The chiropractor Oakley Smith had graduated under D D Palmer in 1899. Smith was a former Iowa medical student who also had investigated Andrew Still’s osteopathy in Kirksville, before going to Palmer in Davenport. Eventually, Smith came to reject the Palmer concept of vertebral subluxation and developed his own concept of “the connective tissue doctrine” or naprapathy. Today, naprapathy is a popular form of manual therapy, particularly in Scandinavia and the US.
But what exactly is naprapathy? This website explains it quite well: Naprapathy is defined as a system of specific examination, diagnostics, manual treatment and rehabilitation of pain and dysfunction in the neuromusculoskeletal system. The therapy is aimed at restoring function through treatment of the connective tissue, muscle- and neural tissues within or surrounding the spine and other joints. Naprapathic treatment consists of combinations of manual techniques for instance spinal manipulation and mobilization, neural mobilization and Naprapathic soft tissue techniques, in additional to the manual techniques Naprapaths uses different types of electrotherapy, such as ultrasound, radial shockwave therapy and TENS. The manual techniques are often combined with advice regarding physical activity and ergonomics as well as medical rehabilitation training in order to decrease pain and disability and increase work ability and quality of life. A Dr. of Naprapathy is specialized in the diagnosis of structural and functional neuromusculoskeletal disorders, treatment and rehabilitation of patients with problems of such origin as well as to differentiate pain of other origin.
DOCTOR OF NAPRAPATHY? I hear you shout.
Yes, in the US, the title exists: The National College of Naprapathic Medicine is chartered by the State of Illinois and recognized by the State Board of Higher Education to grant the degree, Doctor of Naprapathy (D.N.). Graduates of the College are eligible to take the Naprapathic Medicine examination for licensure in the State of Illinois. The D.N. Degree requires:
- 66 hours – Basic Sciences
- 64 hours – Naprapathic Sciences
- 60 hours – Clinical Internship
Things become even stranger when we ask, what does the evidence show?
I found all of three clinical trials on Medline.
A 2016 clinical trial was designed to compare the treatment effect on pain intensity, pain related disability and perceived recovery from a) naprapathic manual therapy (spinal manipulation, spinal mobilization, stretching and massage) to b) naprapathic manual therapy without spinal manipulation and to c) naprapathic manual therapy without stretching for male and female patients seeking care for back and/or neck pain.
Participants were recruited among patients, ages 18-65, seeking care at the educational clinic of Naprapathögskolan – the Scandinavian College of Naprapathic Manual Medicine in Stockholm. The patients (n = 1057) were randomized to one of three treatment arms a) manual therapy (i.e. spinal manipulation, spinal mobilization, stretching and massage), b) manual therapy excluding spinal manipulation and c) manual therapy excluding stretching. The primary outcomes were minimal clinically important improvement in pain intensity and pain related disability. Treatments were provided by naprapath students in the seventh semester of eight total semesters. Generalized estimating equations and logistic regression were used to examine the association between the treatments and the outcomes.
At 12 weeks follow-up, 64% had a minimal clinically important improvement in pain intensity and 42% in pain related disability. The corresponding chances to be improved at the 52 weeks follow-up were 58% and 40% respectively. No systematic differences in effect when excluding spinal manipulation and stretching respectively from the treatment were found over 1 year follow-up, concerning minimal clinically important improvement in pain intensity (p = 0.41) and pain related disability (p = 0.85) and perceived recovery (p = 0.98). Neither were there disparities in effect when male and female patients were analyzed separately.
The authors concluded that the effect of manual therapy for male and female patients seeking care for neck and/or back pain at an educational clinic is similar regardless if spinal manipulation or if stretching is excluded from the treatment option.
Even though this study is touted as showing that naprapathy works by advocates, in all honesty, it tells us as good as nothing about the effect of naprapathy. The data are completely consistent with the interpretation that all of the outcomes were to the natural history of the conditions, regression towards the mean, placebo, etc. and entirely unrelated to any specific effects of naprapathy.
A 2010 study by the same group was to compare the long-term effects (up to one year) of naprapathic manual therapy and evidence-based advice on staying active regarding non-specific back and/or neck pain.
Subjects with non-specific pain/disability in the back and/or neck lasting for at least two weeks (n = 409), recruited at public companies in Sweden, were included in this pragmatic randomized controlled trial. The two interventions compared were naprapathic manual therapy such as spinal manipulation/mobilization, massage and stretching, (Index Group), and advice to stay active and on how to cope with pain, provided by a physician (Control Group). Pain intensity, disability and health status were measured by questionnaires.
89% completed the 26-week follow-up and 85% the 52-week follow-up. A higher proportion in the Index Group had a clinically important decrease in pain (risk difference (RD) = 21%, 95% CI: 10-30) and disability (RD = 11%, 95% CI: 4-22) at 26-week, as well as at 52-week follow-ups (pain: RD = 17%, 95% CI: 7-27 and disability: RD = 17%, 95% CI: 5-28). The differences between the groups in pain and disability considered over one year were statistically significant favoring naprapathy (p < or = 0.005). There were also significant differences in improvement in bodily pain and social function (subscales of SF-36 health status) favoring the Index Group.
The authors concluded that combined manual therapy, like naprapathy, is effective in the short and in the long term, and might be considered for patients with non-specific back and/or neck pain.
This study is hardly impressive either. The results are consistent with the interpretation that the extra attention and care given to the index group was the cause of the observed outcomes, unrelated to ant specific effects of naprapathy.
The last study was published in 2017 again by the same group. It was designed to compare naprapathic manual therapy with evidence-based care for back or neck pain regarding pain, disability, and perceived recovery.
Four hundred and nine patients with pain and disability in the back or neck lasting for at least 2 weeks, recruited at 2 large public companies in Sweden in 2005, were included in this randomized controlled trial. The 2 interventions were naprapathy, including spinal manipulation/mobilization, massage, and stretching (Index Group) and support and advice to stay active and how to cope with pain, according to the best scientific evidence available, provided by a physician (Control Group). Pain, disability, and perceived recovery were measured by questionnaires at baseline and after 3, 7, and 12 weeks.
At 7-week and 12-week follow-ups, statistically significant differences between the groups were found in all outcomes favoring the Index Group. At 12-week follow-up, a higher proportion in the naprapathy group had improved regarding pain [risk difference (RD)=27%, 95% confidence interval (CI): 17-37], disability (RD=18%, 95% CI: 7-28), and perceived recovery (RD=44%, 95% CI: 35-53). Separate analysis of neck pain and back pain patients showed similar results.
The authors thought that this trial suggests that combined manual therapy, like naprapathy, might be an alternative to consider for back and neck pain patients.
As the study suffers from the same limitations as the one above (in fact, it might be a different analysis of the same trial), they might be mistaken. I see no good reason to assume that any of the three studies provide good evidence for the effectiveness of naprapathy.
So, what should we conclude from all this?
If you ask me, naprapathy is something between chiropractic (without some of the woo) and physiotherapy (without its expertise). There is no good evidence that it works. Crucially, there is no evidence that it is superior to other therapeutic options.
I was going to finish on a positive note stating that ‘at least the ‘naprapathologists’ (I refuse to even consider the title of ‘doctor of naprapathy’) do not claim to treat conditions other than musculoskeletal problems’. But then I found this advertisement of a ‘naprapathologist’ on Twitter:
And now, I am going to finish by stating that A LOT OF NAPRAPATHY LOOKS VERY MUCH LIKE QUACKERY TO ME.