A multi-disciplinary research team assessed the effectiveness of interventions for acute and subacute non-specific low back pain (NS-LBP) based on pain and disability outcomes. For this purpose, they conducted a systematic review of the literature with network meta-analysis.
They included all 46 randomized clinical trials (RCTs) involving adults with NS-LBP who experienced pain for less than 6 weeks (acute) or between 6 and 12 weeks (subacute). Non-pharmacological treatments (eg, manual therapy) including acupuncture and dry needling or pharmacological treatments for improving pain and/or reducing disability considering any delivery parameters were included. The comparator had to be an inert treatment encompassing sham/placebo treatment or no treatment. The risk of bias was
- low in 9 trials (19.6%),
- unclear in 20 (43.5%),
- high in 17 (36.9%).
At immediate-term follow-up, for pain decrease, the most efficacious treatments against an inert therapy were:
- exercise (standardised mean difference (SMD) -1.40; 95% confidence interval (CI) -2.41 to -0.40),
- heat wrap (SMD -1.38; 95% CI -2.60 to -0.17),
- opioids (SMD -0.86; 95% CI -1.62 to -0.10),
- manual therapy (SMD -0.72; 95% CI -1.40 to -0.04).
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (SMD -0.53; 95% CI -0.97 to -0.09).
Similar findings were confirmed for disability reduction in non-pharmacological and pharmacological networks, including muscle relaxants (SMD -0.24; 95% CI -0.43 to -0.04). Mild or moderate adverse events were reported in the opioids (65.7%), NSAIDs (54.3%), and steroids (46.9%) trial arms.
The authors concluded that NS-LBP should be managed with non-pharmacological treatments which seem to mitigate pain and disability at immediate-term. Among pharmacological interventions, NSAIDs and muscle relaxants appear to offer the best harm-benefit balance.
The authors point out that previous published systematic reviews on spinal manipulation, exercise, and heat wrap did overlap with theirs: exercise (eg, motor control exercise, McKenzie exercise), heat wrap, and manual therapy (eg, spinal manipulation, mobilization, trigger points or any other technique) were found to reduce pain intensity and disability in adults with acute and subacute phases of NS-LBP.
I would add (as I have done so many times before) that the best approach must be the one that has the most favorable risk/benefit balance. Since spinal manipulation is burdened with considerable harm (as discussed so many times before), exercise and heat wraps seem to be preferable. Or, to put it bluntly: