Spinal manipulation is an umbrella term for numerous manoeuvres chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and other clinicians apply to their patients’ vertebral columns. Spinal manipulations are said to be effective for a wide range of conditions. But how do they work? What is their mode of action? A new article tries to address these questions. here is its abstract:
Spinal manipulation has been an effective intervention for the management of various musculoskeletal disorders. However, the mechanisms underlying the pain modulatory effects of spinal manipulation remain elusive. Although both biomechanical and neurophysiological phenomena have been thought to play a role in the observed clinical effects of spinal manipulation, a growing number of recent studies have indicated peripheral, spinal and supraspinal mechanisms of manipulation and suggested that the improved clinical outcomes are largely of neurophysiological origin. In this article, we reviewed the relevance of various neurophysiological theories with respect to the findings of mechanistic studies that demonstrated neural responses following spinal manipulation. This article also discussed whether these neural responses are associated with the possible neurophysiological mechanisms of spinal manipulation. The body of literature reviewed herein suggested some clear neurophysiological changes following spinal manipulation, which include neural plastic changes, alteration in motor neuron excitability, increase in cortical drive and many more. However, the clinical relevance of these changes in relation to the mechanisms that underlie the effectiveness of spinal manipulation is still unclear. In addition, there were some major methodological flaws in many of the reviewed studies. Future mechanistic studies should have an appropriate study design and methodology and should plan for a long-term follow-up in order to determine the clinical significance of the neural responses evoked following spinal manipulation.
I have to admit, this made me laugh. Any article that starts with the claim spinal manipulation is an effective intervention and speaks about its observed clinical effects without critically assessing the evidence for it must be ridiculous. The truth is that, so far, it is unclear whether spinal manipulations cause any therapeutic effects at all. To take them as a given, therefore discloses a bias that can only be a hindrance to any objective evaluation.
Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the paper raises an important question: do we need to search for a mode of action of treatments that are unproven? It is a question, of course, that is relevant to all or at least much of SCAM.
Do we need to research the mode of action of acupuncture?
Do we need to research the mode of action of energy healing?
Do we need to research the mode of action of reflexology?
Do we need to research the mode of action of homeopathy?
Do we need to research the mode of action of Bach flower remedies?
Do we need to research the mode of action of cupping?
Do we need to research the mode of action of qigong?
In the absence of compelling evidence that a mode of action (other than the placebo response) exists, I would say: no, we don’t. Such research might turn out to be wasteful and carries the risk of attributing credibility to treatments that do not deserve it.
What do you think?
Spinal manipulation has been associated with a wide range of serious complications. Usually, they occur after neck manipulations. Neurologists from Morocco just published a case-report of a patient suffering a subdural haematoma after lumbar spinal manipulation.
A previously healthy 23 years-old man was receiving spinal manipulation for chronic back pain by a physiotherapist when he experienced a knife-like low back pain and lower limbs radiculalgia. The manipulation consisted on high velocity pression in the lumbar region while the patient was in prone position. He woke up the next morning with a weakness of both lower limbs and sensation of bladder fullness.
On presentation to the emergency department, 24 hours after the manipulation, the neurological examination found a cauda equina syndrome with motor strength between 2/5 and 3/5 in the left lower limb, 4/5 in the right lower limb, an abolition of the patellar and Achilles reflexes, a saddle hypoesthesia and a tender bladder. The general examination was normal. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the lumbar spine was performed promptly and showed intradural collection extending from L2 to L3 level with signal intensity consistent with blood. There were no adjacent fractures, disc or ligament injuries. Routine blood investigations were normal.
The patient underwent an emergency operation via L2-L3 laminectomy. The epidural space had no obvious abnormalities but the dura mater was tense and bluish. After opening the dura, a compressive blood clot was removed completely. The origin of the bleeding could not be determined. At the end of the intervention, nerve roots appeared free with normal courses. Subsequently, the patient’s the motor function of lower limbs gradually returned. He was discharged without neurological deficits 6 days postoperatively. At 6-months’ follow-up, the neurological examination was totally normal.
