The current Cochrane review of clinical trials testing the effectiveness of manipulation/mobilisation for neck pain concluded as follows:
Although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and QoL, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse. Publication bias cannot be ruled out. Research designed to protect against various biases is needed. Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up. Since the risk of rare but serious adverse events for manipulation exists, further high-quality research focusing on mobilisation and comparing mobilisation or manipulation versus other treatment options is needed to guide clinicians in their optimal treatment choices.
Such a critical assessment must be tough for chiropractors who gain a substantial part of their income from treating such patients. What is the solution? Simple, convene a panel of chiros and issue recommendations that are more prone to stimulate their cash flow!
Exactly that seems to have just happened.
The purpose of the researchers was to develop best-practice recommendations for chiropractic management of adults with neck pain.
A steering committee of experts in chiropractic practice, education, and research drafted a set of recommendations based on the most current relevant clinical practice guidelines. Additional supportive literature was identified through targeted searches conducted by a health sciences librarian. A national panel of chiropractors representing expertise in practice, research, and teaching rated the recommendations using a modified Delphi process. The consensus process was conducted from August to November 2018. Fifty-six panelists rated the 50 statements and concepts and reached consensus on all statements within 3 rounds.
The statements and concepts covered aspects of the clinical encounter, ranging from informed consent through diagnosis, assessment, treatment planning and implementation, and concurrent management and referral for patients presenting with neck pain.
The authors concluded that these best-practice recommendations for chiropractic management of adults with neck pain are based on the best available scientific evidence. For uncomplicated neck pain, including neck pain with headache or radicular symptoms, chiropractic manipulation and multimodal care are recommended.
Let’s be clear what this amounts to: a panel of highly selected chiropractors (sponsored by a chiropractic organisation) has reached a consensus (and published it in a chiropractic) which allows them to continue to treat patients with neck pain.
Isn’t that just great?
Now let’s think ahead – what next?
I suggest the following:
- A panel of homeopaths recommending homeopathy.
- A panel of faith healers recommending faith healing.
- A panel of crystal healers recommending crystal healing.
- A panel of colon therapists recommending colonic irrigation.
- A panel of supplement manufacturers recommending to buy supplements.
I am sure you get the gist.
Maintenance Care is an approach whereby patients have chiropractic manipulations even when symptom-free. Thus, it is an ideal method to keep chiropractors in clover. Previous reviews concluded that evidence behind this strategy is lacking. Since then, more data have emerged. It was therefore timely to review the evidence.
Fourteen original research articles were included in the review. Maintenance Care was defined as a secondary or tertiary preventive approach, recommended to patients with previous pain episodes, who respond well to chiropractic care. Maintenance Care is applied to approximately 30% of Scandinavian chiropractic patients. Both chiropractors and patients believe in the efficacy of Maintenance Care. Four studies investigating the effect of chiropractic Maintenance Care were identified, with disparate results on pain and disability of neck and back pain. However, only one of these studies utilized all the existing evidence when selecting study subjects and found that Maintenance Care patients experienced fewer days with low back pain compared to patients invited to contact their chiropractor ‘when needed’. No studies were found on the cost-effectiveness of Maintenance Care.
The authors concluded that knowledge of chiropractic Maintenance Care has advanced. There is reasonable consensus among chiropractors on what Maintenance Care is, how it should be used, and its indications. Presently, Maintenance Care can be considered an evidence-based method to perform secondary or tertiary prevention in patients with previous episodes of low back pain, who report a good outcome from the initial treatments. However, these results should not be interpreted as an indication for Maintenance Care on all patients, who receive chiropractic treatment.
I have to admit, I have problems with these conclusions.
- Maintenance Care is not normally defined as secondary or tertitary prevention. It also includes primary prevention, which means that chiropractors recommend it for just about anyone. By definition it is long term care, that is not therapeutically necessary, but performed at regular intervals to help prevent injury and enhance quality of life. This form of care is provided after maximal therapeutic benefit is achieved, without a trial of treatment withdrawal, to prevent symptoms from returning or for those without symptoms to promote health or prevent future problems.
- I am not convinced that the evidence would be positive, even if we confined it to secondary and tertiary prevention.
To explain my last point, let’s have a look at the 4 RCT and check whether they really warrant such a relatively positive conclusion.
FIRST STUDY For individuals with recurrent or persistent non-specific low back pain (LBP), exercise and exercise combined with education have been shown to be effective in preventing new episodes or in reducing the impact of the condition. Chiropractors have traditionally used Maintenance Care (MC), as secondary and tertiary prevention strategies. The aim of this trial was to investigate the effectiveness of MC on pain trajectories for patients with recurrent or persistent LBP.
This pragmatic, investigator-blinded, two arm randomized controlled trial included consecutive patients (18–65 years old) with non-specific LBP, who had an early favorable response to chiropractic care. After an initial course of treatment, eligible subjects were randomized to either MC or control (symptom-guided treatment). The primary outcome was total number of days with bothersome LBP during 52 weeks collected weekly with text-messages (SMS) and estimated by a GEE model.
Three hundred and twenty-eight subjects were randomly allocated to one of the two treatment groups. MC resulted in a reduction in the total number of days per week with bothersome LBP compared with symptom-guided treatment. During the 12 month study period, the MC group (n = 163, 3 dropouts) reported 12.8 (95% CI = 10.1, 15.5; p = <0.001) fewer days in total with bothersome LBP compared to the control group (n = 158, 4 dropouts) and received 1.7 (95% CI = 1.8, 2.1; p = <0.001) more treatments. Numbers presented are means. No serious adverse events were recorded.
