Science or FICTION? Chiropractor’s ‘wellness center’ has backers, critics

Chiropractor Jesse Ross uses low level light therapy and biofeedback to treat his patients. Ross has opened a new clinic called Beam Light Therapy. (Brad Nettles/ 3/15/13

The first thing patients might notice about chiropractor Jesse Ross’ new North Charleston office is that it’s a little small and a little sparse.

There’s no examination bed, no scale or stethoscope. Inside the one-room operation, there’s just a desk, a table, some chairs and a few pieces of expensive equipment.

This is Beam, the “cutting-edge wellness center” Ross launched in January.

Here in North Charleston, the primary treatment Ross offers is a combination of “advanced biofeedback and low-level light therapy,” using technology made by a company that already has received one warning from the federal government. Medical experts go further, calling the therapy a sham, duping desperate patients out of thousands of dollars.

But several patients interviewed by The Post and Courier said they happily parted with their money because the therapy works.

There are 1,499 active chiropractors licensed in the state, according to the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Of those, at least six in South Carolina and as many as 1,000 nationwide are using light-therapy equipment similar to what Ross uses at Beam, according to a spokeswoman for BioVeda, the Boca Raton, Fla., company that manufactures the machines.

Although chiropractors are typically sought for back-pain relief, Ross and others like him are branching out. They represent a new breed — part-scientist, part-salesman — selling the idea that their high-tech therapy is the next wave of holistic medicine.

Ross recently hosted an hourlong marketing event at a restaurant in Mount Pleasant to explain to potential customers how the therapy works.

“We’ll bring our patients in, we’ll hook them up to a cuff that is able to send these microcurrents — this electricity. When we do that, we’re able to measure how the body responds to that on a cellular level,” Ross said.

In a typical Beam session, Ross scans a patient for adverse reactions to thousands of potential immune- system triggers through that cuff. In a demonstration for The Post and Courier, Ross used the cuff to determine that bone marrow and deer hair were among a list of things potentially bothering his business partner, Ryan Layne.

The deer hair made sense, because Layne said he recently visited a petting zoo. The bone marrow was a mystery.

The full list of perceived threats to Layne’s immune system popped up on a laptop screen, hooked up to the cuff on his arm.

In a real therapy session, Ross would then reprogram Layne’s immune system to respond positively to those triggers by passing a light over his spine, skull and ears with an instrument that looks like a laser pointer embedded into a remote control.

Sometimes the laser is red, sometimes green. It also makes a beeping noise that Ross said doesn’t serve any purpose except to say the machine is working. The whole process takes only a few minutes.

In a real session, Layne also would need to pay up.

After a free initial consultation, a package of multiple Beam therapy sessions ranges from $1,500 to $3,000. Individual therapy sessions are not available to purchase. Health insurance does not cover the treatment costs, but Layne said the business offers no-interest financing.

Layne, who previously completed several actual therapy sessions with Ross, said he no longer is lactose intolerant. Other patients boast even more dramatic results.

Nancy Bush, who attended the marketing event, said she sleeps better and is more clear-headed since multiple sessions with Ross in January. Abbie O’Toole, who admitted she was initially skeptical about the treatment, said she reduced the amount of bipolar medication she takes after completing six months of weekly sessions last year. “Everything he said made sense. He just explained it so I could understand it,” O’Toole said. “It’s so much better for your body not to have to put all that (medicine) in it. I hope I don’t have to rely on medication for my whole life. That was a big goal for me.”

O’Toole said Ross is a family friend and charged her $2,000, a discounted rate, for her sessions.

Customers are willing to pay the price because many of them are desperate for relief, Ross said.

“Typically, I’d say 99 percent of the time, as a chiropractor or someone in bioenergetics, like I am, people are going to come up with something. It has to be bad enough because they’re not saying, ‘You know, I feel great, but I have some extra time and money. What can you do for me?’ ” Ross said.

This is part of the problem with the type of therapy Ross offers, said Dr. Jack Eades, past president of the Southeastern Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Society.

“It’s easy to sell an idea to a patient because the patient wants to get better,” said Eades, based in Savannah. “People are generally gullible, unfortunately.”

Severe allergies cannot be treated with this technology, he said.

“Chiropractors try to morph into areas they’re not trained in,” said Eades, who does not know Ross and is not familiar with his practice. “Unfortunately, the larger context is ... when times are bad economically, you tend to have a lot more harlequins and charlatans come out of the woodwork. Medicine is not immune from that. It happens in all walks of life.”

