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

musculoskeletal problems

1 2 3 5

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.

The aim of this evaluator-blinded randomized clinical trial was to determine if manual therapy added to a therapeutic exercise program produced greater improvements than a sham manual therapy added to the same exercise program in patients with non-specific shoulder pain.

Forty-five subjects were randomly allocated into one of three groups:

  • manual therapy (glenohumeral mobilization technique and rib-cage technique);
  • thoracic sham manual therapy (glenohumeral mobilization technique and rib-cage sham technique);
  • sham manual therapy (sham glenohumeral mobilization technique and rib-cage sham technique).

All groups also received a therapeutic exercise program. Pain intensity, disability, and pain-free active shoulder range of motion were measured post-treatment and at 4-week and 12-week follow-ups. Mixed-model analyses of variance and post hoc pairwise comparisons with Bonferroni corrections were constructed for the analysis of the outcome measures.

All groups reported improved pain intensity, disability, and pain-free active shoulder range of motion. However, there were no between-group differences in these outcome measures.

The authors concluded that the addition of the manual therapy techniques applied in the present study to a therapeutic exercise protocol did not seem to add benefits to the management of subjects with non-specific shoulder pain.

What does that mean?

I think it means that the improvements observed in this study were due to 1) exercise and 2) a range of non-specific effects, and that they were not due to the manual techniques tested.

I cannot say that I find this enormously surprising. But I would also find it unsurprising if fans of these methods would claim that the results show that the physios applied the techniques not correctly.

In any case, I feel this is an interesting study, not least because of its use of sham therapy. But I somehow doubt that the patients were unable to distinguish sham from verum. If so, the study was not patient-blind which obviously is difficult to achieve with manual treatments.

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.

 

Osteopathy is becoming under increasing criticism – not just in the UK but also in other countries. Here are the summary points from a very good overview from Canada:

– Osteopathy is based on the belief that illness comes from the impaired movement of muscles, bones, and their connecting structures, and that an osteopath can restore proper movement using their hands
– Offshoots of osteopathy include visceral osteopathy and craniosacral osteopathy, which make extraordinary claims that are not backed up by good evidence
– There is an absence of good quality evidence to support the use of osteopathy to address musculoskeletal issues
– Osteopathy has been reformed in the United States, with osteopathic physicians receiving training comparable to medical doctors and few of them regularly using osteopathic manual manipulations

An article from Germany is equally skeptical. Here is my translation of an excerpt from a recent article:

When asked which studies prove the effectiveness, the VOD kindly and convincingly handed the author of this article a list of about 20 studies. And emphasized that these were listed in Medline, i.e. a recognized medical database. But a close examination of the studies reveals: Almost without exception, all of them qualify their results and point to uncertainties.
The treatment is “possibly helpful,” for example, they say, the study quality is “very low,” “low” to “moderate,” there are too few studies, they are small, the “evidence is preliminary” and “insufficient to draw definitive conclusions. Again and again it is emphasized that further, methodically better, more sustainable studies are needed, which also record more precisely what happened in osteopathic treatment in the first place.

Another article was published by myself in ‘L’Express’. As it is in French, I translated the conclusion for you:

… would I recommend consulting an osteopath? My answer is a carefully considered NO! For patients with back pain, the evidence is as good (or bad, depending on your point of view) as for many other proposed therapies. So if a patient insists on osteopathy, I might support it, but I would still prefer physical therapy. For all other musculoskeletal conditions, there is not enough evidence to make positive recommendations. For patients with conditions other than musculoskeletal, I would advise against osteopathy.

All this comes after it has been shown that worldwide research into osteopathy is scarce and has hardly any impact at all. The question we should therefore ask is this:

why do we need osteopaths?

PS

Osteopaths in the US have studied medicine, rarely practice manual treatments, and are almost indistinguishable from MDs. Everywhere else, osteopaths are practitioners of so-called alternative medicine.

Sixty thousand people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) each year, making it the second most common neurodegenerative disorder. PD results in a variety of gait disturbances, including muscular rigidity and decreased range of motion (ROM), that increase the fall risk of those afflicted. Osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) might address the somatic dysfunction associated with neurodegeneration in PD. Moreover, osteopathic cranial manipulative medicine (OCMM) might improve gait performance by improving circulation to the affected nervous tissue. Are these ideas realistic hypotheses or merely wishful thinking?

