MD, PhD, MAE, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

back pain

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This double-blind, randomized study assessed the effectiveness of physiotherapy instrument mobilization (PIM) in patients with low back pain (LBP) and compared it with the effectiveness of manual mobilization.

Thirty-two participants with LBP were randomly assigned to one of two groups:

  • The PIM group received lumbar mobilization using an activator instrument, stabilization exercises, and education.
  • The manual group received lumbar mobilization using a pisiform grip, stabilization exercises, and education.

Both groups had 4 treatment sessions over 2-3 weeks. The following outcomes were measured before the intervention, and after the first and fourth sessions:

  • Numeric Pain Rating Scale (NPRS),
  • Oswestry Disability Index (ODI) scale,
  • Pressure pain threshold (PPT),
  • lumbar spine range of motion (ROM),
  • lumbar multifidus muscle activation.

There were no differences between the PIM and manual groups in any outcome measures. However, over the period of study, there were improvements in both groups in NPRS (PIM: 3.23, Manual: 3.64 points), ODI (PIM: 17.34%, Manual: 14.23%), PPT (PIM: ⩽ 1.25, Manual: ⩽ 0.85 kg.cm2), lumbar spine ROM (PIM: ⩽ 9.49∘, Manual: ⩽ 0.88∘), and/or lumbar multifidus muscle activation (percentage thickness change: PIM: ⩽ 4.71, Manual: ⩽ 4.74 cm; activation ratio: PIM: ⩽ 1.17, Manual: ⩽ 1.15 cm).

The authors concluded that both methods of lumbar spine mobilization demonstrated comparable improvements in pain and disability in patients with LBP, with neither method exhibiting superiority over the other.

If this conclusion is meant to tell us that both treatments were equally effective, I beg to differ. The improvements documented here are consistent with improvements caused by the natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean, and placebo effects. The data do not prove that they are due to the treatments. On the contrary, they seem to imply that patients get better no matter what therapy is used. Thus, I feel that the results are entirely in keeping with the hypothesis that spinal mobilization is a placebo treatment.

So, allow me to re-phrase the authors’ conclusion as follows:

Lumbar mobilizations do not seem to have specific therapeutic effects and might therefore be considered to be ineffective for LBP.

This systematic review, meta-analysis, and meta-regression investigated the effects of individualized interventions, based on exercise alone or combined with psychological treatment, on pain intensity and disability in patients with chronic non-specific low-back pain.

Databases were searched up to January 31, 2022, to retrieve respective randomized clinical trials of individualized and/or personalized and/or stratified exercise interventions with or without psychological treatment compared to any control.

The findings show:

  • Fifty-eight studies (n = 10084) were included. At short-term follow-up (12 weeks), low-certainty evidence for pain intensity (SMD -0.28 [95%CI -0.42 to -0.14]) and very low-certainty evidence for disability (-0.17 [-0.31 to -0.02]) indicates superior effects of individualized versus active exercises, and very low-certainty evidence for pain intensity (-0.40; [-0.58 to -0.22])), but not (low-certainty evidence) for disability (-0.18; [-0.22 to 0.01]) compared to passive controls.
  • At long-term follow-up (1 year), moderate-certainty evidence for pain intensity (-0.14 [-0.22 to -0.07]) and disability (-0.20 [-0.30 to -0.10]) indicates effects versus passive controls.

Sensitivity analyses indicate that the effects on pain, but not on disability (always short-term and versus active treatments) were robust. Pain reduction caused by individualized exercise treatments in combination with psychological interventions (in particular behavioral-cognitive therapies) (-0.28 [-0.42 to -0.14], low certainty) is of clinical importance.

The certainty of the evidence was downgraded mainly due to evidence of risk of bias, publication bias, and inconsistency that could not be explained. Individualized exercise can treat pain and disability in chronic non-specific low-back pain. The effects in the short term are of clinical importance (relative differences versus active 38% and versus passive interventions 77%), especially in regard to the little extra effort to individualize exercise. Sub-group analysis suggests a combination of individualized exercise (especially motor-control-based treatments) with behavioral therapy interventions to boost effects.