Subdural haematoma is a rare occurrence. As a complication after spinal manipulation, it seems to be ever rarer. Our case-series of serious adverse effects after chiropractic manipulation did include such a case, albeit not at the lumbar level (as far as I remember):
To obtain preliminary data on neurological complications of spinal manipulation in the UK all members of the Association of British Neurologists were asked to report cases referred to them of neurological complications occurring within 24 hours of cervical spine manipulation over a 12-month period. The response rate was 74%. 24 respondents reported at least one case each, contributing to a total of about 35 cases. These included 7 cases of stroke in brainstem territory (4 with confirmation of vertebral artery dissection), 2 cases of stroke in carotid territory and 1 case of acute subdural haematoma. There were 3 cases of myelopathy and 3 of cervical radiculopathy. Concern about neurological complications following cervical spine manipulation appears to be justified. A large long-term prospective study is required to determine the scale of the hazard.
The big problem with adverse events of this nature is that their true incidence is essentially unknown. The two cases of subdural haematoma mentioned above seem to be the only two reported in the medical literature. But, as there is no monitoring system, the true figure is anybody’s guess.
In the bizarre world of chiropractic, the war between vitalistic subluxationists and reformers has reached a new climax. The World Federation of Chiropractic (WFC) has just announced that its president, Laurie Tassell, has resigned. The move follows what the International Chiropractor’s Association (ICA) called a “blatant offensive behaviour on a public stage” that “speaks for itself” and “cannot be excused under any circumstances.” The ICA’s alleged an embarrassing display of unprofessional and disruptive behaviour of presenters and attendees at the WFC Conference in Berlin in March 2019. It involved attacks on subluxationist chiropractors and included the throwing of water bottles onto the stage and clapping and cheering as the management of subluxation was denigrated.
The ICA President, Stephen Welsh, subsequently demanded that:
- The current Chair of the WFC Research Council be immediately removed from his current position and denied future participation in any activities on behalf of the WFC.
- An additional member of the WFC Research Council be publicly reprimanded and sanctioned and prohibited from the opportunity to serve in any leadership role at the WFC for at least 5 years.
- The sponsoring organization that coordinated, reviewed and permitted the alleged questionable presentations be sanctioned for conduct not reflecting the professional, inclusive and collegial respect for the values embedded in the WFC Strategic Plan, Governing Documents and the WFC Official Policy Statements.
According to Welsh, and others who attended, the Chair of the WFC Research Council, Greg Kawchuk DC, Ph.D, compared bringing a child to a vitalistic chiropractor to bringing them to a Catholic priest at a children’s school.
The WFC has now announced the appointment of Vivian Kil DC as Interim President to take over from Tassel. Kil is a graduate of the AECC, full-time clinician and the owner of a multidisciplinary clinic in the Netherlands. Kil is an advocate for chiropractors as practitioners of so called “primary spine care”. She stated her vision as follows:
- That we will (the chiropractic profession) set aside our differences within the profession, unite as a profession, and agree that becoming the source of nonsurgical, nonpharmacological, primary, spine care expertise and management should be a primary common goal.
- That for us to do the necessary work to fulfill this role and do it with the entire profession, every chiropractor will be involved and not just a small active group of leaders.
- And finally, that we will become the source of nonsurgical, nonpharmacological, primary, spine care expertise and management worldwide.
In my view, the problem of the chiropractic profession is unsolvable. Giving up Palmer’s obsolete nonsense of vitalism, innate intelligence, subluxation etc. is an essential precondition for joining the 21st century. Yet, doing so would abandon any identity chiropractors will ever have and render them physiotherapists in all but name. Neither solution bodes well for the future of the profession.
Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT), especially hyperextension and rotation. have often been associated with cervical artery dissection (CAD), a tear in the internal carotid or the vertebral artery resulting in an intramural haematoma and/or an aneurysmal dilatation. But is the association causal? This question is often the subject of fierce discussions between chiropractors and the real doctors.
The lack of established causality relates to the chicken and egg discussion, i.e., whether the CAD symptoms lead the patient to seek cervical SMT or whether the cervical SMT provokes CAD along with the non-CAD presenting headache and/or neck complaint.
The aim of a new review was to provide an updated step-by-step risk-benefit assessment strategy regarding manual therapy and to provide tools for clinicians to exclude cervical artery dissection.
In light of the evidence provided, the reality, according to the review-authors, is:
- a) that there is no firm scientific basis for direct causality between cervical SMT and CAD;
- b) that the internal carotid artery (ICA) moves freely within the cervical pathway, while 74% of cervical SMTs are conducted in the lower cervical spine where the vertebral artery (VA) also moves freely;
- c) that active daily life consists of multiple cervical movements including rotations that do not trigger CAD, as is true for a range of physical activities;
- d) that a cervical manipulation and/or grade C cervical mobilization goes beyond the physiological limit but remains within the anatomical range, which theoretically means that the artery should not exceed failure strain.
These factors underscore the fact that no serious adverse event (AE) was reported in a large prospective national survey conducted in the UK that assessed all AEs in 28,807 chiropractic treatment consultations, which included 50,276 cervical spine manipulations.
The figure outlines a risk-benefit assessment strategy that should provide additional knowledge and improve the vigilance of all clinicians to enable them to exclude CAD, refer patients with suspected CAD to appropriate care, and consequently prevent CAD from progressing.
It has been argued that most patients present with at least two physical symptoms. The clinical characteristics and recommendations in the figure follow this assumption. This figure is intended to function as a knowledge base that should be implemented in preliminary screening and be part of good clinical practice. This knowledge base will likely contribute to sharpening the attention of the clinicians and alert them as to whether the presenting complaint, combined with a collection of warning signs listed in the figure, deviates from what he or she considers to be a usual musculoskeletal presentation.
Even though this is a seemingly thoughtful analysis, I think it omits at least two important points:
- The large prospective UK survey which included 50,276 cervical spine manipulations might be less convincing that it seems. It recorded about one order of magnitude less minor adverse effects of spinal manipulation than a multitude of previously published prospective surveys. The self-selected, relatively small group of participating chiropractors (32% of the total sample) were both experienced (67% been in practice for 5 or more years) and may not always have adhered to the protocol of the survey. Thus they may have employed their experience to intuitively select low-risk patients rather than including all consecutive cases, as the protocol prescribed. This hypothesis would ﬁrstly account for the unusually low rate of minor adverse effects, and secondly, it would explain why no serious complications occurred at all. Given that about 700 such complications are on record, the low incidence of serious adverse events could well be a gross underestimate.
- The effect of chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy is probably due to a placebo response. This means that it should probably not be done in the first place.
An impressive 17% of US chiropractic patients are 17 years of age or younger. This figure increases to 39% among US chiropractors who have specialized in paediatrics. Data for other countries can be assumed to be similar. But is chiropractic effective for children? All previous reviews concluded that there is a paucity of evidence for the effectiveness of manual therapy for conditions within paediatric populations.
This systematic review is an attempt to shed more light on the issue by evaluating the use of manual therapy for clinical conditions in the paediatric population, assessing the methodological quality of the studies found, and synthesizing findings based on health condition.
Of the 3563 articles identified through various literature searches, 165 full articles were screened, and 50 studies (32 RCTs and 18 observational studies) met the inclusion criteria. Only 18 studies were judged to be of high quality. Conditions evaluated were:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
- cerebral palsy,
- cranial asymmetry,
- cuboid syndrome,
- infantile colic,
- low back pain,
- obstructive apnoea,
- otitis media,
- paediatric dysfunctional voiding,
- paediatric nocturnal enuresis,
- postural asymmetry,
- preterm infants,
- pulled elbow,
- suboptimal infant breastfeeding,
- suboptimal infant breastfeeding,
- temporomandibular dysfunction,
- upper cervical dysfunction.