Eades is hardly the first medical doctor to criticize Ross’ livelihood. Tensions have long existed between the two professions. In the 1960s the American Medical Association referred to chiropractors as “an unscientific cult” and established a “Committee on Quackery” to identify what it deemed unscientific practices.

In 1987, a group of chiropractors won a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the association and several other medical groups for intentionally trying to destroy and defame the profession.

Dr. John Overholt, an allergist based in Franklin, Tenn., is specifically critical of BioVeda, the company that manufactures the equipment that Ross uses at Beam.

“They are purposefully nebulous about what the machine does,” Overholt said. “There is absolutely no valid medical science behind this whatsoever. ... It’s completely bogus.”

The federal government is wary of exaggerated claims too. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical devices used in the U.S., sent BioVeda a warning letter ordering it to discontinue marketing one of its machines as a device to treat conditions including eczema, allergies, indigestion and more, because the device was never approved for those uses.

Though Ross uses BioVeda equipment, he is careful on Beam’s website to disclose that “Beam is not a medical clinic or facility. Beam does not diagnose or treat symptoms, conditions, illness or disease.”

Bruce Gwinnup, a local chiropractor and owner of Holistic Care of Charleston, invested in BioVeda technology this month for his own practice. Each machine can cost up to $20,000, he said.

For years, Gwinnup has offered his patients a manual method to scan for immune=system threats.

In his examination room, Gwinnup stores hundreds of small vials filled with distilled water and alcohol. Each vial is labeled with the substance it is intended to represent, like sugar, fungus, dairy and acne. Gwinnup said each one has been charged with that substance’s unique electronic frequency. He is able to gauge a patient’s reaction to that substance by testing his or her muscle strength while holding the vial.

For example, if a patient suffers an adverse or allergic reaction to mold, Gwinnup said the muscle strength in her extended left arm will falter when he applies pressure to it if she holds the clear vial labeled “mold” in her right hand.

“If we had eyes of a dog and could see infrared and ultraviolet, these vials would be pulsating with their particular energy colors, if you will,” Gwinnup said. “So what happens, when you get in proximity to the item that is in question — we’ll call it a cigarette, for example — you hold it, even though it’s through the glass vial, your body ... picks it up, transfers the energy through and it activates the inflammatory system. It says, ‘Uh oh. We’re getting close to trouble.’ ”

Using chiropractic and acupuncture techniques, Gwinnup said he can fix the body’s response.

“I check you against all the things you could potentially be reactive to and then we take the time afterwards to reverse your signal. We turn off the allergy response.”

Janet Howe of Hanahan said Gwinnup’s method helped her avoid a third miscarriage.

“After the first treatment, I felt like a different person,” said Howe, who sought treatment in 2000. “I had two miscarriages. I thought maybe I’m just not meant to have a baby. Then I got pregnant.” Her sons are now 10 and 12 years old.

Gwinnup and Ross each provided contact information for several patients who said their treatments are working. Beam’s website offers testimonials from six patients who have benefited from the therapy. Gwinnup collects testimonials from his patients and displays them in a binder in his waiting room.

Jeffrey Borckardt, director of the Division of Biobehavorial Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, is skeptical of the testimonials.

“It’s seems sketchy. ... You get a lot of testimonials, and you’ll often see those used in sales, but you don’t see those used in science,” Borckardt said.

Borckardt doubts that these treatments are effective beyond achieving a placebo response from patients.

“They are grasping at straws at that point, and here’s someone who says, ‘I have exactly what you need,’ ” he said.

“They say, ‘Oh, wow! That’s fancy.’ A lot of people get blinded by that and don’t bother to say show me the evidence. Show me the controlled clinical trials. Show me the reports,” he said.

“Much more work and scientific evidence is needed before this new therapy will be recognized as a viable treatment option by the scientific and medical community at large.”

Debby Orr, director of training for BioVeda, said there are no medical trials that have tested the company’s equipment.

“That costs hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Orr said. “People usually hear about it from word of mouth.”

Gwinnup said his patients are interested in hearing about results — the “sizzle,” he calls it — not lengthy scientific citations.

“I don’t want to know how the cow got slaughtered and put onto the grill. Just tell me how good it’s going to be,” he said.

For Ross, the results also speak for themselves.

“When so many things can go right, it’s really fun,” he said. “There’s no guarantee, but we always have happy patients.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.