Much has been written on this blog and elsewhere about the risks of spinal manipulation. It relates almost exclusively to the risks of manipulating patients’ necks. There is far less on the safety of thrust joint manipulation (TJM) when applied to the thoracic spine. A new paper focusses on this specific topic.
The purpose of this review was to retrospectively analyse documented case reports in the literature describing patients who had experienced severe adverse events (AE) after receiving TJM to their thoracic spine.
Case reports published in peer reviewed journals were searched in Medline (using Ovid Technologies, Inc.), Science Direct, Web of Science, PEDro (Physiotherapy Evidence Database), Index of Chiropractic literature, AMED (Allied and Alternative Medicine Database), PubMed and the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health (CINHAL) from January 1950 to February 2015.
Case reports were included if they: (1) were peer-reviewed; (2) were published between 1950 and 2015; (3) provided case reports or case series; and (4) had TJM as an intervention. The authors only looked at serious complications, not at the much more frequent transient AEs after spinal manipulations. Articles were excluded if: (1) the AE occurred without TJM (e.g. spontaneous); (2) the article was a systematic or literature review; or (3) it was written in a language other than English or Spanish. Data extracted from each case report included: gender; age; who performed the TJM and why; presence of contraindications; the number of manipulation interventions performed; initial symptoms experienced after the TJM; as well as type of severe AE that resulted.
Ten cases, reported in 7 articles, were reviewed. Cases involved females (8) more than males (2), with mean age being 43.5 years. The most frequent AE reported was injury (mechanical or vascular) to the spinal cord (7/10); pneumothorax and hematothorax (2/10) and CSF leak secondary to dural sleeve injury (1/10) were also reported.
The authors point out that there were only a small number of case reports published in the literature and there may have been discrepancies between what was reported and what actually occurred, since physicians dealing with the effects of the AE, rather than the clinician performing the TJM, published the cases.
The authors concluded that serious AE do occur in the thoracic spine, most commonly, trauma to the spinal cord, followed by pneumothorax. This suggests that excessive peak forces may have been applied to thoracic spine, and it should serve as a cautionary note for clinicians to decrease these peak forces.
These are odd conclusions, in my view, and I think I ought to add a few points:
- As I stated above, the actual rate of experiencing AEs after having chiropractic spinal manipulations is much larger; it is around 50%.
- Most complications on record occur with chiropractors, while other professions are far less frequently implicated.
- The authors’ statement about ‘excessive peak force’ is purely speculative and is therefore not a legitimate conclusion.
- As the authors mention, it is hardly ever the chiropractor who reports a serious complication when it occurs.
- In fact, there is no functioning reporting scheme where the public might inform themselves about such complications.
- Therefore their true rate is anyone’s guess.
- As there is no good evidence that thoracic spinal manipulations are effective for any condition, the risk/benefit balance for this intervention fails to be positive.
- Many consumers believe that a chiropractor will only manipulate in the region where they feel pain; this is not necessarily true – they will manipulate where they believe to diagnose ‘SUBLUXATIONS’, and that can be anywhere.
- Finally, I would not call a review that excludes all languages other than English and Spanish ‘systematic’.
And my conclusion from all this? THORACIC SPINAL MANIPULATIONS CAN CAUSE CONSIDERABLE HARM AND SHOULD BE AVOIDED.