was NOT discovered by Dr. Whitcomb. He's just the guy who touts it as the "cure", when everybody else admits that it is not. I have real faith that the answer will come through better understanding of the myofascial system, which is poorly understood at this point.”
In his book “Fibromyalgia, Finally Solving the Mystery Whitcomb says:
“Follow-up care is not needed in most cases. We do have two different modalities we have you use at home. These devises have proved satisfactory and almost never is any other follow up by a practitioner needed. In the event you get home and find that you start having any return in symptoms that cannot be resolved with your home treatment contact a local chiropractor immediately and have him or her call our office. We will make sure your doctor has adequate information to follow up on your care and keep your symptoms to a minimum. The most difficult part of your treatment will be taken care of while you are here and any follow-up should be easy for your local doctor to perform.”
Whitcomb makes similar statements in his lectures on his website. And at his clinic he tells patients that they should expect to experience continued improvement in their health after they leave his care. I do know two Whitcomb patients that say their health is still better one year after completing treatment in Tahoe and I have heard of several others. But it is clear that these fortunate few are in the minority.
I believe that Dr. Paul Whitcomb is performing a grave disservice to claim that he has solved the mystery of fibromyalgia and is successfully treating fibromyalgia. It is impossible to substantiate the long-term efficacy of his method unless follow up research is done. Whitcomb cannot or does not want to do this because it would force him to reevaluate his claims. He is reaping large financial benefits from his clinic and also thrives on the emotional attachment of his current patients. There is no doubt that Whitcomb is able to provide temporary relief of fibromyalgia symptoms however it is unlikely that many people would pursue treatment if they knew about the high level of relapse. In this way Whitcomb’s actions are unethical and deceptive. Yes, the jury is out and a verdict has been reached. Dr. Paul Whitcomb is not a friend for fibromyalgia patients. He is a Foe.