The authors concluded that the relative benefit of individualized exercise therapy on chronic low back pain compared to other active treatments is approximately 38% which is of clinical importance. Still, sustainability of effects (> 12 months) is doubtable. As individualization in exercise therapies is easy to implement, its use should be considered.

Johannes Fleckenstein, the 1st author from the Goethe-University Frankfurt, Institute of Sports Sciences, Department of Sports Medicine and Exercise Physiology, sees in the study “an urgent health policy appeal” to strengthen combined services in care and remuneration. “Compared to other countries, such as the USA, we are in a relatively good position in Germany. For example, we have a lower prescription of strong narcotics such as opiates. But the rate of unnecessary X-ray examinations, which incidentally can also contribute to the chronicity of pain, or inaccurate surgical indications is still very high.”

Personally, I find the findings of this paper rather unsurprising. As a clinician, many years ago, prescribing exercise therapy for low back pain was my daily bread. None of my team would have ever conceived the idea that exercise does not need to be individualized according to the needs and capabilities of each patient. Therefore, I suggest rephrasing the last sentence of the conclusion: As individualization in exercise therapies is easy to implement, its use should be standard procedure.

 

This study described osteopathic practise activity, scope of practice and the osteopathic patient profile in order to understand the role osteopathy plays within the United Kingdom’s (UK) health system a decade after the authors’ previous survey.

The researchers used a retrospective questionnaire survey design to ask about osteopathic practice and audit patient case notes. All UK-registered osteopaths were invited to participate in the survey. The survey was conducted using a web-based system. Each participating osteopath was asked about themselves, and their practice and asked to randomly select and extract data from up to 8 random new patient health records during 2018. All patient-related data were anonymized.

The survey response rate was 500 osteopaths (9.4% of the profession) who provided information about 395 patients and 2,215 consultations. Most osteopaths were:

  • self-employed (81.1%; 344/424 responses),
  • working alone either exclusively or often (63.9%; 237/371),
  • able to offer 48.6% of patients an appointment within 3 days (184/379).

Patient ages ranged from 1 month to 96 years (mean 44.7 years, Std Dev. 21.5), of these 58.4% (227/389) were female. Infants <1 years old represented 4.8% (18/379) of patients. The majority of patients presented with musculoskeletal complaints (81.0%; 306/378) followed by pediatric conditions (5%). Persistent complaints (present for more than 12 weeks before the appointment) were the most common (67.9%; 256/377) and 41.7% (156/374) of patients had co-existing medical conditions.

The most common treatment approaches used at the first appointment were:

  • soft-tissue techniques (73.9%; 292/395),
  • articulatory techniques (69.4%; 274/395),
  • high-velocity low-amplitude thrust (34.4%; 136/395),
  • cranial techniques (23%).

The mean number of treatments per patient was 7 (mode 4). Osteopaths’ referral to other healthcare practitioners amounted to:

  • GPs 29%
  • Other complementary therapists 21%
  • Other osteopaths 18%

The authors concluded that osteopaths predominantly provide care of musculoskeletal conditions, typically in private practice. To better understand the role of osteopathy in UK health service delivery, the profession needs to do more research with patients in order to understand their needs and their expected outcomes of care, and for this to inform osteopathic practice and education.

What can we conclude from a survey that has a 9% response rate?

Nothing!

If I ignore this fact, do I find anything of interest here?

Not a lot!

Perhaps just three points:

  1. Osteopaths use high-velocity low-amplitude thrusts, the type of manipulation that has most frequently been associated with serious complications, too frequently.
  2. They also employ cranial osteopathy, which is probably the least plausible technique in their repertoire, too often.
  3. They refer patients too frequently to other SCAM practitioners and too rarely to GPs.

To come back to the question asked in the title of this post: What do UK osteopaths do? My answer is

ALMOST NOTHING THAT MIGHT BE USEFUL.

England’s record goalscorer Ellen White has revealed she suffered a punctured lung while receiving acupuncture treatment. The injury accelerated her decision to retire. White, 33, said she was still coming to terms with the “traumatic” injury.