MC was more effective than symptom-guided treatment in reducing the total number of days over 52 weeks with bothersome non-specific LBP but it resulted in a higher number of treatments. For selected patients with recurrent or persistent non-specific LBP who respond well to an initial course of chiropractic care, MC should be considered an option for tertiary prevention.
SECOND STUDY Back and neck pain are associated with disability and loss of independence in older adults. Whether long‐term management using commonly recommended treatments is superior to shorter‐term treatment is unknown. This randomized clinical trial compared short‐term treatment (12 weeks) versus long‐term management (36 weeks) of back‐ and neck‐related disability in older adults using spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) combined with supervised rehabilitative exercises (SRE).
Eligible participants were ages ≥65 years with back and neck disability for ≥12 weeks. Coprimary outcomes were changes in Oswestry Disability Index (ODI) and Neck Disability Index (NDI) scores after 36 weeks. An intent‐to‐treat approach used linear mixed‐model analysis to detect between‐group differences. Secondary analyses included other self‐reported outcomes, adverse events, and objective functional measures.
THIRD STUDY A prospective single blinded placebo controlled study was conducted. To assess the effectiveness of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) for the management of chronic nonspecific low back pain (LBP) and to determine the effectiveness of maintenance SMT in long-term reduction of pain and disability levels associated with chronic low back conditions after an initial phase of treatments. SMT is a common treatment option for LBP. Numerous clinical trials have attempted to evaluate its effectiveness for different subgroups of acute and chronic LBP but the efficacy of maintenance SMT in chronic nonspecific LBP has not been studied. Sixty patients, with chronic, nonspecific LBP lasting at least 6 months, were randomized to receive either (1) 12 treatments of sham SMT over a 1-month period, (2) 12 treatments, consisting of SMT over a 1-month period, but no treatments for the subsequent 9 months, or (3) 12 treatments over a 1-month period, along with “maintenance spinal manipulation” every 2 weeks for the following 9 months. To determine any difference among therapies, we measured pain and disability scores, generic health status, and back-specific patient satisfaction at baseline and at 1-, 4-, 7-, and 10-month intervals. Patients in second and third groups experienced significantly lower pain and disability scores than first group at the end of 1-month period (P = 0.0027 and 0.0029, respectively). However, only the third group that was given spinal manipulations (SM) during the follow-up period showed more improvement in pain and disability scores at the 10-month evaluation. In the nonmaintained SMT group, however, the mean pain and disability scores returned back near to their pretreatment level.SMT is effective for the treatment of chronic nonspecific LBP. To obtain long-term benefit, this study suggests maintenance SM after the initial intensive manipulative therapy.
FORTH STUDY Evidence indicates that supervised home exercises, combined or not with manual therapy, can be beneficial for patients with non-specific chronic neck pain (NCNP). The objective of the study is to investigate the efficacy of preventive spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) compared to a no treatment group in NCNP patients. Another objective is to assess the efficacy of SMT with and without a home exercise program.Ninety-eight patients underwent a short symptomatic phase of treatment before being randomly allocated to either an attention-group (n = 29), a SMT group (n = 36) or a SMT + exercise group (n = 33). The preventive phase of treatment, which lasted for 10 months, consisted of meeting with a chiropractor every two months to evaluate and discuss symptoms (attention-control group), 1 monthly SMT session (SMT group) or 1 monthly SMT session combined with a home exercise program (SMT + exercise group). The primary and secondary outcome measures were represented by scores on a 10-cm visual analog scale (VAS), active cervical ranges of motion (cROM), the neck disability index (NDI) and the Bournemouth questionnaire (BQ). Exploratory outcome measures were scored on the Fear-avoidance Behaviour Questionnaire (FABQ) and the SF-12 Questionnaire. Our results show that, in the preventive phase of the trial, all 3 groups showed primary and secondary outcomes scores similar to those obtain following the non-randomised, symptomatic phase. No group difference was observed for the primary, secondary and exploratory variables. Significant improvements in FABQ scores were noted in all groups during the preventive phase of the trial. However, no significant change in health related quality of life (HRQL) was associated with the preventive phase. This study hypothesised that participants in the combined intervention group would have less pain and disability and better function than participants from the 2 other groups during the preventive phase of the trial. This hypothesis was not supported by the study results. Lack of a treatment specific effect is discussed in relation to the placebo and patient provider interactions in manual therapies. Further research is needed to delineate the specific and non-specific effects of treatment modalities to prevent unnecessary disability and to minimise morbidity related to NCNP. Additional investigation is also required to identify the best strategies for secondary and tertiary prevention of NCNP.
I honestly do not think that the findings from these 4 small trials justify the far-reaching conclusion that Maintenance Care can be considered an evidence-based method… For that statement to be evidence-based, one would need to see more and better studies. Therefore, the honest conclusion, I think, is that maintenance care is not supported by sound evidence for effectiveness; as chiropractic manipulations are costly and not risk-free, its risk/benefit balance fails to be positive. Therefore, this approach cannot be recommended.
This survey investigated how many chiropractors in the Canadian province of Alberta promote a theory of subluxation, which health ailments or improvements were linked to subluxation, and whether the subluxation discourse was used to promote chiropractic for particular demographics.
