The nation's top doctors have called for an end to government subsidies for children to receive unproven alternative medicine treatments.
The head of the Australian Medical Association said the government should stop funding chiropractic treatments, saying the growth in spending on children raises serious concerns.
Treating children with chiropractic treatments could put their lives at risk if heavy force is used in spinal manipulation, or if the treatment is adopted at the expense of traditional medicine, maternal and child health experts say.
Funding for chiropractic treatments for children aged up to 14 has increased by nearly 185 per cent in the past five years, Fairfax Media can reveal.
The biggest increase has been in girls aged up to four, where subsidies have jumped 300 per cent. It is part of a boom in government-funded alternative medicine treatments subsidised under the Medicare chronic disease scheme. In 2010, the government spent $10 million on chiropractors and osteopaths. By 2012, this had increased to $15 million.
Alastair MacLennan, an emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Adelaide, said it was appalling that chiropractors treat children.
"I absolutely believe it's child abuse," said Professor MacLennan, who is also the vice-president of Friends of Science in Medicine.
Chiropractic is based on the theory that all medical conditions can be cured by adjusting subluxations, or misalignments in the spine, which cannot be found on medical scans.
The Chiropractors Association of Australia says that subluxations can also be reductions in joint function such as stiffness that is not visible on scans, and that this can be linked to a range of health problems such as asthma and colic.
Professor MacLennan said it was particularly concerning that chiropractors were regularly claiming to be able to treat infections.
"If the child actually had a condition like meningitis that could delay things long enough and the child could die," he said.
People treated under the chronic disease program have been referred by GPs for long-term conditions such as asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions and stroke.
But the federal health department does not collect information about which conditions patients were treated for by chiropractors, as it is a clinical judgment that is left up to GPs.
AMA president Steve Hambleton said money for healthcare was scarce enough that it should not be used on unproven therapies.
"There are scarce resources, we don't have sufficient funds to provide everyone treatment," he said.
Dr Hambleton said he did not mind chiropractors treating adults with musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain.
"There is some evidence it can be of value there, and I'm not concerned if that [GP] is confident they are providing good care," he said. "But the fact that zero to four is a growth area raises very serious concerns".
National director of the Chiropractors Association of Australia Tony Croke said in the past 40 years no serious adverse health consequences of chiropractic had been recorded in a child.
He said chiropractors had five years of university training, and would not take on cases that required a doctor's care.
"Chiropractic doesn't treat anything, doing regular exercise doesn't treat anything, but they are all sensible things to do," he said. "It changes their health and it changes it positively."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Ageing said GPs use their professional skills and judgment to refer patients under the scheme.
''Between 2008 and 2012 chiropractic services provided to children under 14 represented about 1.5 per cent of all chiropractic services provided under the Chronic Disease Management arrangements,'' she said.
Treating children but not taking a crack at it
Janelle Meares always knows when her four-year-old son Riley's ''naughty bone'' is out.
But only hours after he sees his chiropractor, Tim*, ''he'll be back to the old Riley,'' she says.
Ms Meares takes Riley to his chiropractor for help with behavioural issues, although she first used the treatment for her children when her eldest daughter, Kaitlyn, was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies.
She and her husband had both seen chiropractors in the past, and when she read online that it could help with food allergies, she decided to take Kaitlyn along.
''It did improve her allergies but whether or not that is a coincidence I don't know,'' she said.
She believes it is wrong to say parents like her would take their children to a chiropractor instead of seeking medical treatment.
''I would always go to my GP first - not that I don't trust Tim, but at the end of the day Tim is a chiropractor, not a GP,'' she said.
''You want to make sure that your kids are fine and healthy, and [the treatment] is a real positive for Riley.'' She said she saw improvements in behaviour and sleep after her children saw the chiropractor. The visits are partly covered by private health insurance. But Ms Meares said she would not accept chiropractic treatment for her children that involved the physical cracking seen in some adult treatments.
Instead, Tim uses an Activator, a spring-loaded device that needs a very small amount of force.
''It's not any harder than you would press on your eyeball,'' Ms Meares said.
*The Chiropractors' Association does not allow chiropractors to be identified with their patients in the media.