Manchester City had sourced a “specialist” – evidently not such an excellent acupuncturist because the complication is avoidable with proper knowledge of anatomy – outside the club to provide her with acupuncture to treat her back problem because of a high number of injuries in the squad at the time. “If you’d said to me two or three years ago that you’re going to retire, I would have said ‘absolutely not’, but I’ve got to a time in my career,” she said. “I had a challenging time last year – coming back from the Olympics, I basically punctured my lung, and it was a lot for me to have to go through and a big reason that accelerated my want to retire.”

The injury happened when she returned to her club with a back spasm last summer. “It punctured my lung which isn’t something that happens normally, obviously,” she said. “It was a really traumatic time for me and something that I’m still figuring out now, still working through. I had to wait for the lung to basically inflate again. I had a needle put into my chest to drag all the air out then hopefully the lung would inflate again – which it has. At the time, I think for me, I just got into a zone of: ‘I need to get back playing. We’ve got these games – I want to be back playing for my club; I want to be back playing for England. I went very tunnel vision,” she said. “It wasn’t until a good two or three months later, it just hit me like a train, what actually happened and how traumatic it was.”

Despite her quick return to goalscoring form, which included becoming the Lionesses record goalscorer in November, the striker says she is still affected by the injury and suffers “phantom pain” where it feels like it is happening again. “It’s important for me now to tell my story, and say it was a big factor in my year and leading up to the decision of wanting to retire. Obviously, there are other factors that come into that as well. I don’t want it to happen to anybody else again is my main thing. I don’t want to walk away from the sport having not told it and not say that I want things in place for it not to happen to anyone else.”

______________________________

Pneumothorax is by far the most common of all the serious, potentially fatal complications caused by acupuncture. In thin individuals, several acupuncture points over the upper thorax are just a few centimeters away from the lung. Therefore, it is easily possible to puncture a lung by inserting an acupuncture needle. This is from my 2010 review of the subject:

About 90 deaths after acupuncture have been anecdotally documented in the medical literature. Thus, acupuncture has been associated with more deaths than most other ‘alternative’ therapies except herbal medicine … The fatalities are usually due to an acupuncture needle penetrating a vital organ. This, in turn, can cause pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, or major haemorrhage. Most instances of this nature are reported in the Asian literature which, for most of us, is not easily accessible.

A 2013 review of ours located 1104 cases that had been reported in the Korean literature alone. However, the truth of the matter is that nobody can be sure of the exact incidence figures. Why? Because there is no monitoring system that would reliably record such incidences.

I would argue that every single case of acupuncture-induced pneumothorax tells us that the acupuncturist was not adequately trained. With proper knowledge of anatomy, such complications should not happen. Therefore, such instances are a rude reminder that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is far too often in the hands of “specialists” who are a danger to the public.

Trevor Zierke is a D.C. who published several videos that have gone viral after saying that “literally 99% of my profession” is a scam. “When I say almost all the usual lines chiropractors tell you are lies, I mean almost all of them,” he stated. Zierke then went on to give examples of issues chiropractors allegedly make up, including someone’s spine being “misaligned,” tension on nerves causing health problems, and someone having back pain because their hips are off-center. “Almost all of these aren’t true,” he concluded.

In a follow-up video, he claimed that the reasons most people are told they need to go to a chiropractor are “overblown or just flat out lies proven wrong by research.” He also noted that, while there are many scams, that “doesn’t mean you can’t get help from a chiropractor.”

In a third TikTok video, Zierke offered some valid reasons to see a chiropractor. He said that one can seek help from a chiropractor if one has musculoskeletal pain that has been ongoing for more than one to two days, and that’s about it. He stated that issues that a chiropractor couldn’t really fix include “GI pain, hormonal issues, nutrition,” among others.

In comments, users were largely supportive of Zierke’s message.

One said: “As a physiotherapist, I’ve been trying to tell this but I don’t want to like offend any chiropractor in doing so,” a commenter shared.

“Working in a chiropractic office, this is fair,” a further user wrote. “I have issues that I know an adjustment will help & other pain that would be better stretched/released.”