Musculoskeletal conditions, including low back pain and headache, were evaluated in seven studies. Only 20 studies reported adverse events.
The authors concluded that fifty studies investigated the clinical effects of manual therapies for a wide variety of pediatric conditions. Moderate-positive overall assessment was found for 3 conditions: low back pain, pulled elbow, and premature infants. Inconclusive unfavorable outcomes were found for 2 conditions: scoliosis (OMT) and torticollis (MT). All other condition’s overall assessments were either inconclusive favorable or unclear. Adverse events were uncommonly reported. More robust clinical trials in this area of healthcare are needed.
There are many things that I find remarkable about this review:
- The list of indications for which studies have been published confirms the notion that manual therapists – especially chiropractors – regard their approach as a panacea.
- A systematic review evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy that includes observational studies without a control group is, in my view, highly suspect.
- Many of the RCTs included in the review are meaningless; for instance, if a trial compares the effectiveness of two different manual therapies none of which has been shown to work, it cannot generate a meaningful result.
- Again, we find that the majority of trialists fail to report adverse effects. This is unethical to a degree that I lose faith in such studies altogether.
- Only three conditions are, according to the authors, based on evidence. This is hardly enough to sustain an entire speciality of paediatric chiropractors.
Allow me to have a closer look at these three conditions.
- Low back pain: the verdict ‘moderate positive’ is based on two RCTs and two observational studies. The latter are irrelevant for evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy. One of the two RCTs should have been excluded because the age of the patients exceeded the age range named by the authors as an inclusion criterion. This leaves us with one single ‘medium quality’ RCT that included a mere 35 patients. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
- Pulled elbow: here the verdict is based on one RCT that compared two different approaches of unknown value. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
- Preterm: Here we have 4 RCTs; one was a mere pilot study of craniosacral therapy following the infamous A+B vs B design. The other three RCTs were all from the same Italian research group; their findings have never been independently replicated. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
So, what can be concluded from this?
I would say that there is no good evidence for chiropractic, osteopathic or other manual treatments for children suffering from any condition.
And why do the authors of this new review arrive at such dramatically different conclusion? I am not sure. Could it perhaps have something to do with their affiliations?
- Palmer College of Chiropractic,
- Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College,
- Performance Chiropractic.
What do you think?
A new update of the current Cochrane review assessed the benefits and harms of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) for the treatment of chronic low back pain. The authors included all randomised controlled trials (RCTs) examining the effect of spinal manipulation or mobilisation in adults (≥18 years) with chronic low back pain with or without referred pain. Studies that exclusively examined sciatica were excluded.
The effect of SMT was compared with recommended therapies, non-recommended therapies, sham (placebo) SMT, and SMT as an adjuvant therapy. Main outcomes were pain and back specific functional status, examined as mean differences and standardised mean differences (SMD), respectively. Outcomes were examined at 1, 6, and 12 months.
Forty-seven RCTs including a total of 9211 participants were identified. Most trials compared SMT with recommended therapies. In 16 RCTs, the therapists were chiropractors, in 14 they were physiotherapists, and in 5 they were osteopaths. They used high velocity manipulations in 18 RCTs, low velocity manipulations in 12 studies and a combination of the two in 20 trials.
Moderate quality evidence suggested that SMT has similar effects to other recommended therapies for short term pain relief and a small, clinically better improvement in function. High quality evidence suggested that, compared with non-recommended therapies, SMT results in small, not clinically better effects for short term pain relief and small to moderate clinically better improvement in function.
In general, these results were similar for the intermediate and long term outcomes as were the effects of SMT as an adjuvant therapy.