This study aimed to determine whether a single session of OMT or OMT + OCMM can improve the gait of individuals with PD by addressing joint restrictions in the sagittal plane and by increasing ROM in the lower limb. It was designed as a two-group, randomized controlled trial in which individuals with PD (n=45) and age-matched healthy control participants (n=45) were recruited from the community. PD participants were included if they were otherwise healthy, able to stand and walk independently, had not received OMT or physical therapy (PT) within 30 days of data collection, and had idiopathic PD in Hoehn and Yahr stages 1.0-3.0.

PD participants were randomly assigned to one of three experimental treatment protocols:

  1. a ‘whole-body’ OMT protocol (OMT-WB), which included OMT and OCMM techniques;
  2. a ‘neck-down’ OMT protocol (OMT-ND), including only OMT techniques;
  3. and a sham treatment protocol.

Control participants were age-matched to a PD participant and were provided the same OMT experimental protocol.

An 18-camera motion analysis system was utilized to capture 3-dimensional (3D) position data in a treadmill walking trial before and after the assigned treatment protocol. Pretreatment and posttreatment hip, knee, and ankle ROM were compared with paired t-tests, and joint angle waveforms during the gait cycle were analyzed with statistical parametric mapping (SPM), which is a type of waveform analysis.

Individuals with PD had significantly reduced hip and knee extension in the stance phase compared to controls (32.9-71.2% and 32.4-56.0% of the gait cycle, respectively). Individuals with PD experienced a significant increase in total sagittal hip ROM (p=0.038) following a single session of the standardized OMT-WB treatment protocol. However, waveform analysis found no significant differences in sagittal hip, knee, or ankle angles at individual points of the gait cycle following OMT-WB, OMT-ND, or sham treatment protocols.

The authors concluded that the increase in hip ROM observed following a single session of OMT-WB suggests that OCMM in conjunction with OMT may be useful for improving gait kinematics in individuals with PD. Longitudinal studies over multiple visits are needed to determine the long-term effect of regular OMT and OMT+OCMM treatments on Parkinsonian gait characteristics.

The study has many significant limitations. For instance, the hypotheses tested lack plausibility and the outcome measures are of doubtful validity. Most importantly, the observed effects are only short term and their clinical relevance is highly questionable.

It has been reported that a recent inspection from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) found that the diagnostic imaging service at AECC University College in Parkwood Road, Bournemouth, requires improvement in three out of four areas – including patient safety. This is surprising not least because the AECC prides itself on being “a leading higher education institution in healthcare disciplines, nationally and internationally recognised for quality and excellence.”

The unannounced inspection in May this year resulted in several demands for the service to improve upon. For example, the CQC report said staff “did not receive all of the training they needed to keep patients safe” and that patient chaperones “did not receive chaperone training”. Moreover, managers were reported as not always ensuring staff were competent to operate certain equipment. In fact, there was no record of staff competencies which meant inspectors “could not tell if staff had been trained to use equipment”. General cleanliness was also found lacking in relation to certain procedures, namely no sink in any of the site’s nine ultrasound rooms (including those for transvaginal scans) – meaning staff carrying out ultrasound scanning did not have access to a clinical handwashing facility.

The CQC states on its website that it “is the independent regulator of health and adult social care in England. We make sure health and social care services provide people with safe, effective, compassionate, high-quality care and we encourage care services to improve. We monitor, inspect and regulate services. Then we publish what we find, including performance ratings, to help people choose care. Where we find poor care, we will use our powers to take action.”

No doubt, these are laudable aims. What I find, however, disappointing is that the CQC’s inspection of the AECC did not question the nature of some of the courses taught by the AECC. Earlier this year, I reported in a blog post that the AECC has announced a new MSc ‘Musculoskeletal Paediatric Health‘. This motivated me to look into the evidence for such a course. This is what I found with several Medline searches (date of the review on chiropractic for any pediatric conditions, followed by its conclusion + link [so that the reader can look up the evidence]):

2008

I am unable to find convincing evidence for any of the above-named conditions. 

2009

Previous research has shown that professional chiropractic organisations ‘make claims for the clinical art of chiropractic that are not currently available scientific evidence…’. The claim to effectively treat otitis seems to
be one of them. It is time now, I think, that chiropractors either produce the evidence or abandon the claim.

2009

The … evidence is neither complete nor, in my view, “substantial.”