In an email, Zierke reiterated the intention of his videos: “I would just like to clarify that chiropractors, in general, are not a scam or are inherently scammers (I myself am a practicing chiropractor), but rather a lot of very popular sales tactics, phrases, and wording used to imply patients need treatment, and methods of treatment, have never been proven to be true,” he explained. “When chiropractors say & use these methods stating things that are not factually true—I believe it’s scammy behavior and practices. There are still a lot of very good, honest, and integral chiropractors out there,” he concluded. “They can provide a lot of help and relief to patients. But that’s unfortunately not the majority, and I’ve heard too many stories of people falling victim to some of these scam-like tactics from bad apple chiropractors.”

None of what DC Zierke said can surprise those who have been following my blog. On the contrary, I could add a few recent posts to his criticism of chiropractic, for example:

I rest my case.

Chiropractors often refer their patients for full-length (three- to four-region) radiographs of the spine as part of their clinical assessment, which are frequently completed by radiographers in medical imaging practices. Overuse of spinal radiography by chiropractors has previously been reported and remains a contentious issue.

The purpose of this scoping review was to explore the issues surrounding the utilization of full-length spinal radiography by chiropractors and examine the alignment of this practice with current evidence.

A search of four databases (AMED, EMBASE, MedLine and Scopus) and a hand search of Google was conducted. Articles were screened against an inclusion/exclusion criterion for relevance. Themes and findings were extracted from eligible articles, and evidence was synthesized using a narrative approach.

In total, 25 articles were identified, five major themes were extracted, and subsequent conclusions drawn by authors were charted to identify confluent findings:

  • (1) The historical integration of FLS radiography in chiropractic,
  • (2) Clinical indications for FLS radiography in chiropractic,
  • (3) Risks associated with FLS radiography,
  • (4) Chiropractic techniques which prescribe the use of FLS radiography,
  • (5) Current trends in the utilisation of FLS radiography in chiropractic.

This review identified a paucity of literature addressing this issue and an underrepresentation of relevant perspectives from radiographers. Several issues surrounding the use of full-length spinal radiography by chiropractors were identified and examined, including barriers to the adherence to published guidelines for spinal imaging, an absence of a reporting mechanism for the utilization of spinal radiography in chiropractic and the existence of a spectrum of beliefs amongst chiropractors about the clinical utility and limitations of full-length spinal radiography.

The authors concluded that this review has identified a scarcity of literature addressing the completion of chiropractor‐referred FLS X‐rays. Our review has outlined several pressing issues that warrant further investigation including a lack of quantitative measures to assess the utilisation of FLS X‐rays by chiropractors, a lack of consensus of what constitutes appropriate clinical justification for imaging and the existence of a spectrum of beliefs amongst chiropractic authors about the clinical utility and limitations of FLS radiography. This provides radiographers with a definitive opportunity to demonstrate clinical leadership in this space and seek to begin a constructive dialogue with chiropractic referrers about the risks associated with unnecessary or unjustified spinal radiography. In doing this, diagnostic radiographers as evidence‐based health practitioners can actively contribute to the conversation surrounding the issues identified by this study and can be better positioned to advocate for the interests of the discipline and the safety of their patients.

The authors of this review make a number of further relevant points:

  • Between 2014 and 2015, approximately 130,000 three‐ to four‐region spinal X‐rays were performed in Australia. Most were requested by chiropractors.
  • In Australia, chiropractors often request FLS X‐ray examinations by radiographers.
  • A spectrum of beliefs and knowledge exists amongst chiropractic practitioners surrounding the appropriate use of FLS radiography which may not always align with the principles of evidence‐based practice.
  • The risks associated with the overutilization of diagnostic imaging are well documented. Aside from the inherent risks of unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation, increased reliance on diagnostic imaging by any practitioner in the absence of sufficient clinical justification increases economic burdens encumbered upon the health care system. As such, FLS radiography should be used judiciously to ensure risks associated with its use are minimized, thus ensuring that it remains available to chiropractors and other practitioners where its use is clinically justified.
  • Imaging that is not clinically indicated also carries a risk of overdiagnosis that being the radiological diagnosis of disease which does not ultimately impact on a patient’s course of treatment.
  • The use of FLS radiography by chiropractors for the detection of red flags in the absence of any significant clinical indications for imaging could be considered a practice that carries a high risk of overdiagnosis.