Low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically better effect than sham SMT at one month. Additionally, very low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically better effect than sham SMT at six and 12 months. Low quality evidence suggested that SMT results in a moderate to strong statistically significant and clinically better effect than sham SMT at one month. Additionally, very low quality evidence suggested that SMT does not result in a statistically significant better effect than sham SMT at six and 12 months.
(Mean difference in reduction of pain at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months (0-100; 0=no pain, 100 maximum pain) for spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) versus recommended therapies in review of the effects of SMT for chronic low back pain. Pooled mean differences calculated by DerSimonian-Laird random effects model.)
About half of the studies examined adverse and serious adverse events, but in most of these it was unclear how and whether these events were registered systematically. Most of the observed adverse events were musculoskeletal related, transient in nature, and of mild to moderate severity. One study with a low risk of selection bias and powered to examine risk (n=183) found no increased risk of an adverse event or duration of the event compared with sham SMT. In one study, the Data Safety Monitoring Board judged one serious adverse event to be possibly related to SMT.
The authors concluded that SMT produces similar effects to recommended therapies for chronic low back pain, whereas SMT seems to be better than non-recommended interventions for improvement in function in the short term. Clinicians should inform their patients of the potential risks of adverse events associated with SMT.
This paper is currently being celebrated (mostly) by chiropractors who think that it vindicates their treatments as being both effective and safe. However, I am not sure that this is entirely true. Here are a few reasons for my scepticism:
- SMT is as good as other recommended treatments for back problems – this may be so but, as no good treatment for back pain has yet been found, this really means is that SMT is as BAD as other recommended therapies.
- If we have a handful of equally good/bad treatments, it stand to reason that we must use other criteria to identify the one that is best suited – criteria like safety and cost. If we do that, it becomes very clear that SMT cannot be named as the treatment of choice.
- Less than half the RCTs reported adverse effects. This means that these studies were violating ethical standards of publication. I do not see how we can trust such deeply flawed trials.
- Any adverse effects of SMT were minor, restricted to the short term and mainly centred on musculoskeletal effects such as soreness and stiffness – this is how some naïve chiro-promoters already comment on the findings of this review. In view of the fact that more than half the studies ‘forgot’ to report adverse events and that two serious adverse events did occur, this is a misleading and potentially dangerous statement and a good example how, in the world of chiropractic, research is often mistaken for marketing.
- Less than half of the studies (45% (n=21/47)) used both an adequate sequence generation and an adequate allocation procedure.
- Only 5 studies (10% (n=5/47)) attempted to blind patients to the assigned intervention by providing a sham treatment, while in one study it was unclear.
- Only about half of the studies (57% (n=27/47)) provided an adequate overview of withdrawals or drop-outs and kept these to a minimum.
- Crucially, this review produced no good evidence to show that SMT has effects beyond placebo. This means the modest effects emerging from some trials can be explained by being due to placebo.
- The lead author of this review (SMR), a chiropractor, does not seem to be free of important conflicts of interest: SMR received personal grants from the European Chiropractors’ Union (ECU), the European Centre for Chiropractic Research Excellence (ECCRE), the Belgian Chiropractic Association (BVC) and the Netherlands Chiropractic Association (NCA) for his position at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He also received funding for a research project on chiropractic care for the elderly from the European Centre for Chiropractic Research and Excellence (ECCRE).
- The second author (AdeZ) who also is a chiropractor received a grant from the European Chiropractors’ Union (ECU), for an independent study on the effects of SMT.
After carefully considering the new review, my conclusion is the same as stated often before: SMT is not supported by convincing evidence for back (or other) problems and does not qualify as the treatment of choice.
Crohn’s disease (CD) is an inflammatory bowel disease characterized by recurring flares altered by periods of inactive disease and remission, affecting physical and psychological aspects and quality of life (QoL). The aim of this study was to determine the therapeutic benefits of soft non-manipulative osteopathic techniques in patients with CD.
