This study describes the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) among older adults who report being hampered in daily activities due to musculoskeletal pain. Cross-sectional European Social Survey (EES) Round 7 (2014) data from 21 countries were examined for participants aged 55 years and older, who reported musculoskeletal pain that hampered daily activities in the past 12months. From a total of 35,063 individuals who took part in the ESS study, 13,016 (37%) were aged 55 or older; of which 8183 (63%) reported the presence of pain, with a further 4950 (38%) reporting that this pain hampered their daily activities in any way.
Of the 4950 older adult participants reporting musculoskeletal pain that hampered daily activities, the majority (63.5%) were from the West of Europe, reported secondary education or less (78.2%), and reported at least one other health-related problem (74.6%). In total, 1657 (33.5%) reported using at least one SCAM treatment in the previous year. Manual body-based therapies (MBBTs) were most used, including massage therapy (17.9%) and osteopathy (7.0%). Alternative medicinal systems (AMSs) were also popular with 6.5% using homeopathy and 5.3% reporting herbal treatments. A general trend of higher SCAM use in younger participants was noted.
SCAM usage was associated with
- physiotherapy use,
- female gender,
- higher levels of education,
- being in employment,
- living in West Europe
- having multiple health problems.
The authors concluded that a third of older Europeans with musculoskeletal pain report SCAM use in the previous
12 months. Certain subgroups with higher rates of SCAM use could be identified. Clinicians should comprehensively and routinely assess SCAM use among older adults with musculoskeletal pain.
Such studies have the advantage of large sample sizes, and therefore one is inclined to consider their findings to be reliable and informative. Yet, they resemble big fishing operations where all sorts of important and unimportant stuff is caught in the net. When studying such papers, it is wise to remember that associations do not necessarily reveal causal relationships!
Having said this, I find very little information in these already outdated results (they originate from 2014!) that I would not have expected. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the nature of the most popular SCAMs used for musculoskeletal problems. The relatively high usage of MBBTs had to be expected; in most of the surveyed countries, massage therapy is considered to be not SCAM but mainstream. The fact that 6.5% used homeopathy to ease their musculoskeletal pain is, however, quite remarkable. I know of no good evidence to show that homeopathy is effective for such problems (in case some homeopathy fans disagree, please show me the evidence).
In my view, this indicates that, in 2014, much needed to be done in terms of informing the public about homeopathy. Many consumers mistook homeopathy for herbal medicine (which btw may well have some potential for musculoskeletal pain), and many consumers had been misguided into believing that homeopathy works. They had little inkling that homeopathy is pure placebo therapy. This means they mistreated their conditions, continued to suffer needlessly, and caused an unnecessary financial burden to themselves and/or to society.
Since 2014, much has happened (as discussed in uncounted posts on this blog), and I would therefore assume that the 6.5% figure has come down significantly … but, as you know:
I am an optimist.
I believe in progress.
This systematic review assessed the effects and reliability of sham procedures in manual therapy (MT) trials in the treatment of back pain (BP) in order to provide methodological guidance for clinical trial development.
Different databases were screened up to 20 August 2020. Randomized controlled trials involving adults affected by BP (cervical and lumbar), acute or chronic, were included. Hand contact sham treatment (ST) was compared with different MT (physiotherapy, chiropractic, osteopathy, massage, kinesiology, and reflexology) and to no treatment. Primary outcomes were BP improvement, the success of blinding, and adverse effects (AE). Secondary outcomes were the number of drop-outs. Dichotomous outcomes were analyzed using risk ratio (RR), continuous using mean difference (MD), 95% CIs. The minimal clinically important difference was 30 mm changes in pain score.
A total of 24 trials were included involving 2019 participants. Most of the trials were of chiropractic manipulation. Very low evidence quality suggests clinically insignificant pain improvement in favor of MT compared with ST (MD 3.86, 95% CI 3.29 to 4.43) and no differences between ST and no treatment (MD -5.84, 95% CI -20.46 to 8.78).ST reliability shows a high percentage of correct detection by participants (ranged from 46.7% to 83.5%), spinal manipulation is the most recognized technique. Low quality of evidence suggests that AE and drop-out rates were similar between ST and MT (RR AE=0.84, 95% CI 0.55 to 1.28, RR drop-outs=0.98, 95% CI 0.77 to 1.25). A similar drop-out rate was reported for no treatment (RR=0.82, 95% 0.43 to 1.55).
The authors concluded that MT does not seem to have clinically relevant effect compared with ST. Similar effects were found with no treatment. The heterogeneousness of sham MT studies and the very low quality of evidence render uncertain these review findings. Future trials should develop reliable kinds of ST, similar to active treatment, to ensure participant blinding and to guarantee a proper sample size for the reliable detection of clinically meaningful treatment effects.
The optimal therapy for back pain does not exist or has not yet been identified; there are dozens of different approaches but none has been found to be truly and dramatically effective. Manual therapies like chiropractic and osteopathy are often used, and some data suggest that they are as good (or as bad) as most other options. This review confirms what we have discussed many times previously (e.g. here), namely that the small positive effect of MT, or specifically spinal manipulation, is largely due to placebo.
Considering this information, what is the best treatment for back pain sufferers? The answer seems obvious: it is a therapy that is as (in)effective as all the others but causes the least harm or expense. In other words, it is not chiropractic nor osteopathy but exercise.
avoid therapists who use spinal manipulation for back pain.
A new study evaluated the effects of yoga and eurythmy therapy compared to conventional physiotherapy exercises in patients with chronic low back pain.
In this three-armed, multicentre, randomized trial, patients with chronic low back pain were treated for 8 weeks in group sessions (75 minutes once per week). They received either:
- Yoga exercises
The primary outcome was patients’ physical disability (measured by RMDQ) from baseline to week 8. Secondary outcome variables were pain intensity and pain-related bothersomeness (VAS), health-related quality of life (SF-12), and life satisfaction (BMLSS). Outcomes were assessed at baseline, after the intervention at 8 weeks, and at a 16-week follow-up. Data of 274 participants were used for statistical analyses.
The results showed no significant differences between the three groups for the primary and secondary outcomes. In all groups, RMDQ decreased comparably at 8 weeks but did not reach clinical meaningfulness. Pain intensity and pain-related bothersomeness decreased, while the quality of life increased in all 3 groups. In explorative general linear models for the SF-12’s mental health component, participants in the eurythmy arm benefitted significantly more compared to physiotherapy and yoga. Furthermore, within-group analyses showed improvements of SF-12 mental score for yoga and eurythmy therapy only. All interventions were safe.
Everyone knows what physiotherapy or yoga is, I suppose. But what is eurythmy?
It is an exercise therapy that is part of anthroposophic medicine. It consists of a set of specific movements that were developed by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the inventor of anthroposophic medicine, in conjunction with Marie von Sievers (1867-1948), his second wife.
Steiner stated in 1923 that eurythmy has grown out of the soil of the Anthroposophical Movement, and the history of its origin makes it almost appear to be a gift of the forces of destiny. Steiner also wrote that it is the task of the Anthroposophical Movement to reveal to our present age that spiritual impulse that is suited to it. He claimed that, within the Anthroposophical Movement, there is a firm conviction that a spiritual impulse of this kind must enter once more into human evolution. And this spiritual impulse must perforce, among its other means of expression, embody itself in a new form of art. It will increasingly be realized that this particular form of art has been given to the world in Eurythmy.
Consumers learning eurythmy are taught exercises that allegedly integrate cognitive, emotional, and volitional elements. Eurythmy exercises are based on speech and direct the patient’s attention to their own perceived intentionality. Proponents of Eurythmy believe that, through this treatment, a connection between internal and external activity can be experienced. They also make many diffuse health claims for this therapy ranging from stress management to pain control.
There is hardly any reliable evidence for eurythmy, and therefore the present study is exceptional and noteworthy. One review concluded that “eurythmy seems to be a beneficial add-on in a therapeutic context that can improve the health conditions of affected persons. More methodologically sound studies are needed to substantiate this positive impression.” This positive conclusion is, however, of doubtful validity. The authors of the review are from an anthroposophical university in Germany. They included studies in their review that were methodologically too weak to allow any conclusions.
So, does the new study provide the reliable evidence that was so far missing? I am afraid not!
The study compared three different exercise therapies. Its results imply that all three were roughly equal. Yet, we cannot tell whether they were equally effective or equally ineffective. The trial was essentially an equivalence study, and I suspect that much larger sample sizes would have been required in order to identify any true differences if they at all exist. Lastly, the study (like the above-mentioned review) was conducted by proponents of anthroposophical medicine affiliated with institutions of anthroposophical medicine. I fear that more independent research would be needed to convince me of the value of eurythmy.
This study compared the effectiveness of two osteopathic manipulative techniques on clinical low back symptoms and trunk neuromuscular postural control in male workers with chronic low back pain (CLBP).
Ten male workers with CLBP were randomly allocated to two groups: high-velocity low-amplitude (HVLA) manipulation or muscle energy techniques (MET). Each group received one therapy per week for both techniques during 7 weeks of treatment.
Pain and function were measured by using the Numeric Pain-Rating Scale, the McGill Pain Questionnaire, and the Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire. The lumbar flexibility was assessed by Modified Schober Test. Electromyography (EMG) and force platform measurements were used for evaluation of trunk muscular activation and postural balance, respectively at three different times: baseline, post-intervention, and 15 days later.
Both techniques were effective (p < 0.01) in reducing pain with large clinical differences (-1.8 to -2.8) across immediate and after 15 days. However, no significant effect between groups and times was found for other variables, namely neuromuscular activation, and postural balance measures.
The authors concluded that both techniques (HVLA thrust manipulation and MET) were effective in reducing back pain immediately and 15 days later. Neither technique changed the trunk neuromuscular activation patterns nor postural balance in male workers with LBP.
There is, of course, another conclusion that fits the data just as well: both techniques were equally ineffective.
Osteopathy is hugely popular in France. Despite the fact that osteopathy has never been conclusively shown to generate more good than harm, French osteopaths have somehow managed to get a reputation as trustworthy, evidence-based healthcare practitioners. They tend to treat musculoskeletal and many other issues. Visceral manipulation is oddly popular amongst French osteopaths. Now the trust of the French in osteopathy seems to have received a serious setback.
‘LE PARISIEN‘ has just published an article about the alleged sexual misconduct of one of the most prominent French osteopaths and director of one of the foremost schools of osteopathy in France. Here are some excerpts from the article that I translated for readers who don’t speak French:
The public prosecutor’s office of Grasse (Alpes-Maritimes) has opened a judicial investigation against Marc Bozzetto, the director and founder of the school of osteopathy in Valbonne, accused of rape and sexual assault.
In total, “four victims are targeted by the introductory indictment,” said the prosecutor’s office, stating that Marc Bozzetto had already been placed in police custody since the beginning of the proceedings. The daily paper ‘Nice-Matin’ has listed six complaints and published the testimony of a seventh alleged victim.
This victim claims to have been sexually assaulted in 2013, alleging that, during a professional appointment, Bozzetto had massaged her breasts and her intimate area. “He told me that everything went through my vagina and clitoris, that I had to spread my legs and let the energy flow through my clitoris. That I had to learn how to give myself pleasure on my own,” she told Nice-Matin. The newspaper also recorded the testimonies of a former employee, a top-level sportswoman, an employee from the world of culture, and a former student.
“I take note that a judicial inquiry is open. To date, he has neither been summoned nor indicted,” said Karine Benadava, the Parisian lawyer of the 80-year-old Bozzetto. Her client had already responded following initial accusations from students: “This is a normal feeling for women, but if all the women who work on the pelvis complain, you can’t get away with it and you have to stop working as a pelvic osteopath,” replied Bozzetto. In another interview, he had declared himself “furious” and unable to understand the reaction of these two students.
The school of osteopathy trains about 300 students each five years and presents itself as the first holistic osteopathy campus in France.
Such stories of sexual misconduct of practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are sadly no rarety, particularly those working in the area of manual therapy. They remind me of a case against a Devon SCAM practitioner in which I served as an expert witness many years ago. Numerous women gave witness that he ended up having his fingers in their vagina during therapy. He did not deny the fact but tried to defend himself by claiming that he was merely massaging lymph-nodes in this area. It was my task to elaborate on the plausibility of this claim. The SCAM practitioner in question was eventually sentenced to two years in prison.
It stands to reason that SCAM practitioners working in the pelvic area are at particularly high risk of going atray. The above case might be a good occasion to have a public debate in France and ask: IS VISCERAL OSTEOPATHY EVIDENCE-BASED? The answer is very clearly NO! Surely, this is a message worth noting in view of the current popularity of this ridiculous, costly, and dangerous charlatanry.
And how does one minimize the risk of sexual misconduct of SCAM professionals? The most obvious answer would be, by proper education during their training. In the case mentioned above, this might have been a problem: if the director is into sexual misconduct, what can you expect of the rest of the school? In many other cases, the problem is even greater: many SCAM practitioners have had no training at all, or no training in healthcare ethics to speak of.
I was criticised for not referencing this article in a recent post on adverse effects of spinal manipulation. In fact the commentator wrote: Shame on you Prof. Ernst. You get an “E” for effort and I hope you can do better next time. The paper was published in a third-class journal, but I will nevertheless quote the ‘key messages’ from this paper, because they are in many ways remarkable.
- Adverse events from manual therapy are few, mild, and transient. Common AEs include local tenderness, tiredness, and headache. Other moderate and severe adverse events (AEs) are rare, while serious AEs are very rare.
- Serious AEs can include spinal cord injuries with severe neurological consequences and cervical artery dissection (CAD), but the rarity of such events makes the provision of epidemiological evidence challenging.
- Sports-related practice is often time sensitive; thus, the manual therapist needs to be aware of common and rare AEs specifically associated with spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) to fully evaluate the risk-benefit ratio.
The author of this paper is Aleksander Chaibi, PT, DC, PhD who holds several positions in the Norwegian Chiropractors’ Association, and currently holds a position as an expert advisor in the field of biomedical brain research for the Brain Foundation of the Netherlands. I feel that he might benefit from reading some more critical texts on the subject. In fact, I recommend my own 2020 book. Here are a few passages dealing with the safety of SMT:
Relatively minor AEs after SMT are extremely common. Our own systematic review of 2002 found that they occur in approximately half of all patients receiving SMT. A more recent study of 771 Finish patients having chiropractic SMT showed an even higher rate; AEs were reported in 81% of women and 66% of men, and a total of 178 AEs were rated as moderate to severe. Two further studies reported that such AEs occur in 61% and 30% of patients. Local or radiating pain, headache, and tiredness are the most frequent adverse effects…
A 2017 systematic review identified the characteristics of AEs occurring after cervical spinal manipulation or cervical mobilization. A total of 227 cases were found; 66% of them had been treated by chiropractors. Manipulation was reported in 95% of the cases, and neck pain was the most frequent indication for the treatment. Cervical arterial dissection (CAD) was reported in 57%, and 46% had immediate onset symptoms. The authors of this review concluded that there seems to be under-reporting of cases. Further research should focus on a more uniform and complete registration of AEs using standardized terminology…
In 2005, I published a systematic review of ophthalmic AEs after SMT. At the time, there were 14 published case reports. Clinical symptoms and signs included:
- central retinal artery occlusion,
- Wallenberg syndrome,
- loss of vision,
- Horner’s syndrome…
Vascular accidents are the most frequent serious AEs after chiropractic SMT, but they are certainly not the only complications that have been reported. Other AEs include:
- atlantoaxial dislocation,
- cauda equina syndrome,
- cervical radiculopathy,
- diaphragmatic paralysis,
- disrupted fracture healing,
- dural sleeve injury,
- haemorrhagic cysts,
- muscle abscess,
- muscle abscess,
- neurologic compromise,
- oesophageal rupture
- soft tissue trauma,
- spinal cord injury,
- vertebral disc herniation,
- vertebral fracture…
In 2010, I reviewed all the reports of deaths after chiropractic treatments published in the medical literature. My article covered 26 fatalities but it is important to stress that many more might have remained unpublished. The cause usually was a vascular accident involving the dissection of a vertebral artery (see above). The review also makes the following important points:
- … numerous deaths have been associated with chiropractic. Usually high-velocity, short-lever thrusts of the upper spine with rotation are implicated. They are believed to cause vertebral arterial dissection in predisposed individuals which, in turn, can lead to a chain of events including stroke and death. Many chiropractors claim that, because arterial dissection can also occur spontaneously, causality between the chiropractic intervention and arterial dissection is not proven. However, when carefully evaluating the known facts, one does arrive at the conclusion that causality is at least likely. Even if it were merely a remote possibility, the precautionary principle in healthcare would mean that neck manipulations should be considered unsafe until proven otherwise. Moreover, there is no good evidence for assuming that neck manipulation is an effective therapy for any medical condition. Thus, the risk-benefit balance for chiropractic neck manipulation fails to be positive.
- Reliable estimates of the frequency of vascular accidents are prevented by the fact that underreporting is known to be substantial. In a survey of UK neurologists, for instance, under-reporting of serious complications was 100%. Those cases which are published often turn out to be incomplete. Of 40 case reports of serious adverse effects associated with spinal manipulation, nine failed to provide any information about the clinical outcome. Incomplete reporting of outcomes might therefore further increase the true number of fatalities.
- This review is focussed on deaths after chiropractic, yet neck manipulations are, of course, used by other healthcare professionals as well. The reason for this focus is simple: chiropractors are more frequently associated with serious manipulation-related adverse effects than osteopaths, physiotherapists, doctors or other professionals. Of the 40 cases of serious adverse effects mentioned above, 28 can be traced back to a chiropractor and none to a osteopath. A review of complications after spinal manipulations by any type of healthcare professional included three deaths related to osteopaths, nine to medical practitioners, none to a physiotherapist, one to a naturopath and 17 to chiropractors. This article also summarised a total of 265 vascular accidents of which 142 were linked to chiropractors. Another review of complications after neck manipulations published by 1997 included 177 vascular accidents, 32 of which were fatal. The vast majority of these cases were associated with chiropractic and none with physiotherapy. The most obvious explanation for the dominance of chiropractic is that chiropractors routinely employ high-velocity, short-lever thrusts on the upper spine with a rotational element, while the other healthcare professionals use them much more sparingly.
Another review summarised published cases of injuries associated with cervical manipulation in China. A total of 156 cases were found. They included the following problems:
- syncope (45 cases),
- mild spinal cord injury or compression (34 cases),
- nerve root injury (24 cases),
- ineffective treatment/symptom increased (11 cases),
- cervical spine fracture (11 cases),
- dislocation or semi-luxation (6 cases),
- soft tissue injury (3 cases),
- serious accident (22 cases) including paralysis, deaths and cerebrovascular accidents.
Manipulation including rotation was involved in 42% of all cases. In total, 5 patients died…
To sum up … chiropractic SMT can cause a wide range of very serious complications which occasionally can even be fatal. As there is no AE reporting system of such events, we nobody can be sure how frequently they occur.[references from my text can be found in the book]
Low-level laser therapy has been used clinically to treat musculoskeletal pain; however, there is limited evidence available to support its use. The current Cochrance review fails to be positive: there are insufficient data to draw firm conclusions on the clinical effect of LLLT for low‐back pain. So, perhaps studies on animals generate clearer answers?
The objective of this study was to evaluate the clinical effectiveness of low-level laser therapy and chiropractic care in treating thoracolumbar pain in competitive western performance horses. The subjects included 61 Quarter Horses actively involved in national western performance competitions judged to have back pain. A randomized, clinical trial was conducted by assigning affected horses to either:
- laser therapy,
- or combined laser and chiropractic treatment groups.
Low-level laser therapy was applied topically to local sites of back pain. The laser probe contained four 810-nm laser diodes spaced 15-mm apart in a square array that produced a total optical output power of 3 watts. Chiropractic treatment was applied to areas of pain and stiffness within the thoracolumbar and sacral regions. A single application of a high velocity, low-amplitude (HVLA) manual thrust was applied to affected vertebral segments using a reinforced hypothenar contact and a body-centered, body-drop technique. The HVLA thrusts were directed dorsolateral to ventromedial (at a 45° angle to the horizontal plane) with a segmental contact near the spinous process with the goal of increasing extension and lateral bending within the adjacent vertebral segments. If horses did not tolerate the applied chiropractic treatment, then truncal stretching, spinal mobilization, and the use of a springloaded, mechanical-force instrument were used as more conservative forms of manual therapy in these acute back pain patients.
Outcome parameters included a visual analog scale (VAS) of perceived back pain and dysfunction and detailed spinal examinations evaluating pain, muscle tone, and stiffness. Mechanical nociceptive thresholds were measured along the dorsal trunk and values were compared before and after treatment. Repeated measures with post-hoc analysis were used to assess treatment group differences.
Low-level laser therapy, as applied in this study, produced significant reductions in back pain, epaxial muscle hypertonicity, and trunk stiffness. Combined laser therapy and chiropractic care produced similar reductions, with additional significant decreases in the severity of epaxial muscle hypertonicity and trunk stiffness. Chiropractic treatment by itself did not produce any significant changes in back pain, muscle hypertonicity, or trunk stiffness; however, there were improvements in trunk and pelvic flexion reflexes.
The authors concluded that the combination of laser therapy and chiropractic care seemed to provide additive effects in treating back pain and trunk stiffness that were not present with chiropractic treatment alone. The results of this study support the concept that a multimodal approach of laser therapy and chiropractic care is beneficial in treating back pain in horses involved in active competition.
Let me play the devil’s advocate and offer a different conclusion:
These results show that horses are not that different from humans when it comes to responding to treatments. One placebo has a small effect; two placebos generate a little more effects.
The objective of this RCT was to compare the effects of
- spinal thrust-manipulation + electrical dry needling + various medications (TMEDN-group)
- to non-thrust peripheral joint/soft-tissue mobilization + exercise + interferential current + various medications(NTMEX-group)
on pain and disability in patients with subacromial pain syndrome (SAPS).
Patients with SAPS were randomized into the TMEDN group (n=73) or the NTMEX group (n=72). Primary outcomes included the shoulder pain and disability index (SPADI) and the numeric pain rating scale (NPRS). Secondary outcomes included Global Rating of Change (GROC) and medication intake. The treatment period was 6 weeks; with follow-up at 2 weeks, 4 weeks, and 3 months.
At 3 months, the TMEDN group experienced significantly greater reductions in shoulder pain and disability compared to the NTMEX group. Effect sizes were large in favour of the TMEDN group. At 3 months, a greater proportion of patients within the TMEDN group achieved a successful outcome (GROC≥+5) and stopped taking medication.
The authors concluded that cervicothoracic and upper rib thrust-manipulation combined with electrical dry needling resulted in greater reductions in pain, disability and medication intake than non-thrust peripheral joint/soft-tissue mobilization, exercise and interferential current in patients with SAPS. These effects were maintained at 3 months.
The authors of this trial have impressive looking affiliations:
- American Academy of Manipulative Therapy Fellowship in Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy, Montgomery, AL.
- Montgomery Osteopractic Physiotherapy & Acupuncture Clinic, Montgomery, AL.
- Research Physical Therapy Specialists, Columbia, SC.
- Department of Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Rehabilitation and Physical Medicine, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Alcorcón, Spain.
- Cátedra de Clínica, Investigación y Docencia en Fisioterapia: Terapia Manual, Punción Seca y Ejercicio, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Alcorcón, Madrid, Spain.
- Copper Queen Community Hospital, Bisbee, AZ.
- BenchMark Physical Therapy, Atlanta, GA.
- Eastside Medical Care Center, El Paso, TX.
- Department of Physical Therapy, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.
- Tybee Wellness & Osteopractic, Tybee Island, Georgia, GA.
If one expected a well-designed study from all this collective expertise, one would have been disappointed.
Any such clinical trial should be answering a simple question: is therapy XX effective? It is about pinning an observed effect on to a treatment. It is about establishing cause and effect. It is about finding an answer to a clinically relevant question.
The above study does none of that. Even if we accepted its result as valid, it could be interpreted as meaning one of many different things, for instance:
- Acupuncture was effective.
- Dry needling was effective.
- The electrical current was effective.
- Mobilisation made things worse.
- Exercise made things worse.
- one or multiple positive or negative interactions between the therapies.
- The drugs in the experimental group were more effective than those taken by controls.
- The experimental group adhered to their drug prescriptions better than controls.
- Any mixture of the above.
So, the reader of this paper can chose which of the interpretations he or she prefers. I suggest that:
- Any researcher who designs a foreseeably nonsensical trial should go back to school.
- Any ethics committee that passes such a study needs to retire.
- Any funder who gives money for it wastes scarce resources.
- Any reviewer who recommends publication needs to learn about trial design.
- Any editor who publishes such a trial needs to go.
The point I am trying to make is that conducting a clinical trial comes with responsibilities. Poorly designed studies are not just a waste of resources, they are a disservice to patients, they undermine the public’s trust in science and they are unethical.
Researchers from the Department of Physiotherapy, Guru Jambheshwar University of Science and Technology, Hisar, Haryana, India, and the Mother Teresa Saket College of Physiotherapy, Saket, Panchkula, Haryana, India, have just published a systematic review which is remarkable in several ways. Let me therefore present to you the abstract unaltered:
Background: Spinal pain or misalignment is a very common disorder affecting a significant number of populations resulting in substantial disability and economic burden. Various manual therapeutic techniques such as spinal manipulations and mobilizations can be used to treat and manage pain and movement dysfunctions such as spinal mal-alignments and associated complications. These manual therapeutic techniques can affect the cardiovascular parameters.
Objective: The objective of this systematic review and meta-analysis is to assess the effect of spinal manipulation and mobilization on cardiovascular parameters.
Methods: We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess the effects of spinal mobilization and manipulation on cardiovascular responses. Mean changes in Systolic Blood Pressure (SBP), Diastolic Blood Pressure (DBP) and Heart Rate (HR) were primary outcome measures. RevMan 5.3 software was used for the meta-analyses. Quality of the included studies was assessed by PEDro Rating scale. Risk of bias was assessed by Cochrane collaboration tool of risk of bias.
Results: Results of meta-analysis showed that there was statistically significant decrease in SBP ( MD=-4.56 , 95% CI=-9.20 , 0.08; p≤0.05 ) with moderate heterogeneity ( I2=75% , p<0.0002 ) in experimental group as compared to control group. There was statistically non-significant decrease in DBP ( MD=-1.96 , 95% CI=-4.60 , 0.69; p=0.15 ) with high heterogeneity ( I2=91% , p<0.00001 ), Change HR was statistically non-significant ( MD=-0.24 , 95% CI=-3.59 , 3.11; p=0.89 ) with moderate heterogeneity ( I2=60% , p=0.01 ). Exclusion of short duration studies in sensitivity analysis revealed a statistically significant change in DBP ( MD=-0.94 , 95% CCI=-1.85 , -0.03 ; p=0.04 ). However, the result was statistically non-significant for HR after sensitivity analysis.
Conclusion: Spinal manipulations and mobilizations may result in significant decrease of systolic as well as diastolic Blood Pressure.
After reading the full paper, I was uncertain whether to laugh or to cry. Then I decided for the former option.
Any paper that starts with the statement ‘spinal pain or misalignment is a very common disorder affecting a significant number of populations resulting in substantial disability and economic burden‘ can only be a hoax! In case you are uncertain about the reason of my amusement: spinal pain is not the same as spinal misalignment, and spinal misalignment (in the sense it is used here) is the figment of the imagination of a 18 carat charlatan called DD Palmer.
The rest of the article offers more superb hilarity: the authors write, for instance, that spinal malalignments (such as scoliosis) are mainly caused by body’s abnormal posture, asymmetries in bone growth and abnormalities of neuromuscular system. Scoliosis is an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine, not a spinal malalignment and certainly not one that can be treated with spinal manipulation.
Then the authors state that spinal pain and malalignment mainly occur due to structure deterioration, altered biomechanics and abnormal posture. Workplace physical and psychosocial factors, emotional problems, smoking, poor job satisfaction, awkward posture and poor work environment can be the possible risk factors for spinal pain and malalignment. This leads to various musculoskeletal, psychosomatic, cardiovascular and respiratory dysfunctions which affect the functional capacity of the patient as well as quality of life. Oh really?
So, the findings of the authors’ meta-analysis do suggest a tiny effect on blood pressure.
Compared to what?
In the paper, the review authors repeatedly try to make us believe it is compared to placebo. However, this is not true; mostly it was compared to no treatment.
Was the hypotensive effect verified in hypertensive patients?
No, it was measured mostly in healthy volunteers.
Is the effect clinically relevant?
No, I don’t think so!
Is it comparable to or better than the one achievable with established treatments for hypertension?
No! In fact it is much smaller.
Does that bother the authors?
