The over-use of X-ray diagnostics by chiropractors has long been a concern (see for instance here,and here). As there is a paucity of reliable research on this issue, this new review is more than welcome.
It aimed to summarise the current evidence for the use of spinal X-ray in chiropractic practice, with consideration of the related risks and benefits. The authors, chiropractors from Australia and Canada who did a remarkable job in avoiding the term SUBLUXATION throughout the paper, showed that the proportion of patients receiving X-ray as a result of chiropractic consultation ranges from 8 to 84%. I find this range quite staggering and in need of an explanation.
The authors also stated that current evidence supports the use of spinal X-rays only in the diagnosis of trauma and spondyloarthropathy, and in the assessment of progressive spinal structural deformities such as adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. MRI is indicated to diagnose serious pathology such as cancer or infection, and to assess the need for surgical management in radiculopathy and spinal stenosis. Strong evidence demonstrates risks of imaging such as excessive radiation exposure, over-diagnosis, subsequent low-value investigation and treatment procedures, and increased costs. In most cases the potential benefits from routine imaging, including spinal X-rays, do not outweigh the potential harms. The authors state that the use of spinal X-rays should not be routinely performed in chiropractic practice, and should be guided by clinical guidelines and clinician judgement.
The problem, however, is that many chiropractors do not abide by those guidelines. The most recent data I am aware of suggests that only about half of them are even aware of radiographic guidelines for low back pain. The reasons given for obtaining spinal X-rays by chiropractors are varied and many are not supported by evidence of benefit. These include diagnosis of pathology or trauma; determination of treatment options; detection of contraindications to care; spinal biomechanical analysis; patient reassurance; and medicolegal reasons.
One may well ask why chiropractors over-use X-rays. The authors of the new paper provide the following explanations:
- lack of education,
- ownership of X-ray facilities,
- and preferred chiropractic technique modalities (i. e. treatment techniques which advocate the use of routine spinal X-rays to perform biomechanical analysis, direct appropriate treatment, and perform patient reassessment).
Crucially, the authors state that, based on the evidence, the use of X-ray imaging to diagnose benign spinal findings will not improve patient outcomes or safety. For care of non-specific back or neck pain, studies show no difference in treatment outcome when routine spinal X-rays have been used, compared to management without X-rays.
A common reason suggested by chiropractors for spinal X-ray imaging is to screen for anomalies or serious pathology that may contraindicate treatment that were otherwise unsuspected by the clinical presentation. While some cases of serious pathology, such as cancer and infection, may not initially present with definitive symptoms, X-ray assessment at this early stage of the disease process is also likely to be negative, and is not recommended as a screening tool.
The authors concluded that the use of spinal X-rays in chiropractic has been controversial, with benefits for the use of routine spinal X-rays being proposed by some elements of the profession. However, evidence of these postulated benefits is limited or non-existent. There is strong evidence to demonstrate potential harms associated with spinal X-rays including increased ionising radiation exposure, over-diagnosis, subsequent low-value investigation and treatment procedures, and increased unnecessary costs. Therefore, in the vast majority of cases who present to chiropractors, the potential benefit from spinal X-rays does not outweigh the potential harms. Spinal X-rays should not be performed as a routine part of chiropractic practice, and the decision to perform diagnostic imaging should be informed by evidence based clinical practice guidelines and clinician judgement.
So, if you consult a chiropractor – and I don’t quite see why you should – my advice would be not to agree to an X-ray.