A randomized controlled trial was performed. It included 30 individuals with CD who were divided into 2 groups: 16 in the experimental group (EG) and 14 in the control group (CG). The EG was treated with the 6 manual techniques depicted below. All patients were advised to continue their prescribed medications and diets. The intervention period lasted 30 days (1 session every 10 days). Pain, global quality of life (GQoL) and QoL specific for CD (QoLCD) were assessed before and after the intervention. Anxiety and depression levels were measured at the beginning of the study.
A significant effect was observed of the treatment in both the physical and task subscales of the GQoL and also in the QoLCD but not in pain score. When the intensity of pain was taken into consideration in the analysis of the EG, there was a significantly greater increment in the QoLCD after treatment in people without pain than in those with pain. The improvements in GQoL were independent from the disease status.
The authors concluded that soft, non-manipulative osteopathic treatment is effective in improving overall and physical-related QoL in CD patients, regardless of the phase of the disease. Pain is an important factor that inversely correlates with the improvements in QoL.
Where to begin?
Here are some of the most obvious flaws of this study:
- It was far too small for drawing any far-reaching conclusions.
- Because the sample size was so small, randomisation failed to create two comparable groups.
- Sub-group analyses are based on even smaller samples and thus even less meaningful.
- The authors call their trial a ‘single-blind’ study but, in fact, neither the patients nor the therapists (physiotherapists) were blind.
- The researchers were physiotherapists, their treatments were mostly physiotherapy. It is therefore puzzling why they repeatedly call them ‘osteopathic’.
- It also seems unclear why these and not some other soft tissue techniques were employed.
- The CG did not receive additional treatment at all; no attempt was thus made to control for placebo effects.
- The stated aim to determine the therapeutic benefits… seems to be a clue that this study was never aimed at rigorously testing the effectiveness of the treatments.
My conclusion therefore is (yet again) that poor science has the potential to mislead and thus harm us all.
Spinal epidural haematoma (SEH) is an uncommon but serious emergency condition. A team of emergency physicians reported the case of a SEH associated with traditional massage initially presenting with delayed lower paraplegia.
A 20-year-old man was seen with bilateral lower extremity weakness and numbness, symptoms that had started three hours prior to presentation. He had received a Thai massage by a friend three days before. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed a spinal epidural lesion suspicious for haematoma extending from C6 to T2 levels. Emergent surgical intervention for cord decompression was performed. An epidural haematoma with cord compression at C6-T2 levels was identified intra-operatively. No evidence of abnormal vascular flow or AV malformations was identified. The authors concluded that, similar to chiropractic manipulation, massage may be associated with spinal trauma. Emergency physicians must maintain a high index of suspicion for spinal epidural haematomas in patients with a history of massage or chiropractic manipulation with neurologic complaints, because delays in diagnosis may worsen clinical outcome.
Thai massage therapists typically use no lubricants. The patient remains clothed during a treatment. There is constant body contact between the therapist – who, in the above case, was a lay person – and the patient.
The authors of this case report rightly stress that such adverse events are rare – but they are by no means unknown. In 2003, I reviewed the risks and found 16 reports of adverse effects as well as 4 case series on the subject (like for all other manual therapies, there is no reporting system of adverse effects). The majority of adverse effects were – like the above case – associated with exotic types of manual massage or massage delivered by laymen. Professionally trained massage therapists were rarely implicated. The reported adverse events include cerebrovascular accidents, displacement of a ureteral stent, embolization of a kidney, haematoma, leg ulcers, nerve damage, posterior interosseous syndrome, pseudoaneurism, pulmonary embolism, ruptured uterus, strangulation of neck, thyrotoxicosis and various pain syndromes. In the majority of these instances, there was little doubt about a cause-effect relationship. Serious adverse effects were associated mostly with massage techniques other than ‘Swedish’ massage.
For patients, this means that massage is still amongst the safest form of manual therapy (best to employ qualified therapists and avoid the exotic versions of massage because they are not supported by evidence and carry the highest risks). For doctors, it means to be vigilant, if patients present with neurological problems after having enjoyed a massage.
Chiropractors believe that their spinal manipulations bring about a reduction in pain perception, and they often call this ‘manipulation-induced hypoalgesia’ (MIH). It is unknown, however, whether MIH following high-velocity low-amplitude spinal manipulative therapy is a specific and clinically relevant treatment effect.
This systematic review was an effort in finding out.
The authors investigated changes in quantitative sensory testing measures following high-velocity low-amplitude spinal manipulative therapy in musculoskeletal pain populations, in randomised controlled trials. Their objectives were to compare changes in quantitative sensory testing outcomes after spinal manipulative therapy vs. sham, control and active interventions, to estimate the magnitude of change over time, and to determine whether changes are systemic or not.
Fifteen studies were included. Thirteen measured pressure pain threshold, and 4 of these were sham-controlled. Change in pressure pain threshold after spinal manipulative therapy compared to sham revealed no significant difference. Pressure pain threshold increased significantly over time after spinal manipulative therapy (0.32 kg/cm2, CI 0.22–0.42), which occurred systemically. There were too few studies comparing to other interventions or for other types of quantitative sensory testing to make robust conclusions about these.
The authors concluded that they found that systemic MIH (for pressure pain threshold) does occur in musculoskeletal pain populations, though there was low quality evidence of no significant difference compared to sham manipulation. Future research should focus on the clinical relevance of MIH, and different types of quantitative sensory tests.
An odd conclusion, if there ever was one!
A more straight forward conclusion might be this:
MIH is yet another myth to add to the long list of bogus claims made by chiropractors.
Chronic back pain is often a difficult condition to treat. Which option is best suited?
A review by the US ‘Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’ (AHRQ) focused on non-invasive nonpharmacological treatments for chronic pain. The following therapies were considered:
- mind-body practices,
- psychological therapies,
- multidisciplinary rehabilitation,
- mindfulness practices,
- manual therapies,
- physical modalities,
Here, I want to share with you the essence of the assessment of spinal manipulation:
- Spinal manipulation was associated with slightly greater effects than sham manipulation, usual care, an attention control, or a placebo intervention in short-term function (3 trials, pooled SMD -0.34, 95% CI -0.63 to -0.05, I2=61%) and intermediate-term function (3 trials, pooled SMD -0.40, 95% CI -0.69 to -0.11, I2=76%) (strength of evidence was low)
- There was no evidence of differences between spinal manipulation versus sham manipulation, usual care, an attention control or a placebo intervention in short-term pain (3 trials, pooled difference -0.20 on a 0 to 10 scale, 95% CI -0.66 to 0.26, I2=58%), but manipulation was associated with slightly greater effects than controls on intermediate-term pain (3 trials, pooled difference -0.64, 95% CI -0.92 to -0.36, I2=0%) (strength of evidence was low for short term, moderate for intermediate term).
This seems to confirm what I have been saying for a long time: the benefit of spinal manipulation for chronic back pain is close to zero. This means that the hallmark therapy of chiropractors for the one condition they treat more often than any other is next to useless.
But which other treatments should patients suffering from this frequent and often agonising problem employ? Perhaps the most interesting point of the AHRQ review is that none of the assessed nonpharmacological treatments are supported by much better evidence for efficacy than spinal manipulation. The only two therapies that seem to be even worse are traction and ultrasound (both are often used by chiropractors). It follows, I think, that for chronic low back pain, we simply do not have a truly effective nonpharmacological therapy and consulting a chiropractor for it does make little sense.
What else can we conclude from these depressing data? I believe, the most rational, ethical and progressive conclusion is to go for those treatments that are associated with the least risks and the lowest costs. This would make exercise the prime contender. But it would definitely exclude spinal manipulation, I am afraid.
And this beautifully concurs with the advice I recently derived from the recent Lancet papers: walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of your preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.