2010

Although the major reason for pediatric patients to attend a chiropractor is spinal pain, no adequate studies have been performed in this area. It is time for the chiropractic profession to take responsibility and systematically investigate the efficiency of joint manipulation of problems relating to the developing musculoskeletal system.

2018

Some small benefits were found, but whether these are meaningful to parents remains unclear as does the mechanisms of action. Manual therapy appears relatively safe.

What seems to emerge is rather disappointing:

  1. There are no really new reviews.
  2. Most of the existing reviews are not on musculoskeletal conditions.
  3. All of the reviews cast considerable doubt on the notion that chiropractors should go anywhere near children.

But perhaps I was too ambitious. Perhaps there are some new rigorous clinical trials of chiropractic for musculoskeletal conditions. A few further searches found this (again year and conclusion):

2019

We found that children with long duration of spinal pain or co-occurring musculoskeletal pain prior to inclusion as well as low quality of life at baseline tended to benefit from manipulative therapy over non-manipulative therapy, whereas the opposite was seen for children reporting high intensity of pain. However, most results were statistically insignificant.

2018

Adding manipulative therapy to other conservative care in school children with spinal pain did not result in fewer recurrent episodes. The choice of treatment-if any-for spinal pain in children therefore relies on personal preferences, and could include conservative care with and without manipulative therapy. Participants in this trial may differ from a normal care-seeking population.

I might have missed one or two trials because I only conducted rather ‘rough and ready’ searches, but even if I did: would this amount to convincing evidence? Would it be good science?

No! and No!

So, why does the AECC offer a Master of Science in ‘Musculoskeletal Paediatric Health’?

____________________

Isn’t that a question the CQC should have asked?

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.

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.

This study used a US nationally representative 11-year sample of office-based visits to physicians from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS), to examine a comprehensive list of factors believed to be associated with visits where complementary health approaches were recommended or provided.

NAMCS is a national health care survey designed to collect data on the provision and use of ambulatory medical care services provided by office-based physicians in the United States. Patient medical records were abstracted from a random sample of office-based physician visits. The investigators examined several visit characteristics, including patient demographics, physician specialty, documented health conditions, and reasons for a health visit. They ran chi-square analyses to test bivariate associations between visit factors and whether complementary health approaches were recommended or provided to guide the development of logistic regression models.

Of the 550,114 office visits abstracted, 4.43% contained a report that complementary health approaches were ordered, supplied, administered, or continued. Among complementary health visits, 87% of patient charts mentioned nonvitamin nonmineral dietary supplements. The prevalence of complementary health visits significantly increased from 2% in 2005 to almost 8% in 2015. Returning patient status, survey year, physician specialty and degree, menopause, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal diagnoses were significantly associated with complementary health visits, as was seeking preventative care or care for a chronic problem.

The authors concluded that these data confirm the growing popularity of complementary health approaches in the United States, provide a baseline for further studies, and inform subsequent investigations of integrative health care.

The authors used the same dataset for a 2nd paper which examined the reasons why office-based physicians do or do not recommend four selected complementary health approaches to their patients in the context of the Andersen Behavioral Model. Descriptive estimates were employed of physician-level data from the 2012 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) Physician Induction Interview, a nationally representative survey of office-based physicians (N = 5622, weighted response rate = 59.7%). The endpoints were the reasons for the recommendation or lack thereof to patients for:

  • herbs,
  • other non-vitamin supplements,
  • chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation,
  • acupuncture,
  • mind-body therapies (including meditation, guided imagery, and progressive relaxation).

Differences by physician sex and medical specialty were described.

For each of the four complementary health approaches, more than half of the physicians who made recommendations indicated that they were influenced by scientific evidence in peer-reviewed journals (ranging from 52.0% for chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation [95% confidence interval, CI = 47.6-56.3] to 71.3% for herbs and other non-vitamin supplements [95% CI = 66.9-75.4]). More than 60% of all physicians recommended each of the four complementary health approaches because of patient requests. A higher percentage of female physicians reported evidence in peer-reviewed journals as a rationale for recommending herbs and non-vitamin supplements or chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation when compared with male physicians (herbs and non-vitamin supplements: 78.8% [95% CI = 72.4-84.3] vs. 66.6% [95% CI = 60.8-72.2]; chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation: 62.3% [95% CI = 54.7-69.4] vs. 47.5% [95% CI = 42.3-52.7]).