When I first raised the issue of chiropractic overuse of imaging in 1998, I got fiercely attacked by a gang of chiros. Each time hence that I mention the subject, chiros loudly protest, and I do, of course, understand why. Imaging gives chiros the flair of being ‘cutting edge’; more importantly, in most countries, it is an easy source of additional income.

So, I do not expect that things will be different this time. Yet, I feel that, instead of constantly trying to shoot the messenger, chiropractors might be well advised to consider the message.

 

The purpose of this study was to examine the trends in the expenditure and utilization of chiropractic care in a representative sample of children and adolescents in the United States (US) aged <18 years.

The researchers evaluated serial cross-sectional data (2007-2016) from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. Weighted descriptive statistics were conducted to derive national estimates of expenditure and utilization, and linear regression was used to determine trends over time. Sociodemographic and clinical characteristics of chiropractic users were also reported.

A statistically significant increasing trend was observed for the number of children receiving chiropractic care (P <.05) and chiropractic utilization rate (P < .05). Increases in chiropractic expenditure and the number of chiropractic visits were also observed over time but were not statistically significant (P > .05). The mean annual number of visits was 6.4 visits, with a mean expenditure of $71.49 US dollars (USD) per visit and $454.08 USD per child. Children and adolescent chiropractic users in the United States were primarily 14 to 17 years old (39.6%-61.6%), White (71.5%-76.9%), male (50.6%-51.3%), and privately insured (56.7%-60.8%). Chiropractic visits in this population primarily involved low back conditions (52.4%), spinal curvature (14.0%), and head and neck complaints (12.8%).

The authors concluded that the number of children visiting a chiropractor and percent utilization showed a statistically significant, increasing trend from 2007 to 2016; however, total expenditure and the number of chiropractic visits did not significantly differ during this period. These findings provide novel insight into the patterns of chiropractic utilization in this understudied age group.

Why are these numbers increasing?

Is it because of increasing and sound evidence showing that chiropractors do more good than harm to kids?

No!

A recent systematic review of the evidence for effectiveness and harms of specific spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) techniques for infants, and children suggests the opposite.

Its authors searched electronic databases up to December 2017. Controlled studies, describing primary SMT treatment in infants (<1 year) and children/adolescents (1–18 years), were included to determine effectiveness. Controlled and observational studies and case reports were included to examine harms. One author screened titles and abstracts and two authors independently screened the full text of potentially eligible studies for inclusion. Two authors assessed the risk of bias in included studies and the quality of the body of evidence using the GRADE methodology. Data were described according to PRISMA guidelines and CONSORT and TIDieR checklists. If appropriate, a random-effects meta-analysis was performed.

Of the 1,236 identified papers, 26 studies were eligible. In all but 3 studies, the therapists were chiropractors. Infants and children/adolescents were treated for various (non-)musculoskeletal indications, hypothesized to be related to spinal joint dysfunction. Studies examining the same population, indication, and treatment comparison were scarce. Due to very low-quality evidence, it is uncertain whether gentle, low-velocity mobilizations reduce complaints in infants with colic or torticollis, and whether high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulations reduce complaints in children/adolescents with autism, asthma, nocturnal enuresis, headache or idiopathic scoliosis. Five case reports described severe harms after HVLA manipulations in 4 infants and one child. Mild, transient harms were reported after gentle spinal mobilizations in infants and children and could be interpreted as a side effect of treatment.

The authors concluded that, based on GRADE methodology, we found the evidence was of very low quality; this prevented us from drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of specific SMT techniques in infants, children and adolescents. Outcomes in the included studies were mostly parent or patient-reported; studies did not report on intermediate outcomes to assess the effectiveness of SMT techniques in relation to the hypothesized spinal dysfunction. Severe harms were relatively scarce, poorly described and likely to be associated with underlying missed pathology. Gentle, low-velocity spinal mobilizations seem to be a safe treatment technique in infants, children and adolescents. We encourage future research to describe effectiveness and safety of specific SMT techniques instead of SMT as a general treatment approach.

