In 1995, Dabbs and Lauretti reviewed the risks of cervical manipulation and compared them to those of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They concluded that the best evidence indicates that cervical manipulation for neck pain is much safer than the use of NSAIDs, by as much as a factor of several hundred times. This article must be amongst the most-quoted paper by chiropractors, and its conclusion has become somewhat of a chiropractic mantra which is being repeated ad nauseam. For instance, the American Chiropractic Association states that the risks associated with some of the most common treatments for musculoskeletal pain—over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and prescription painkillers—are significantly greater than those of chiropractic manipulation.
As far as I can see, no further comparative safety-analyses between cervical manipulation and NSAIDs have become available since this 1995 article. It would therefore be time, I think, to conduct new comparative safety and risk/benefit analyses aimed at updating our knowledge in this important area.
Meanwhile, I will attempt a quick assessment of the much-quoted paper by Dabbs and Lauretti with a view of checking how reliable its conclusions truly are.
The most obvious criticism of this article has already been mentioned: it is now 23 years old, and today we know much more about the risks and benefits of these two therapeutic approaches. This point alone should make responsible healthcare professionals think twice before promoting its conclusions.
Equally important is the fact that we still have no surveillance system to monitor the adverse events of spinal manipulation. Consequently, our data on this issue are woefully incomplete, and we have to rely mostly on case reports. Yet, most adverse events remain unpublished and under-reporting is therefore huge. We have shown that, in our UK survey, it amounted to exactly 100%.
To make matters worse, case reports were excluded from the analysis of Dabbs and Lauretti. In fact, they included only articles providing numerical estimates of risk (even reports that reported no adverse effects at all), the opinion of exerts, and a 1993 statistic from a malpractice insurer. None of these sources would lead to reliable incidence figures; they are thus no adequate basis for a comparative analysis.
In contrast, NSAIDs have long been subject to proper post-marketing surveillance systems generating realistic incidence figures of adverse effects which Dabbs and Lauretti were able to use. It is, however, important to note that the figures they did employ were not from patients using NSAIDs for neck pain. Instead they were from patients using NSAIDs for arthritis. Equally important is the fact that they refer to long-term use of NSAIDs, while cervical manipulation is rarely applied long-term. Therefore, the comparison of risks of these two approaches seems not valid.
Moreover, when comparing the risks between cervical manipulation and NSAIDs, Dabbs and Lauretti seemed to have used incidence per manipulation, while for NSAIDs the incidence figures were bases on events per patient using these drugs (the paper is not well-constructed and does not have a methods section; thus, it is often unclear what exactly the authors did investigate and how). Similarly, it remains unclear whether the NSAID-risk refers only to patients who had used the prescribed dose, or whether over-dosing (a phenomenon that surely is not uncommon with patients suffering from chronic arthritis pain) was included in the incidence figures.
It is worth mentioning that the article by Dabbs and Lauretti refers to neck pain only. Many chiropractors have in the past broadened its conclusions to mean that spinal manipulations or chiropractic care are safer than drugs. This is clearly not permissible without sound data to support such claims. As far as I can see, such data do not exist (if anyone knows of such evidence, I would be most thankful to let me see it).
To obtain a fair picture of the risks in a real life situation, one should perhaps also mention that chiropractors often fail to warn patients of the possibility of adverse effects. With NSAIDs, by contrast, patients have, at the very minimum, the drug information leaflets that do warn them of potential harm in full detail.
Finally, one could argue that the effectiveness and costs of the two therapies need careful consideration. The costs for most NSAIDs per day are certainly much lower than those for repeated sessions of manipulations. As to the effectiveness of the treatments, it is clear that NSAIDs do effectively alleviate pain, while the evidence seems far from being conclusively positive in the case of cervical manipulation.
In conclusion, the much-cited paper by Dabbs and Lauretti is out-dated, poor quality, and heavily biased. It provides no sound basis for an evidence-based judgement on the relative risks of cervical manipulation and NSAIDs. The notion that cervical manipulations are safer than NSAIDs is therefore not based on reliable data. Thus, it is misleading and irresponsible to repeat this claim.