Using the search engine on the Canadian Chiropractic Associations’ website, the researchers made a list of all clinics in Alberta. They then used Google searches to obtain a URL for each clinic with a website, totalling 324 URLs for 369 clinics. They then searched on each website for “subluxation” and performed content analysis on the related content.
One hundred twenty-one clinics’ websites (33%) presented a theory of vertebral subluxation. The ailments and improvements discussed in relation to subluxation were wide-ranging; they included the following:
- back pain,
- bed wetting
- blood pressure,
- ear infection,
- heart disease,
- hormonal imbalance,
- learning problems,
- menstrual cramps,
- Parkinson’s disease,
- problems with hearing,
- problems with vision,
- prostate cancer,
- respiratory disease,
- sleeping problems,
- spinal decay,
- sudden infant death syndrome,
- and many more.
The marketing of chiropractic for children was observed on 8% of the clinic websites.
The researchers concluded that, based on the controversy surrounding vertebral subluxation, the substantial number of clinic websites aligning their practice with vertebral subluxation should cause concern for regulatory bodies.
Why do so many chiropractors cling so tightly to the long obsolete concept of subluxation? The way I see it there are at least three reasons:
- If they abandoned subluxation, they would quickly become physiotherapists, only with a much reduced scope of practice.
- Using the subluxation myth avoids the need of the knowledge of any complicated pathophysiology.
- Subluxation is ever so good for business, as it renders chiropractic manipulation a cure all.
D. D. Palmer, the magnetic healer who invented chiropractic about 120 years ago, claimed that a vital energy, which he called the “innate”, controls all body functions. In the presence of “vertebral subluxation,” it cannot work adequately, he postulated. In other words, subluxations block the flow of the innate which, in turn, is the cause of all disease. Palmer therefore developed spinal manipulations to correct such subluxations and de-block the flow of the innate. Palmer defined chiropractic as a system of healing based on the premise that the body requires unobstructed flow through the nervous system of innate intelligence. This effectively makes the adjustment of subluxation a panacea.
To put it simply: subluxation is the carte blanche required for making unlimited bogus claims, while ripping off the public.
- In 2017, Mr Lawler, aged 79 at the time, has a history of back problems, including back surgery with metal implants and suffers from pain in his leg.
- His GP recommends to consult a physiotherapist.
- As waiting lists are too long, Mr Lawler sees a chiropractor shortly after his 80th birthday who calls herself ‘doctor’ and who he assumes to be a medic specialising in back pain.
- The chiropractor uses a spinal manipulation of the neck with the drop table.
- There is no evidence that this treatment is effective for pain in the leg.
- No informed consent is obtained from the patient.
- This is acutely painful and brakes the calcified ligaments of Mr Lawler’s upper spine.
- Mr Lawler is immediately paraplegic.
- The chiropractor who had no training in resuscitation is panicked tries mouth to mouth.
- Bending the patient’s neck backwards the chiropractor further compresses his spinal cord.
- When ambulance arrives, the chiropractor misleads the paramedics telling them nothing about a forceful neck manipulation with the drop and suspecting a stroke.
- Thus the paramedics do not stabilise the patient’s neck which could have saved his life.
- Mr Lawler dies the next day in hospital.
- The chiropractor is arrested immediately by the police but then released on bail.
- The expert advising the police is a prominent chiropractor.
- One bail condition is not to practise, pending a hearing by the GCC.
- The GCC decide not to take any action.
- The police therefore release the bail conditions and she goes back to practising.
- The interim suspension hearing of the GCC is being held in September 2017.
- The deceased’s son wants to attend but is not allowed to be present at the hearing even though such events are normally public.
- The coroner’s inquest starts in 2019.
- In November 2019, a coroner rules that Mr Lawler died of respiratory depression.
- The coroner also calls on the GCC to bring in pre-treatment imaging to protect vulnerable patients.
- The GCC announce that they will now continue their inquiry to determine whether or not chiropractor will be struck off the register.
The son of the deceased is today quoted stating that the GCC “seems to be a little self-regulatory chiropractic bubble where chiropractors regulate chiropractors.”
I sympathise with this statement. On this blog, I have repeatedly voiced my concerns about the GCC – see here, for instance – which I therefore do not need to repeat. My opinion of the GCC is also coloured by a personal experience which I will quickly recount now:
A long time ago (I estimate 10 – 15 years), the GCC invited me to give a lecture and I accepted. I do not remember the exact subject they had given me, but I clearly recall elaborating on the risks of spinal manipulation. This was not too well received. When I had finished, a discussion ensued in which I was accused of not knowing my subject and aggressed for daring to ctiticise chiropractic. I had, of couse, given the lecture assuming they wanted to hear my criticism. In the end, I left with the impression that this assumption was wrong and that they really just wanted to lecture, humiliate and punish me for having been a long-term critic of their trade.
I therefore can fully understand of David Lawler’s opinion about the GCC. To me, they certainly behaved as though their aim was not to protect the public, but to defend chiropractors from criticism.
Yes, chiropractic spinal manipulation shows promise to alleviate symptoms of infant colic! At least, this is the result of an overview of systematic reviews of so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) for infant colic. Here I focus merely on the part that deals with chiropractic spinal manipulation. The authors of the overview come to this result based mainly on the statement:
Spinal manipulation was assessed in six reviews [22, 23, 25,26,27,28]. Two multiple CAM reviews assessed manipulation but did not pool the results [22, 25]. Both found three trials to be effective [68, 69, 72, 73, or] with the exception of one .