But chiros do more than just SMT, I hear some say.

Yes, they do!

But they nevertheless manipulate virtually every patient, and the additional treatments they use are merely borrowed from other disciplines.

So, why are the numbers increasing then?

I suggest this as a main reason:

chiropractors are systematically misleading the public about the value of their trade.

Many systematic reviews have summarized the evidence on spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) for low back pain (LBP) in adults. Much less is known about the older population regarding the effects of SMT. This paper assessed the effects of SMT on pain and function in older adults with chronic LBP in an individual participant data (IPD) meta-analysis.

Electronic databases were searched from 2000 until June 2020; reference lists of eligible trials and related reviews were also searched. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were considered if they examined the effects of SMT in adults with chronic LBP compared to interventions recommended in international LBP guidelines. The authors of trials eligible for the IPD meta-analysis were contacted and invited to share data. Two review authors conducted a risk of bias assessment. Primary results were examined in a one-stage mixed model, and a two-stage analysis was conducted in order to confirm the findings. The main outcomes and measures were pain and functional status examined at 4, 13, 26, and 52 weeks.

A total of 10 studies were retrieved, including 786 individuals; 261 were between 65 and 91 years of age. There was moderate-quality evidence that SMT results in similar outcomes at 4 weeks (pain: mean difference [MD] – 2.56, 95% confidence interval [CI] – 5.78 to 0.66; functional status: standardized mean difference [SMD] – 0.18, 95% CI – 0.41 to 0.05). Second-stage and sensitivity analysis confirmed these findings.

The authors concluded that SMT provides similar outcomes to recommended interventions for pain and functional status in the older adult with chronic LBP. SMT should be considered a treatment for this patient population.

This is a fine analysis. Unfortunately, its results are less than fine. Its results confirm what I have been saying ad nauseam: we do not currently have a truly effective therapy for back pain, and most options are as good or as bad as the rest. This is most frustrating for everyone concerned, but it is certainly no reason to promote SMT as usually done by chiropractors or osteopaths.

The only logical solution, in my view, is to use those options that:

  • are associated with the least risks,
  • are the least expensive,
  • are widely available.

However you twist and turn the existing evidence, the application of these criteria does not come up with chiropractic or osteopathy as an optimal solution. The best treatment is therapeutic exercise initially taught by a physiotherapist and subsequently performed as a long-term self-treatment by the patient at home.

 

Naprapathy is an odd variation of chiropractic. To be precise, it has been defined as a system of specific examination, diagnostics, manual treatment, and rehabilitation of pain and dysfunction in the neuromusculoskeletal system. It is aimed at restoring the function of the connective tissue, muscle- and neural tissues within or surrounding the spine and other joints. The evidence that it works is wafer-thin. Therefore rigorous studies are of interest.

The aim of this study was to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of manual therapy compared with advice to stay active for working-age persons with nonspecific back and/or neck pain.

The two interventions were:

  • a maximum of 6 manual therapy sessions within 6 weeks, including spinal manipulation/mobilization, massage, and stretching, performed by a naprapath (index group),
  • information from a physician on the importance to stay active and on how to cope with pain, according to evidence-based advice, on 2 occasions within 3 weeks (control group).

A cost-effectiveness analysis with a societal perspective was performed alongside a randomized controlled trial including 409 persons followed for one year, in 2005. The outcomes were health-related Quality of Life (QoL) encoded from the SF-36 and pain intensity. Direct and indirect costs were calculated based on intervention and medication costs and sickness absence data. An incremental cost per health-related QoL was calculated, and sensitivity analyses were performed.

The difference in QoL gains was 0.007 (95% CI – 0.010 to 0.023) and the mean improvement in pain intensity was 0.6 (95% CI 0.068-1.065) in favor of manual therapy after one year. Concerning the QoL outcome, the differences in mean cost per person were estimated at – 437 EUR (95% CI – 1302 to 371) and for the pain outcome the difference was – 635 EUR (95% CI – 1587 to 246) in favor of manual therapy. The results indicate that manual therapy achieves better outcomes at lower costs compared with advice to stay active. The sensitivity analyses were consistent with the main results.