For each of the four complementary health approaches, a lack of perceived benefit was the most frequently reported reason by both sexes for not recommending. Lack of information sources was reported more often by female versus male physicians as a reason to not recommend herbs and non-vitamin supplements (31.4% [95% CI = 26.8-36.3] vs. 23.4% [95% CI = 21.0-25.9]).

The authors concluded that there are limited nationally representative data on the reasons as to why office-based physicians decide to recommend complementary health approaches to patients. Developing a more nuanced understanding of influencing factors in physicians’ decision making regarding complementary health approaches may better inform researchers and educators, and aid physicians in making evidence-based recommendations for patients.

I am not sure what these papers really offer in terms of information that is not obvious or that makes a meaningful contribution to progress. It almost seems that, because the data of such surveys are available, such analyses get done and published. The far better reason for doing research is, of course, the desire to answer a burning and relevant research question.

A problem then arises when researchers, who perceive the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) as a fundamentally good thing, write a paper that smells more of SCAM promotion than meaningful science. Having said that, I find it encouraging to read in the two papers that

  • the prevalence of SCAM remains quite low,
  • more than 60% of all physicians recommended SCAM not because they were convinced of its value but because of patient requests,
  • the lack of perceived benefit was the most frequently reported reason for not recommending it.

The objective of this study was to compare chronic low back pain patients’ perspectives on the use of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) compared to prescription drug therapy (PDT) with regard to health-related quality of life (HRQoL), patient beliefs, and satisfaction with treatment.

Four cohorts of Medicare beneficiaries were assembled according to previous treatment received as evidenced in claims data:

  1. The SMT group began long-term management with SMT but no prescribed drugs.
  2. The PDT group began long-term management with prescription drug therapy but no spinal manipulation.
  3. This group employed SMT for chronic back pain, followed by initiation of long-term management with PDT in the same year.
  4. This group used PDT for chronic back pain followed by initiation of long-term management with SMT in the same year.

A total of 1986 surveys were sent out and 195 participants completed the survey. The respondents were predominantly female and white, with a mean age of approx. 77-78 years. Outcome measures used were a 0-to-10 numeric rating scale to measure satisfaction, the Low Back Pain Treatment Beliefs Questionnaire to measure patient beliefs, and the 12-item Short-Form Health Survey to measure HRQoL.

Recipients of SMT were more likely to be very satisfied with their care (84%) than recipients of PDT (50%; P = .002). The SMT cohort self-reported significantly higher HRQoL compared to the PDT cohort; mean differences in physical and mental health scores on the 12-item Short Form Health Survey were 12.85 and 9.92, respectively. The SMT cohort had a lower degree of concern regarding chiropractic care for their back pain compared to the PDT cohort’s reported concern about PDT (P = .03).

The authors concluded that among older Medicare beneficiaries with chronic low back pain, long-term recipients of SMT had higher self-reported rates of HRQoL and greater satisfaction with their modality of care than long-term recipients of PDT. Participants who had longer-term management of care were more likely to have positive attitudes and beliefs toward the mode of care they received.

The main issue here is that the ‘study’ was a mere survey which by definition cannot establish cause and effect. The groups were different in many respects which rendered them not comparable. For instance, participants who received SMT had higher self-reported physical and mental health on average than those who received PDT. Differences also existed between the SMT and the PDT groups for agreement with the notion that “spinal manipulation for LBP makes a lot of sense”; 96% of the SMT group and 35% of the PDT group agreed with it. Compare this with another statement, “taking /having prescription drug therapy for LBP makes a lot of sense” and we find that only 13% of the SMT cohort agreed with, 95% of the PDT cohort agreed. Thus, a powerful bias exists toward the type of therapy that each person had chosen. Another determinant of the outcome is the fact that SMT means hands-on treatments with time, compassion, and empathy given to the patient, whereas PDT does not necessarily include such features. Add to these limitations the dismal response rate, recall bias, and numerous potential confounders and you have a survey that is hardly worth the paper it is printed on. In fact, it is little more than a marketing exercise for chiropractic.

In summary, the findings of this survey are influenced by a whole range of known and unknown factors other than the SMT. The authors are clever to avoid causal inferences in their conclusions. I doubt, however, that many chiropractors reading the paper think critically enough to do the same.

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