And here are the references they cite (all the primary studies are on chiropractic manipulation):
22.Perry R, Hunt K, Ernst E. Nutritional supplements and other complementary medicines for infantile colic: a systematic review. Pediatrics. 2011;127:720–33.
23.Bruyas-Bertholo V, Lachaux A, Dubois J-P, Fourneret P, Letrilliart L. Quels traitements pour les coliques du nourrisson. Presse Med. 2012;41:e404–10.
24.Harb T, Matsuyama M, David M, Hill RJ. Infant colic—what works: a systematic review of interventions for breast-fed infants. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2016;62(5):668–86.
25.Gutiérrez-Castrellón P, Indrio F, Bolio-Galvis A, et al. Efficacy of Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 for infantile colic. Systematic review with network meta-analysis. Medicine. 2017;96(51):e9375.
26.Dobson D, Lucassen PLBJ, Miller JJ, Vlieger AM, Prescott P, Lewith G. Manipulative therapies for infantile colic. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012;(Issue 12. Art. No.: CD004796)
27.Gleberzon BJ, Arts J, Mei A, McManus EL. The use of spinal manipulative therapy for pediatric health conditions: a systematic review of the literature. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2012;56(2):128–41.
28.Carnes D, Plunkett A, Ellwood J, et al. Manual therapy for unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants: a systematic review and meta-analyses. BMJ Open. 2018;8:e019040.
68.Wiberg J, Nordsteen J, Nilsson N. The short-term effect of spinal manipulation in the treatment of infantile colic: a randomized controlled trial with a blinded observer. J Manip Physiol Ther. 1999;22(8):517–22.
69.Mercer C. A study to determine the efficacy of chiropractic spinal adjustments as a treatment protocol in the Management of Infantile Colic [thesis]. Durban: Technikon Natal,Durban University; 1999.
70.Mercer C, Nook B. The efficacy of chiropractic spinal adjustments as a treatment protocol in the management of infantile colic. In: Presented at: 5th Biennial Congress of the World Federation of Chiropractic. Auckland; 1999. p. 170-1.
71.Olafsdottir E, Forshei S, Fluge G, Markestad T. Randomized controlled trial of infantile colic treated with chiropractic spinal manipulation. Arch Dis Child. 2001;84(2):138–41.
And here is the relevant part of the overview’s conclusion:
Spinal manipulation shows promise to alleviate symptoms of colic, although concerns remain as positive effects were only demonstrated when crying was measured by unblinded parent assessors.
I have several concerns about this new overview:
- My comments on the Canes paper are here and do not need repeating.
- My comments on the Dobson paper (according to the overview authors, it is the best of all the reviews) are also available and need no repeating.
- Reference 22 is a systematic review I did together with the lead author of the new overview while she was one of my co-workers at Exeter. It is not focussed on spinal manipulation, but on all SCAMs. Here is the relevant passage from our conclusions regarding spinal manipulation: The evidence for … manual therapies does not indicate an effect.
How the review authors could come to the verdict that spinal manipulation shows promise is thus more than a little mysterious. If we consider the following, it gets positively bewildering. Even the most rudimentary of searches on Medline will deliver a 2009 systematic review by myself entitled ‘Chiropractic spinal manipulation for infant colic: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials‘. It was the first systematic review on the subject but was not included in the new overview.
I do not know.
Here are my conclusions from this paper:
Collectively these RCTs fail to demonstrate that chiropractic spinal manipulation is an effective therapy for infant colic. The largest and best reported study failed to show effectiveness (11). Numerous weaknesses of the primary data would prevent ﬁrm conclusions, even if the results of all RCTs had been unanimously positive.
And here is what my review stated about the three primary RCTs assessed in all the other review authors:
The trial by Wiberg et al. (10) did not attempt to blind the infants’ parents who acted as the evaluators of the therapeutic success. The paper provides little details about the recruitment process, but it is fair to assume that patients were asked to participate in a trial of spinal manipulation. Thus one might expect a degree of disappointment in parents of the control group whose children did not receive this treatment. This, in turn, could have impacted on the parents’ subjective judgements. In any case, there is no control for placebo effects which can be very different for a physical intervention compared with an oral placebo – dimethicone was administered as a placebo and the authors stress that it is ‘no better than placebo treatment’.
The RCT by Olafsdottir et al. (11) is by far the best-reported study of all the included RCTs. In many ways, it is a replication of Wiberg’s investigation (10) but on a larger scale with twice the sample size. It is the only study where a serious attempt was made to control for the placebo effects of spinal manipulations. For these reasons, its results seem more reliable than those of the other RCTs.
The RCT by Browning and Miller (12) is a comparison of two manual techniques both of which are assumed by the authors to be effective. Thus it is essentially a non-inferiority trial. Yet, it is woefully underpowered for such a design. Even if it had the necessary power, its results would be difﬁcult to interpret because none of the two interventions have been proven to be effective. Thus, one would still be uncertain whether both interventions are similarly ineffective or effective. As it stands, the result simply seems to demonstrate that symptoms of infant colic lessen over time possibly as a result of non-speciﬁc therapeutic effects, the natural history of the disease, concomitant treatments, social desirability or a combination of these factors.
So, what should we conclude from all this? I am not sure – except for one thing, of course: I would not call the evidence for chiropractic spinal manipulation promising.
I have reported previously about the tragic death of John Lawler. Now after the inquest into the events leading to it has concluded, I have the permission to publish the statement of Mr Lawler’s family:
We were devastated to lose John in such tragic and unforeseen circumstances two years ago. A much-loved husband, father and grandfather, he continues to be greatly missed by all of us. Having to re-live the circumstances of his death has been particularly difficult for us but we are grateful to have a clearer picture of the events that led to John’s death. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the coroner’s team, our legal representatives and our wider family and friends for their guidance, empathy and sensitivity throughout this process.
There were several events that went very wrong with John’s chiropractic treatment, before, during, and after the actual manipulation that broke his neck.
Firstly, John thought he was being treated by a medically qualified doctor, when he was not. Furthermore, he had not given informed consent to this treatment.
The chiropractor diagnosed so-called ‘vertebral subluxation complex’ which she aimed to treat by manipulating his neck. We heard this week from medical experts that John had ossified ligaments in his spine, where previously flexible ligaments had turned to bone and become rigid. This condition is not uncommon, and is present in about 10% of those over 50. It would have showed on an X-ray or other imaging technique. The chiropractor did not ask for any images before commencing treatment and was seemingly unaware of the risks of doing a manual manipulation on an elderly patient.
It has become clear that the chiropractor did the manipulation incorrectly, and broke these rigid ligaments during a so-called ‘drop table’ manipulation, causing discs in the cervical spine to rupture and the spinal cord to become crushed. Although these manipulations are done frequently by chiropractors, we have heard that the force applied to his neck by the chiropractor would have had to have been “significant”.
Immediately John reported loss of sensation and paralysis in his arms. At this stage the only safe and appropriate response was to leave him on the treatment bed and await the arrival of the paramedics, and provide an accurate history to the ambulance controller and paramedics. The chiropractor, in fact, manhandled John from the treatment bed into a chair; then tipped his head backwards and gave “mouth to mouth” breaths. She provided an inaccurate and misleading history to the paramedic and ambulance controller, causing the paramedic to treat the incident as “medical” not “traumatic” and to transport John downstairs to the ambulance without stabilising his neck. If the paramedics had been given the full and accurate story, they would have stabilised his neck in situ and transported him on a scoop stretcher – and he would have subsequently survived.
The General Chiropractic Council decided not to suspend the chiropractor from practicing in September 2017. They heard evidence from the chiropractor that she had “not touched the neck during the appointment” and from an expert chiropractor that it would be “physically impossible” for the treatment provided to cause the injury which followed. We have heard this week that this is incorrect. The family was not allowed to attend or give evidence at that hearing, and we are waiting – now 2 years further on – for the GCC to complete their investigations.
We hope that the publicity surrounding this event will highlight the dangers of chiropractic, especially in the elderly and those with already compromised spines. We would again urge the regulator to take immediate measures to ensure that the profession is properly controlled: that chiropractors are prevented from styling themselves as medical professionals; that patients are fully informed and consent to the risks involved; that imaging is done before certain procedures and on high risk clients; and that the limits of the benefits chiropractic can provide are fully explored.
Before someone comments pointing out that this is merely a single case which does not amount to evidence, let me remind you of the review of cervical manipulation prepared for the Manitoba Health Professions Advisory Council. Here is the abstract:
Neck manipulation or adjustment is a manual treatment where a vertebral joint in the cervical spine—comprised of the 7 vertebrae C1 to C7—is moved by using high-velocity, low-amplitude (HVLA) thrusts that cannot be resisted by the patient. These HVLA thrusts are applied over an individual, restricted joint beyond its physiological limit of motion but within its anatomical limit. The goal of neck manipulation, referred to throughout this report as cervical spine manipulation (CSM), is to restore optimal motion, function, and/or reduce pain. CSM is occasionally utilized by physiotherapists, massage therapists, naturopaths, osteopaths, and physicians, and is the hallmark treatment of chiropractors; however the use of CSM is controversial. This paper aims to thoroughly synthesize evidence from the academic literature regarding the potential risks and benefits of cervical spine manipulation utilizing a rapid literature review method.
METHODS Individual peer-reviewed articles published between January 1990 and November 2016 concerning the safety and efficacy of cervical spine manipulation were identified through MEDLINE (PubMed), EMBASE, and the Cochrane Library.
- A total of 159 references were identified and cited in this review: 86 case reports/ case series, 37 reviews of the literature, 9 randomized controlled trials, 6 surveys/qualitative studies, 5 case-control studies, 2 retrospective studies, 2 prospective studies and 12 others.
- Serious adverse events following CSM seem to be rare, whereas minor adverse events occur frequently.
- Minor adverse events can include transient neurological symptoms, increased neck pain or stiffness, headache, tiredness and fatigue, dizziness or imbalance, extremity weakness, ringing in the ears, depression or anxiety, nausea or vomiting, blurred or impaired vision, and confusion or disorientation.
- Serious adverse events following CSM can include the following: cerebrovascular injury such as cervical artery dissection, ischemic stroke, or transient ischemic attacks; neurological injury such as damage to nerves or spinal cord (including the dura mater); and musculoskeletal injury including injury to cervical vertebral discs (including herniation, protrusion, or prolapse), vertebrae fracture or subluxation (dislocation), spinal edema, or issues with the paravertebral muscles.