Cost-effectiveness plane using bootstrapped incremental cost-effectiveness ratios for QoL and pain intensity outcomes

The authors concluded that these results indicate that manual therapy for nonspecific back and/or neck pain is slightly less costly and more beneficial than advice to stay active for this sample of working age persons. Since manual therapy treatment is at least as cost-effective as evidence-based advice from a physician, it may be recommended for neck and low back pain. Further health economic studies that may confirm those findings are warranted.

This is an interesting and well-conducted study. The differences between the groups seem small and of doubtful relevance. The authors acknowledge this fact by stating: “together with the clinical results from previously published studies on the same population the results suggest that manual therapy may be as cost-effective a treatment as evidence-based advice from a physician, for back and neck pain”. Moreover, the data do not convince me that the treatment per se was effective; it might have been the non-specific effects of touch and attention.

I have said it before: there is currently no optimal treatment for neck and back pain. Therefore, the findings even of rigorous cost-effectiveness studies will only generate lukewarm results.

Practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) often argue against treating back problems with drugs. They also frequently defend their own therapy by claiming it is backed by published guidelines. So, what should we think about guidelines for the management of back pain?

This systematic review was aimed at:

  1. systematically evaluating the literature for clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) that included the pharmaceutical management of non-specific LBP;
  2. appraising the methodological quality of the CPGs;
  3. qualitatively synthesizing the recommendations with the intent to inform non-prescribing providers who manage LBP.

The authors searched PubMed, Cochrane Database of Systematic Review, Index to Chiropractic Literature, AMED, CINAHL, and PEDro to identify CPGs that described the management of mechanical LBP in the prior five years. Two investigators independently screened titles and abstracts and potentially relevant full text were considered for eligibility. Four investigators independently applied the Appraisal of Guidelines for Research and Evaluation (AGREE) II instrument for critical appraisal. Data were extracted for pharmaceutical intervention, the strength of recommendation, and appropriateness for the duration of LBP.

Only nine guidelines with global representation met the eligibility criteria. These CPGs addressed pharmacological treatments with or without non-pharmacological treatments. All CPGs focused on the management of acute, chronic, or unspecified duration of LBP. The mean overall AGREE II score was 89.3% (SD 3.5%). The lowest domain mean score was for applicability, 80.4% (SD 5.2%), and the highest was Scope and Purpose, 94.0% (SD 2.4%). There were ten classifications of medications described in the included CPGs: acetaminophen, antibiotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, oral corticosteroids, skeletal muscle relaxants (SMRs), and atypical opioids.

The authors concluded that nine CPGs, included ten medication classes for the management of LBP. NSAIDs were the most frequently recommended medication for the treatment of both acute and chronic LBP as a first line pharmacological therapy. Acetaminophen and SMRs were inconsistently recommended for acute LBP. Meanwhile, with less consensus among CPGs, acetaminophen and antidepressants were proposed as second-choice therapies for chronic LBP. There was significant heterogeneity of recommendations within many medication classes, although oral corticosteroids, benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, and antibiotics were not recommended by any CPGs for acute or chronic LBP.

Oddly, this review was published by chiros in a chiro journal. The authors mention that nearly all guidelines the included CPGs recommended non-pharmacological treatments for non-specific LBP, however it was not always delineated as to precede or be used in conjunction with pharmacological intervention.

I find the review interesting because I think it suggests that:

  1. CPGs are not the most reliable form of evidence. Their guidance depends on how up-to-date they are and on the identity and purpose of the authors.
  2. Guidelines are therefore often contradictory.
  3. Back pain is a symptom for which currently no optimal treatment exists.
  4. The most reliable evidence will rarely come from CPGs but from rigorous, up-to-date, independent systematic reviews such as those from the Cochrane Collaboration.

So, the next time chiropractors osteopaths, acupuncturists, etc. tell you “BUT MY THERAPY IS RECOMMENDED IN THE GUIDELINES”, please take it with a pinch of salt.

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