Chiropractors and osteopaths have long tried to convince us that spinal manipulation and mobilisation are the best we can do when suffering from neck pain. But is this claim based on good evidence?
This recent update of a Cochrane review was aimed at assessing the effects of manipulation or mobilisation alone compared with those of an inactive control or another active treatment on pain, function, disability, patient satisfaction, quality of life and global perceived effect in adults experiencing neck pain with or without radicular symptoms and cervicogenic headache (CGH) at immediate- to long-term follow-up, and when appropriate, to assess the influence of treatment characteristics (i.e. technique, dosage), methodological quality, symptom duration and subtypes of neck disorder on treatment outcomes.
Review authors searched the following computerised databases to November 2014 to identify additional studies: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE and the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL). They also searched ClinicalTrials.gov, checked references, searched citations and contacted study authors to find relevant studies.
Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) undertaken to assess whether manipulation or mobilisation improves clinical outcomes for adults with acute/subacute/chronic neck pain were included in this assessment.
Two review authors independently selected studies, abstracted data, assessed risk of bias and applied Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) methods (very low, low, moderate, high quality). The authors calculated pooled risk ratios (RRs) and standardised mean differences (SMDs).
Fifty-one trials with a total of 2920 participants could be included. The findings are diverse. Cervical manipulation versus inactive control: For subacute and chronic neck pain, a single manipulation (three trials, no meta-analysis, 154 participants, ranged from very low to low quality) relieved pain at immediate- but not short-term follow-up. Cervical manipulation versus another active treatment: For acute and chronic neck pain, multiple sessions of cervical manipulation (two trials, 446 participants, ranged from moderate to high quality) produced similar changes in pain, function, quality of life (QoL), global perceived effect (GPE) and patient satisfaction when compared with multiple sessions of cervical mobilisation at immediate-, short- and intermediate-term follow-up. For acute and subacute neck pain, multiple sessions of cervical manipulation were more effective than certain medications in improving pain and function at immediate- (one trial, 182 participants, moderate quality) and long-term follow-up (one trial, 181 participants, moderate quality). These findings are consistent for function at intermediate-term follow-up (one trial, 182 participants, moderate quality). For chronic CGH, multiple sessions of cervical manipulation (two trials, 125 participants, low quality) may be more effective than massage in improving pain and function at short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple sessions of cervical manipulation (one trial, 65 participants, very low quality) may be favoured over transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for pain reduction at short-term follow-up. For acute neck pain, multiple sessions of cervical manipulation (one trial, 20 participants, very low quality) may be more effective than thoracic manipulation in improving pain and function at short/intermediate-term follow-up. Thoracic manipulation versus inactive control: Three trials (150 participants) using a single session were assessed at immediate-, short- and intermediate-term follow-up. At short-term follow-up, manipulation improved pain in participants with acute and subacute neck pain (five trials, 346 participants, moderate quality, pooled SMD -1.26, 95% confidence interval (CI) -1.86 to -0.66) and improved function (four trials, 258 participants, moderate quality, pooled SMD -1.40, 95% CI -2.24 to -0.55) in participants with acute and chronic neck pain. A funnel plot of these data suggests publication bias. These findings were consistent at intermediate follow-up for pain/function/quality of life (one trial, 111 participants, low quality). Thoracic manipulation versus another active treatment: No studies provided sufficient data for statistical analyses. A single session of thoracic manipulation (one trial, 100 participants, moderate quality) was comparable with thoracic mobilisation for pain relief at immediate-term follow-up for chronic neck pain. Mobilisation versus inactive control: Mobilisation as a stand-alone intervention (two trials, 57 participants, ranged from very low to low quality) may not reduce pain more than an inactive control. Mobilisation versus another active treatment: For acute and subacute neck pain, anterior-posterior mobilisation (one trial, 95 participants, very low quality) may favour pain reduction over rotatory or transverse mobilisations at immediate-term follow-up. For chronic CGH with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, multiple sessions of TMJ manual therapy (one trial, 38 participants, very low quality) may be more effective than cervical mobilisation in improving pain/function at immediate- and intermediate-term follow-up. For subacute and chronic neck pain, cervical mobilisation alone (four trials, 165 participants, ranged from low to very low quality) may not be different from ultrasound, TENS, acupuncture and massage in improving pain, function, QoL and participant satisfaction at immediate- and intermediate-term follow-up. Additionally, combining laser with manipulation may be superior to using manipulation or laser alone (one trial, 56 participants, very low quality).
Confused? So am I!
In my view, these analyses show that the quality of most studies is wanting and the evidence is weak – much weaker than chiropractors and osteopaths try to make us believe. It seems to me that no truly effective treatments for neck pain have been discovered and that therefore manipulation/mobilisation techniques are as good or as bad as most other options.
In such a situation, it might be prudent to first investigate the causes of neck pain in greater detail and subsequently determine the optimal therapies for each of them. Neck pain is a SYMPTOM, not a disease! And it is always best to treat the cause of a symptom rather than pretending we know the cause as chiropractors and osteopaths often do.
The authors of the Cochrane review seem to agree with this view at least to some extent. They conclude that although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and QoL, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse. Publication bias cannot be ruled out. Research designed to protect against various biases is needed. Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up. Since the risk of rare but serious adverse events for manipulation exists, further high-quality research focusing on mobilisation and comparing mobilisation or manipulation versus other treatment options is needed to guide clinicians in their optimal treatment choices.
The call for further research is, of course, of no help for patients who are suffering from neck pain today. What would I recommend to them?
My advice is to be cautious:
- Consult your doctor and try to get a detailed diagnosis.
- See a physiotherapist and ask to be shown exercises aimed at reducing the pain and preventing future episodes.
- Do these exercises regularly, even when you have no pain.
- Make sure you do whatever else might be needed in terms of life-style changes (ergonomic work place, correct sleeping arrangements, etc.).
- If you are keen on seeing an alternative practitioner for manual therapy, consult a osteopath rather than a chiropractor; the former tend to employ techniques which are less risky than the latter.
- Avoid both chiropractors and long-term medication for neck pain.