- Rates of incidence of all serious adverse events following CSM range from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in several million cervical spine manipulations, however the literature generally agrees that serious adverse events are likely underreported.
- The best available estimate of incidence of vertebral artery dissection of occlusion attributable to CSM is approximately 1.3 cases for every 100,000 persons <45 years of age receiving CSM within 1 week of manipulative therapy. The current best incidence estimate for vertebral dissection-caused stroke associated with CSM is 0.97 residents per 100,000.
- While CSM is used by manual therapists for a large variety of indications including neck, upper back, and shoulder/arm pain, as well as headaches, the evidence seems to support CSM as a treatment of headache and neck pain only. However, whether CSM provides more benefit than spinal mobilization is still contentious.
- A number of factors may make certain types of patients at higher risk for experiencing an adverse cerebrovascular event after CSM, including vertebral artery abnormalities or insufficiency, atherosclerotic or other vascular disease, hypertension, connective tissue disorders, receiving multiple manipulations in the last 4 weeks, receiving a first CSM treatment, visiting a primary care physician, and younger age. Patients whom have experience prior cervical trauma or neck pain may be at particularly higher risk of experiencing an adverse cerebrovascular event after CSM.
CONCLUSION The current debate around CSM is notably polarized. Many authors stated that the risk of CSM does not outweigh the benefit, while others maintained that CSM is safe—especially in comparison to conventional treatments—and effective for treating certain conditions, particularly neck pain and headache. Because the current state of the literature may not yet be robust enough to inform definitive prohibitory or permissive policies around the application of CSM, an interim approach that balances both perspectives may involve the implementation of a harm-reduction strategy to mitigate potential harms of CSM until the evidence is more concrete. As noted by authors in the literature, approaches might include ensuring manual therapists are providing informed consent before treatment; that patients are provided with resources to aid in early recognition of a serious adverse event; and that regulatory bodies ensure the establishment of consistent definitions of adverse events for effective reporting and surveillance, institute rigorous protocol for identifying high-risk patients, and create detailed guidelines for appropriate application and contraindications of CSM. Most authors indicated that manipulation of the upper cervical spine should be reserved for carefully selected musculoskeletal conditions and that CSM should not be utilized in circumstances where there has not yet been sufficient evidence to establish benefit.
Just three points which, in my view, sand out most in relation to Mr Lawler’s death:
- Mr Lawler had no proven indication (and at least one very important contra-indication) for neck manipulation.
- He did not give infromed consent.
- The neck manipulation was not within the limits of the physiological range of motion.
The tragic case of John Lawler who died after being treated by a chiropractor has been discussed on this blog before. Naturally, it generated much discussion which, however, left many questions unanswered. Today, I am able to answer some of them.
- Mr Lawler died because of a tear and dislocation of the C4/C5 intervertebral disc caused by considerable external force.
- The pathologist’s report also shows that the deceased’s ligaments holding the vertebrae of the upper spine in place were ossified.
- This is a common abnormality in elderly patients and limits the range of movement of the neck.
- There was no adequately informed consent by Mr Lawler.
- Mr Lawler seemed to have been under the impression that the chiropractor, who used the ‘Dr’ title, was a medical doctor.
- There is no reason to assume that the treatment of Mr Lawler’s neck would be effective for his pain located in his leg.
- The chiropractor used an ‘activator’ which applies only little and well-controlled force. However, she also employed a ‘drop table’ which applies a larger and not well-controlled force.
I have the permission to publish the submissions made to the coroner by the barrister representing the family of Mr Lawler. The barrister’s evidence shows that:
- Chiropractors are not medical doctors and should make this perfectly clear to all of their patients.
- Elderly patients can have several contra-indications to spinal manipulations. They should therefore think twice before consulting a chiropractor.
- A limited range of spinal movement usually is the sign for a chiropractor to intervene. However, this may lead to dramatically bad consequences, if the patient’s para-vertebral ligaments are ossified which happens in about 10% of all elderly individuals.
- Chiropractors are by no means exempt from obtaining informed consent. (In the case of Mr Lawler, this would have had to include the information that the neck manipulation carries serious risks and has not shown to work for any type of pain in the leg and might have saved his life, as he then might have refused to accept the treatment.)
- Chiropractors are not trained to deal with medical emergencies and must leave that to those healthcare professionals who are fully trained.
The Telegraph published an article entitled ‘Crack or quack: what is the truth about chiropractic treatment?’ and is motivated by the story of Mr Lawler, the 80-year-old former bank manager who died after a chiropractic therapy. Here are 10 short quotes from this article which, in the context of this blog and the previous discussions on the Lawler case, are worthy further comment:
1. … [chiropractic] was established in the late 19th century by D.D. Palmer, an American magnetic healer.
“A lot of people don’t realise it’s a form of alternative medicine with some pretty strange beliefs at heart,” says Michael Marshall, project director at the ‘anti-quack’ charity the Good Thinking Society. “Palmer came to believe he was able to cure deafness through the spine, by adjusting it. The theory behind chiropractic is that all disease and ill health is caused by blockages in the flow of energy through the spine, and by adjusting the spine with these grotesque popping sounds, you can remove blockages, allowing the innate energy to flow freely.” Marshall says this doesn’t really chime with much of what we know about human biology…“There is no reason to believe there’s any possible benefit from twisting vertebra. There is no connection between the spine and conditions such as deafness and measles.”…
Michael Marshall is right, chiropractic was built on sand by Palmer who was little more than a charlatan. The problem with this fact is that today’s chiros have utterly failed to leave Palmer’s heritage behind.
2. According to the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), the industry body, “chiropractors are well placed to deliver high quality evidence-based care for back and neck pain.” …
They would say so, wouldn’t they? The BCA has a long history of problems with knowing what high quality evidence-based care is.
3. But it [chiropractic] isn’t always harmless – as with almost any medical treatment, there are possible side effects. The NHS lists these as aches and pains, stiffness, and tiredness; and then mentions the “risk of more serious problems, such as stroke”….
Considering that 50% of patients suffer adverse effects after chiropractic spinal manipulations, this seems somewhat of an understatement.
4. According to one systematic review, spinal manipulation, “particularly when performed on the upper body, is frequently associated with mild to moderate adverse effects. It can also result in serious complications such as vertebral artery dissection followed by stroke.” …
Arterial dissection followed by a stroke probably is the most frequent serious complication. But there are many other risks, as the tragic case of Mr Lawler demonstrates. He had his neck broken by the chiropractor which resulted in paraplegia and death.
5. “There have been virtually hundreds of published cases where neck manipulations have led to vascular accidents, stroke and sometimes death,” says Prof Ernst. “As there is no monitoring system, this is merely the tip of a much bigger iceberg. According to our own UK survey, under-reporting is close to 100 per cent.” …
The call for an effective monitoring system has been loud and clear since many years. It is nothing short of a scandal that chiros have managed to resist it against the best interest of their patients and society at large.
6. Chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). Marshall says the Good Thinking Society has looked into claims made on chiropractors’ websites, and found that 82 per cent are not compliant with advertising law, for example by saying they can treat colic or by using the misleading term ‘doctor’…
Yes, and that is yet another scandal. It shows how serious chiropractors are about the ‘evidence-based care’ mentioned above.
7. According to GCC guidelines, “if you use the courtesy title ‘doctor’ you must make it clear within the text of any information you put into the public domain that you are not a registered medical practitioner but that you are a ‘Doctor of Chiropractic’.”…
True, and the fact that many chiropractors continue to ignore this demand presenting themselves as doctors and thus misleading the public is the third scandal, in my view.
8. A spokesperson for the BCA said “Chiropractic is a registered primary healthcare profession and a safe form of treatment. In the UK, chiropractors are regulated by law and required to adhere to strict codes of practice, in exactly the same ways as dentists and doctors. Chiropractors are trained to diagnose, treat, manage and prevent disorders of the musculoskeletal system, specialising in neck and back pain.”…
Chiropractors also like to confuse the public by claiming they are primary care physicians. If we understand this term as describing a clinician who is a ‘specialist in Family Medicine, Internal Medicine or Paediatrics who provides definitive care to the undifferentiated patient at the point of first contact, and takes continuing responsibility for providing the patient’s comprehensive care’, we realise that chiropractors fail to fulfil these criteria. The fact that they nevertheless try to mislead the public by calling themselves ‘primary healthcare professionals’ and ‘doctors’ is yet another scandal, in my opinion.
9. The spokesperson said, “medication, routine imaging and invasive surgeries are all commonly used to manage low back pain, despite limited evidence that these methods are effective treatments. Therefore, ensuring there are other options available for patients is paramount.”…
Here the spokesperson misrepresents mainstream medicine to make chiropractic look good. He should know that imaging is used also by chiros for diagnosing back problems (but not for managing them). And he must know that surgery is never used for the type of non-specific back pain that chiros tend to treat. Finally, he should know that exercise is a cheap, safe and effective therapy which is the main conventional option to treat and prevent back pain.
10. According to the European Chiropractors’ Union, “serious harm from chiropractic treatment is extremely rare.”
How do they know, if there is no system to capture cases of adverse effects?
So, what needs to be done? How can we make progress? I think the following five steps would be a good start in the interest of public health:
- Establish an effective monitoring system for adverse effects that is accessible to the public.
- Make sure all chiros are sufficiently well trained to know about the contra-indications of spinal manipulation, including those that apply to elderly patients and infants.
- Change the GCC from a body defending chiros and their interests to one regulating, controlling and, if necessary, reprimanding chiros.
- Make written informed consent compulsory for neck manipulations, and make sure it contains the information that neck manipulations can result in serious harm and are of doubtful efficacy.
- Prevent chiros from making therapeutic claims that are not based on sound evidence.
If these measures had been in place, Mr Lawler might still be alive today.
On 11/11/2019, the York Press reported from coroner’s inquest regarding a chiropractor who allegedly killed a patient. John Lawler suffered a broken neck while being treated by a chiropractor for an aching leg, an inquest has been told. His widow told how her husband was on the treatment table when things started to go wrong. She said he started shouting at chiropractor Dr Arleen Scholten: “You are hurting me. You are hurting me.” Then he began moaning and then said: “I can’t feel my arms.”
Mrs Lawler said Scholten tried to turn him over and then manoeuvred him into a chair next to the treatment table but he had become unresponsive. “He was like a rag doll,” she said. “His lips looked a little bit blue but I knew he was breathing. “I said ‘Has he had a stroke?’ She put his head back and said ‘no, his features are symmetrical’.
