Applied Kinesiology by Any Other Name…

Applied kinesiology (AK) was briefly mentioned in Scott Gavura’s article on Food Intolerance Tests last week.  Since AK is arguably the second silliest thing in CAM after homeopathy, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to say a little more about it.

A press release on the Wall Street Journal website recently announced that a chiropractor in Illinois was offering “Nutrition Response Testing”:

…to help patients optimize overall health…[the test] determines the specific balance of nutrients necessary to optimize metabolic function at the cellular level… the chiropractor then uses this information to make nutritional recommendations for patients…[the test] provides precise feedback that can also help identify the underlying cause for chronic pain and illness.

My first thought was that he must be using one of the quack electrodermal testing devices that I wrote about here and here.

No, nothing so high tech. The chiropractor’s website explains:

The practitioner will do the analysis by contacting your extended arm with one hand, and contact the specific reflex area with other hand. If the tested reflex is stressed, your nervous system will respond by reducing energy to the extended arm (which will weaken and cause it to drop). A drop in the arm indicates underlying stress or dysfunction in that area which can be affecting your health.

This is nothing but AK disguised with a new name. It is nonsense based on magical thinking, suggestibility, and the ideomotor phenomenon.  Steven Novella has explained the role of self-deception in AK.  Practitioners are genuinely not aware that they are eliciting positive results by exerting less force on the arms of patients who in turn are not aware that they are not trying as hard to resist.

My first encounter with a believer in AK was when a local chiropractor gave a  talk about how he diagnosed and treated allergies. He described having patients hold a sealed vial of allergen in one hand while he tested the strength in their other arm. In one case, he suspected that the patient was allergic to work, and since he didn’t have a vial of “Boeing” to test, he just had the patient think about Boeing and that worked just as well. In his introductory remarks, he had let slip that when he was in school he “had never been very good at science.” That was the only thing in his whole talk that I believed.

One of my favorite stories from the history of skepticism is Ray Hyman’s account of how he and Wally Sampson did a double blind test of AK. A group of chiropractors claimed they could distinguish between glucose (“bad” sugar) and fructose (“good” sugar) by putting a drop of dissolved sugar on a patient’s tongue and testing the muscle strength in their arms. They demonstrated that they could reliably detect which was which… as long as they and the patients both knew which was which. Under double-blind conditions, they failed miserably. The head chiropractor then commented to Ray:

You see, that is why we never do double-blind testing anymore. It never works!

I think that’s a hilarious example of how many CAM advocates think: they know they are right, and therefore there must be something wrong with science if it fails to support them.

And no, we skeptics don’t dismiss AK just because it sounds silly. AK has been tested. A typical study showed that the “use of applied kinesiology to evaluate nutrient status is no more useful than random guessing.”  A systematic review of published evidence showed “the few studies evaluating specific AK procedures either refute or cannot support the validity of AK procedures as diagnostic tests.”

We know it doesn’t work. We know why it doesn’t work. We know how practitioners are fooled into thinking it works. Nuff said!

Nevertheless, AK is used by 37.6% of chiropractors in the US, according to the American Chiropractic Association. It is also an integral part of NAET (Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique),  a  quack treatment for allergies and chemical sensitivities that was invented by an acupuncturist and is practiced by an estimated 8,500 licensed medical providers.

A sampling of statements on the “Nutrition Response Testing” chiropractor’s “Advanced Chiropractic Wellness” website is illuminating:

  • We use the extraordinary properties of the human cells and tissues to bring about healing and health changes…exactly as nature intended.
  • The body responds to the procedure reliably and consistently. [Demonstrably not true!]
  • Energy flows exist between all parts and organs of the body. These flows can become disrupted for a variety of reasons. This disruption is easily discovered with our testing.
  • The first thing we must determine is whether or not you are a “Nutrition Response Testing Case”.  If someone is NOT a “Nutrition Response Testing Case” then it is unlikely that Nutrition Response testing will ever help you. However, if you ARE a “Nutrition Response Testing Case”, then in our experience, it is our belief that nothing else will help you as much.
  • It is the nervous system’s responsibility to regulate the body’s functions for each and every organ. [What about hormones? What about transplanted organs with no nerve connections?]
  • NRT works upon principals [sic] based in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which state that a person’s energy flows through meridians throughout the body.
  • [Food] intolerances manifest themselves in a myriad of ways throughout the body…. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, back pain, neck pain headaches, migraines, ADHD, depression, allergies, asthma, men’s health issues, women’s health issues, and a very long list of other physical and emotional ailments.
  • We test the patient’s neurological reflexes at the acupuncture points
  • There has been a drastic decline in the quality of food over the past 70 years,
  • 20 years of success correcting spinal misalignments called “subluxations” that pinch nerves. [They explain that regular maintenance adjustments are needed to maintain health.]

They offer an individualized “designed clinical nutrition” program with “real foods” and concentrated whole food supplements that preserve all the active enzymes (it’s hard to see how this could help since enzymes are destroyed by digestion).

“A rose by any other name…” Whether you call this applied kinesiology or nutrition response testing or wallet biopsy, it still stinks.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.


Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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