No, on the contrary, they state that in this meta-analysis, spinal manipulation and mobilization resulted in statistically significant reduction in SBP. Therefore, it can be used as an adjuvant therapy for the management of hypertension.
Were the studies using spinal manipulation as an adjuvant therapy?
No, mostly not.
Is the effect lasting long enough to be relevant for the management of hypertension?
I better stop here because already my whole body hurts from laughing so much. Please, do read the full text, if you are in need of some comic relief.
And, I almost forgot: many thanks to the Indian researchers for this hilarious hoax!
Or did you perhaps mean all that seriously?
Manual therapy is a commonly recommended treatment of low back pain (LBP), yet few studies have directly compared the effectiveness of thrust (spinal manipulation) vs non-thrust (spinal mobilization) techniques. This study evaluated the comparative effectiveness of spinal manipulation and spinal mobilization at reducing pain and disability compared with a placebo control group (sham cold laser) in a cohort of young adults with chronic LBP.
This single-blinded (investigator-blinded), placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial with 3 treatment groups was conducted at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute at Ohio University from June 1, 2013, to August 31, 2017. Of 4903 adult patients assessed for eligibility, 4741 did not meet inclusion criteria, and 162 patients with chronic LBP qualified for randomization to 1 of 3 treatment groups. Participants received 6 treatment sessions of (1) spinal manipulation, (2) spinal mobilization, or (3) sham cold laser therapy (placebo) during a 3-week period. Licensed clinicians (either a doctor of osteopathic medicine or physical therapist), with at least 3 years of clinical experience using manipulative therapies provided all treatments.
Primary outcome measures were the change from baseline in Numerical Pain Rating Scale (NPRS) score over the last 7 days and the change in disability assessed with the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire (scores range from 0 to 24, with higher scores indicating greater disability) 48 to 72 hours after completion of the 6 treatments.
A total of 162 participants (mean [SD] age, 25.0 [6.2] years; 92 women [57%]) with chronic LBP (mean [SD] NPRS score, 4.3 [2.6] on a 1-10 scale, with higher scores indicating greater pain) were randomized.
- 54 participants were randomized to the spinal manipulation group,
- 54 to the spinal mobilization group,
- 54 to the placebo group.
There were no significant group differences for sex, age, body mass index, duration of LBP symptoms, depression, fear avoidance, current pain, average pain over the last 7 days, and self-reported disability. At the primary end point, there was no significant difference in change in pain scores between spinal manipulation and spinal mobilization (0.24 [95% CI, -0.38 to 0.86]; P = .45), spinal manipulation and placebo (-0.03 [95% CI, -0.65 to 0.59]; P = .92), or spinal mobilization and placebo (-0.26 [95% CI, -0.38 to 0.85]; P = .39). There was no significant difference in change in self-reported disability scores between spinal manipulation and spinal mobilization (-1.00 [95% CI, -2.27 to 0.36]; P = .14), spinal manipulation and placebo (-0.07 [95% CI, -1.43 to 1.29]; P = .92) or spinal mobilization and placebo (0.93 [95% CI, -0.41 to 2.29]; P = .17). A comparison of treatment credibility and expectancy ratings across groups was not statistically significant (F2,151 = 1.70, P = .19), indicating that, on average, participants in each group had similar expectations regarding the likely benefit of their assigned treatment.
The authors concluded that in this randomized clinical trial, neither spinal manipulation nor spinal mobilization appeared to be effective treatments for mild to moderate chronic LBP.
This is an exceptionally well-reported study. Yet, one might raise a few points of criticism:
- The comparison of two active treatments makes this an equivalence study, and much larger sample sizes are required or such trials (this does not mean that the comparisons are not valid, however).
- The patients had rather mild symptoms; one could argue that patients with severe pain might respond differently.
- Chiropractors could argue that the therapists were not as expert at spinal manipulation as they are; had they employed chiropractic therapists, the results might have been different.
- A placebo control group makes more sense, if it allows patients to be blinded; this was not possible in this instance, and a better placebo might have produced different findings.
Despite these limitations, this study certainly is a valuable addition to the evidence. It casts more doubt on spinal manipulation and mobilisation as an effective therapy for LBP and confirms my often-voiced view that these treatments are not the best we can offer to LBP-patients.