When the paramedics arrived, they treated Mr Lawler and to hospital. He had an MRI scan and a doctor told Mrs Lawler that he had suffered a broken neck. She was then informed that her husband was a paraplegic and he could undergo a 14 hour operation which would be traumatic but even before that could happen he “faded away” and died.
There are, as far as I can see, four issues of interest here:
- It could be that Mr Lawler had osteoporosis; we will no doubt hear about this in the course of the inquest. If so, normal force could have led to the fracture, and the chiropractor would claim that she is not to blame for the fracture and the subsequent death of her patient. The question then would be whether she was under an obligation to check whether, in a man of Mr Lawler’s age, his bone density was normal or whether she could just assume that it was. In my view, any clinician applying a potentially harmful therapy has the obligation to make sure there are no contra-indications to it. If that all is so, the chiropractor might have been both negligent and reckless.
- Has neck manipulation been shown to be effective for any type of pain in the leg? That’s an easy one: No!
- Has the chiropractor obtained informed consent from her patient before commencing the treatment? The inquest will no doubt verify this. As many chiropractors fail to do it, I would not be too surprised if, in the present case, this was also not done. Should that be so, the chiropractor would have been negligent.
- One might be surprised to hear that the chiropractor manipulated the neck of a patient who consulted her not because of neck pain but because of a condition seemingly unrelated to the neck. This is an issue that comes up regularly and which is therefore importan; some people might be aware that it is dangerous to see a chiropractor when suffering from neck pain because he/she is bound to manipulate the neck. By contrast, most people would probably think it is ok to consult a chiropractor when suffering from lower back pain, because manipulations in that region is far less risky. The truth, however, is that chiropractors have been taught that the spine is one organ and one entity. Thus they tend to check for subluxations (or whatever name they give to the non-existing condition they all aim to treat) in every region of the spine. If they find one in the neck – and they usually do – they would ‘adjust’ it, meaning they would apply one or more high-velocity, low-amplitude thrusts and manipulate the neck. This could well be, I think, how the chiropractor in the case that is before the court at present came to manipulate the neck of her patient. And this might be how poor Mr Lawler lost his life.
Is there a lesson to be learnt from this tragic case?
Yes, I think there is: if you want to make sure that a chiropractor does not break your neck, don’t go and consult one – whatever your health problem happens to be.
Spinal epidural haematoma is a potentially serious condition that can occur due to trauma, such as spinal manipulation, particularly in the presence of a blood clotting abnormality. A case has been published of a patient who, after performing self-neck manipulation, suffered spinal epidural haematoma and subsequent paralysis of all 4 limbs.
A 63-year-old man presented to the emergency department with worsening inter-scapular pain radiating to his neck one day after performing self-manipulation of his cervical spine. He was anti-coagulated with warfarin therapy for the management of his atrial fibrillation. Approximately 48 h after the manipulation, the patient became acutely quadriparetic and hypotensive. Urgent magnetic resonance imaging revealed a multilevel spinal epidural haematoma from the lower cervical to thoracic spine.
a Pre-operative sagittal T2-weighted MRI of the cervical spine demonstrates an epidural hematoma (arrows) with the cranial extent at the C6/7 level. The hematoma is mixed signal intensity, consistent with various stages of bleeding. Severe spinal cord (asterisk) compression is present at the C7 level. b Pre-operative axial T2-weighted MRI at the C7 level demonstrates a loculated epidural hematoma (arrow) compressing the spinal cord (asterisk). Due to the urgent nature of the MRI, image quality is degraded
With identification of an active bleed and an INR remaining close to 7.0, the patient’s hypercoaguable state was reversed prior to emergency surgery. The patient underwent partial C7, complete T1 and T2, and partial T3 bilateral laminectomy for evacuation of haematoma. Placement of an epidural drainage catheter was also performed.
During the first 6 days following surgery, the patient recovered some function of the upper and lower extremities while undergoing hospital-based physical therapy. Post-operative MRI showed resolution of the haematoma and cord compression without resultant cord damage.
The patient completed a 2-week course of acute interdisciplinary rehabilitation. The epidural drainage catheter remained in place for most of his post-operative stay. His neurogenic bladder with urinary retention resolved. At hospital discharge, the patient’s greatest deficits remained his fine motor skills to his right hand along with residual paraesthesia in his lower extremities. He also exhibited mild dyspraxia with finger-to-nose testing on the right and heel-to-shin testing bilaterally. The patient regained full manual muscle strength of all 4 extremities and ultimately returned to his baseline functional status, which included ambulating independently with a cane and independence with activities of daily living.
The authors concluded that partial C7, complete T1 and T2, and partial T3 bilateral laminectomy was performed for evacuation of the spinal epidural hematoma. Following a 2-week course of acute inpatient rehabilitation, the patient returned to his baseline functional status. This case highlights the risks of self-manipulation of the neck and potentially other activities that significantly stretch or apply torque to the cervical spine. It also presents a clinical scenario in which practitioners of spinal manipulation therapy should be aware of patients undergoing anticoagulation therapy.
In the present case, the spinal manipulation was self-inflicted. Usually it is performed by a chiropractor, and there are published case reports where chiropractic spinal manipulations have caused epidural haematoma. No matter who does this treatment, it is, I think, wise to consider the fact that the risks of spinal manipulations do not demonstrably outweigh its benefits.